A Lesson in Innovation with Drexel Food Lab Students

Wellness |  10.30.2018

Consumers want on-trend options and variety. As a result, our chefs place an increased focus on ensuring we have options to meet their growing expectations for variety, bold flavors, and delicious meals that they can find at their favorite local spot. This means we are continually innovating our offerings to keep up. As a global food provider, we look at trend insights to tell us what is in demand and rely on our culinary development team to create new menu items that fit the bill of what consumers want. Our most innovative ideas are often born through collaboration. For fresh takes, we collaborate with food brands, non-profit organizations, and even our clients. We recently did just this to develop new menu items that Gen Z and millennial trend-drivers and a large population of our consumer base are looking for in their dining options.

Working with the Drexel University Food Lab and students in the Center for Food and Hospitality Management

Located in our own global headquarters’ home of Philadelphia is Drexel University. At a campus that focuses on research and experiential learning, Drexel Food Lab was created in 2014; a program in which students focus on quality food product development and culinary innovation. Its model was put together by Dr. Jonathan Deutsch, a professor of Culinary Arts and Food Science in the Center for Food and Hospitality Management (CFHM) and Department of Nutrition Sciences. When he came to Drexel in 2013, Deutsch’s previous experience in consulting for various companies as a research chef sparked an idea of bringing chef consulting into the world of education. Guided by professional chefs, Food Lab students conceptualize new recipes and cooking techniques. Deutsch explains, “Our idea was to engage the students and see if they could work with these clients, under some faculty mentors and with guidance, but really make this a student-driven effort.” To his delight, it worked, and the program quickly picked up projects from a variety of companies, including Aramark.

In the spring of 2018, we kicked off a partnership project where students in a graduate product development class focused on developing new items to be rolled into our vegetarian and vegan portfolio. With the rise of the plant-forward movement, particularly among college-students, we were excited to work with a generation of young chefs who understand our target market. Given Drexel is a client of ours, the students were able to work on a project that would have a direct impact on their own campus dining experience. We spoke with Dr. Deutsch along with Aramark Chef Charles Shermer, who worked with Drexel Food Lab during our partnership, and two current and former students of the Food Lab, to learn more about this collaboration.

Students stretched their imagination to create plant-based meals with both familiar and new ingredients.

Chef Schermer explains how the project kicked off, “We started by giving the students a primer on the food service industry and a basic understanding of operations.” Next, the students were given insights and trend information along with recipe and ingredient lists currently in use. “We didn't want to restrict them any further because we felt it was important to just let them have at it and get creative. In the end, I think that was a huge factor in the success of this project,” says Schermer, “we wanted them to be aspirational to start, and then we could reel them back in to find a happy middle-ground of attainable ideas.”

An alumna of the Culinary Arts Program and current Food Lab Manager, Ally Zeitz, who led the culinary work, agrees, “They made sure that we were building our ideas so that it would actually work in the end rather than just something that was interesting or exciting just to us.” As graduate student Sheetal Bahirat puts it, “One of the biggest lessons we learned was how do we pick out the ideas that we really think are going to do well as compared to the ideas that wouldn't?”

Understanding Scalability

One of the most valuable things students learned is an understanding of the business model, the operations, and the feasibility of certain concepts. For many, it’s difficult to understand the scale of food operations. Deutsch notes, “Everyone knows what a chef and a restaurant manager are, but people typically don't know what food supply chain managers, corporate chefs, or quality assurers do - there's this whole world behind the scenes.”

"Working through [scalability] challenges gives the students a much more realistic understanding of where you can truly innovate, and which ideas are immediately executable versus the ideas that may need to be further developed."
- Dr. Jonathan Deutsch

Bahirat says, “The scale on which Aramark works was a little mind boggling for us. I think it was really interesting for us to get the perspective that something which seems easier on a smaller scale, might not work out on a larger scale.” Deutsch notes, “It's easy to come up with good ideas, it's much harder to make sure that they're feasible, fit the business model, and appeal to all stakeholders. The recipe needs to be simple and clear to train employees, it should be fast enough to be executed quickly, and the supply chain needs be able to support it.” Working through these challenges, Deutsch explains, “gives the students a much more realistic understanding of where you can truly innovate, and which ideas are immediately executable versus the ideas that may need to be saved for further down the road.”

Bringing in New Perspectives

Chef Schermer sees similarities between the Drexel Food Lab and his own field-work of bringing top Aramark chefs from different regions into the Culinary Development Kitchen, where he has been working for the last thirteen years. He explains, “You get really good feedback from the chefs on what their day-to-day wants and needs are and what their specific clients and students want in that region.” He says that on the flip-side, the students at Drexel bring in a fresh perspective and “since they are students themselves, they were very tuned in to the guests’ wants and needs because they were the consumers as well as the developers.”

He gives the example of a salad bar, “They were able to take your basic salad bar and just add dips and spreads and different toppings to refresh it beyond what we see traditionally. For me, that made me think, ‘why didn't we think of that a long time ago?’ We've internally developed the salad bar in a couple of minor ways, but they just totally overhauled it and brought it to this day and age from a millennial and Gen Z consumer perspective.”

In a hands-on learning format, classes allow students to ask questions and develop new recipe ideas alongside professional chefs.

Testing, Testing

As a result of this partnership, three vegetarian sandwiches developed by the students are currently being piloted in Drexel’s own food halls: a buffalo cauliflower wrap, a grilled Portobello mushroom sandwich topped with Korean gochujang sauce and a fried egg, and a roasted beet salad and goat cheese sandwich. If these sandwiches see success during this small-scale field test, they could be rolled out to other Aramark menus. Through the collaborative process in this class, under the direction of Deutsch and Zeitz, the students were able to think beyond the box of operational restrictions and create delicious, innovative menu items.

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