How can we reimagine college meal plans to delight stakeholders and strengthen community?

Parkhurst Dining


Innovative Meal Plan Approach

Food service partners at colleges and universities have an opportunity—and obligation—to help create a feeling of community among students. College meal plans play a role far beyond nutrition. They can build community cohesion and help prevent social isolation and dropouts. According to one study, the right dining package can impact recruitment numbers, retention rates—even alumni relations. But to do all that, they must break the traditional mold. Parkhurst Dining partnered with ThoughtForm to define innovative meal plan approaches that would meet students’ eating and social needs at a cost attractive to colleges, families, and Parkhurst themselves. The result was new meal plan ideas that will improve the customer experience and strengthen Parkhurst’s position as a thought leader.

An ongoing problem

It is estimated that 30% of full-time college students drop out their first year. Research suggests a lack of integration—both social and intellectual—is the most likely reason. Parents, who often foot the bill for room and board, want their students to do well and eat well. Some students have medical- and religion-related dietary needs or strong personal preferences regarding food. Many want to eat off-campus or in their rooms, which can reduce the benefits of social interaction. Some lack the funds to eat enough. Meal plan providers face many competing needs, and solutions must offer convenience, value, and flexibility.

A driven team

Parkhurst Dining, a division of Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, was founded in 1996 to serve institutional clients. The educational division has grown substantially since its inception. Now, Parkhurst is a key player, with nearly 50 colleges and universities on its roster. As a company that cares about people and strives for innovation, Parkhurst saw an opportunity for change in the steady state of the college food service marketplace. They partnered with ThoughtForm to identify ways the business could meet the needs of stakeholders, continue to deliver delicious, healthy food, and help build the sense of community that comes from sharing a good meal.

ThoughtForm’s approach helped us leverage the strengths of each of our team members, and challenged us all to think a little differently. It made a big difference in the quality of the results.
Mark Broadhurst

COO, Parkhurst Dining

A co-innovation process

ThoughtForm innovation exercises enabled Parkhurst’s skilled cross-functional team to temporarily ignore real-world constraints and consider options they would never have considered before. One exercise—naming every benefit or tool offered by Amazon Prime and then imagining a parallel offering in meal plans—was especially energizing.

ThoughtForm helped Parkhurst develop the ideas that emerged and rank them for feasibility, viability, and desirability. The team included adventurers as well as skeptics, who might normally reject a too-out-of-the-box idea. But once they learned that a proto-P&L would eventually be a part of ThoughtForm’s process, the skeptics happily got on board.

High-potential solutions

With ThoughtForm’s help, Parkhurst was able to align disparate internal points of view behind several ideas, which will be taken into consumer testing. Because ThoughtForm blended exercises where we encouraged unconstrained out-of-the-box thinking with exercises where we required a more rigorous bottom-line approach, we were able to help Parkhurst deliver potential customer experience solutions that were both innovative and workable. We can’t share Parkhurst’s proprietary concepts, but they covered many areas including plan selection process, payment, loyalty-building, and communication.

ThoughtForm’s tailored approach

ThoughtForm reviewed source material and considered the team’s needs and culture before recommending an approach. The timeline was short, so we wanted to have their financial and operations experts weighing in earlier rather than later. Through purposefully selected exercises, we helped the team give voice to big (and, to some, scary) ideas and bring the ideas in for a solid landing through rigorous review. Finally, we helped the team break their ideas into pieces and use the pieces to build bigger approaches with even more impact.

Lasting results

By structuring the ideas in a modular, plug-and-play fashion, Parkhurst will be able to continue to use them to build future customer experience solutions. And by demonstrating the value of creative, team-based approaches, we have given Parkhurst new tools for their innovation toolkit. They were already a collaborative, smart, hard-working team, but the project clearly illustrated the contribution of each team member and the power of building on cross-functional skills. We look forward to seeing the impact these go-to-market concepts will have on their business.


Students’ perceptions and behavior toward on-campus foodservice operations
Ruth Annette Smith, Andrea White-McNeil, Faizan Ali International Hospitality Review

Still Hungry and Homeless in College
Sara Goldrick-Rab, Jed Richardson, Joel Schneider, Anthony Hernandez, and Clare Cady Wisconsin Hope Lab, University of Wisconsin–Madison

College and University Consumer Trend Report
Technomic, a Winsight Company

University of Iowa researchers find a link between meal swipes and social connection
The Daily Iowan, April 17, 2019