Lessons from the World of Food Science and Podcasts

By: bill harcleroad | Article from 2022 Summer CLT Magazine

Director of Campus Activities and Leadership, SUNY Oneonta,

“If the forks and knives at a restaurant are heavier, people will not only say the food tastes better, but they will say they are willing to pay more for it.” Dan Pashman on Milk Street Radio Episode 140

I was flying to a meeting when I heard the quote above, and it made me think that maybe we could make conference chicken taste better if we just used heavier flatware and played better music. It also made me wonder about how these lessons from restauranting can help us to provide better events for Oneonta students.      

The research cited was from the book Gastrophysics by Oxford Professor Charles Spence. I purchased a copy and was hooked, ordered several more copies, and invited colleagues to join me for a summer book club and discussion on how to utilize the research in our practice. This is something I had done before with podcasts and the two came together nicely.

There are so many lessons in the book that apply to what we do in campus activities (and some that don’t but are still interesting). I am pleased to share some of them with you as well as some information from other sources.

Concept #1: Amuse-Bouche

An amuse-bouche in the restaurant world is a single bite hors-d’oeuvre. It is not, however, ordered by the customer. It is a surprise “welcome” from the host. Dr. Spence’s research indicates that it is more likely to be remembered than what the patron ordered. It gives the event “Sticktion”- something that sticks in the memory.

Having food at events is nothing new to activities professionals, but we decided to up our game. Our first go around featured higher quality food options but, ironically, the students didn’t care for that. We gave them bacon wrapped chicken and they asked, “Where are the pretzels?” So, our friends at Sodexo got more creative with the themes themselves. Casino Night, for example, now has cookies decorated as casino chips and brownie dice.  We also decided to give students a literal takeaway. Something that will serve as a physical reminder of the evening. These are very inexpensive items ordered in bulk that add to the experience without significant expense. We gave away stretchy rubber men for contortionist Jonathan Burns and fortune telling fish for The Evasons. Every time someone sees that item, they will think of the experience they had.

Concepts #2 and #3: All About the Atmosphere and Presentation Matters

Gastrophysics points out the importance of the approach and visual presentation to the perception of a quality experience. The book refers to winding driveways and restaurant facades as part of the experience. It also stresses the importance of setting a nice plate in front of the customers. Research shows that people were willing to pay twice as much for food that was presented better.

Presentation takes on a whole new meaning in this light. It shouldn’t feel like the same experience walking into your space as it did for an earlier visit. Make the approach part of your event. Use projectors, as an example, to add visual cues of what to expect that’s different from the last time they walked through the doors. Play casino sounds through the sound system so people start looking for “the action”.              

Any giveaways should be neat and orderly. They may be inexpensive, but they don’t have to look that way.

Design your event! The setup for a comedian should not look the same as it would for a coffeehouse. Buy that brick backdrop. Use projectors to customize the event. Use small round tables with tablecloths, popcorn, and offer “drink specials” (mocktails) with volunteers acting as servers.

Concept #4: Affective Ventriloquism

Many factors change the perception of taste, including the weight of the cutlery, paper quality of the menu, as well as the atmosphere.

One of my mentors at the University of Rochester, George Morrison, always said “Quality Costs”. That has always stuck with me, but I have now re-embraced this. Years ago, The Printshop called and asked if I would consider using standard weight paper for posters and flyers. They are “just up for a short time and the lighter paper is more sustainable”. This made sense at the time but not through the lens of “affective ventriloquism” with the goal to project quality. We moved back to cardstock posters and cloth tablecloths. The average student doesn’t touch a flyer, but the RAs and Administrative Assistants who do are thought leaders on our campus.

Concept #5: Color Can Dominate Input from Other Senses

Gastrophysics spends a fair amount of time on the concept of color. Color effects diets, the taste of food, and sales, but the most relevant research for me was the “Wheatley Dinner Experiment”. In this classic experiment from 1973, diners were brought into a room with very low lighting and served a meal. All was going well until the lights were brought up and people could see their steak was blue, their chips were green, and their peas were red. People got ill seeing the food they had been enjoying previously.

This work was published in a marketing journal. My absolute favorite podcast is on marketing and is called “Under the Influence.” One of the episodes we used for professional development was also on the importance of color and what each color means in advertising.

Research reveals that people make a subconscious judgment about a person, environment, or product within 90 seconds of initial viewing and between 60 and 90% of that assessment is based on color alone.” Under the Influence Season 1, Episode 18

SUNY Oneonta’s colors are red and white. Red connotes action and adventure. White adds lightness. Our takeaway from this was to embrace our colors. Always use them to reinforce the brand and keep your logos in the original color palette.

Concepts #6: Giving Someone Something Sweet Increases the Likelihood They Will Agree to Go on a Date, #7: Companies Add Artificial Scent Enhancement to Packaging to Boost that First Expectation, #8: Use Multi-sensory/Cross-modal Cues

These lessons plus what we know about color led to using starlight mints when tabling. They are red and white, and peppermint evokes “coolness” which is always good with events and activities. Even more so, our programming board is known as A/C, Activities Council. We also attach mints to individual invitations to new students for our opening events, and use peppermint oil to scent our posters and linen. We are also intentional in adding visual and aural cues to experiences.

Concept #9: Pricing Sets an Expectation

This lesson comes from Under the Influence Season 3, Episode 2 which highlights the importance of being able to gauge quality based on price. Specifically, if something is discounted, you must have the original, if artificial, pricing to put it into context. Do students value what they are getting if it’s free or subsidized? Most of us have a student and non-student price, but we lead with the student price. Flip the script! “Cost is $5, FREE with SUNY Oneonta Event Pass.”

Food for Thought

Companies have learned that advertising food as lower in calories or sodium translates to less tasty for customers. They have, therefore, moved to “health by stealth.” Healthier but not explicitly advertised as such. It really made me think about whether or not we should include student learning outcomes on events. Does their inclusion make people think events are less fun? Administrators, not students, are the true intended target of these. Would they still be as educational if not advertised?

Outcomes and Evaluation

We have limited comparison data prior to going remote, but what we have shows that the student perception of these events has changed. 59% of students who attended previous Casino Nights said the event was better but what is most interesting is in their comments:

• “The food and prizes weren’t as good” (as noted above- they did NOT appreciate upscale food)

• “More organized, more casino games, better prizes” (there were not ANY new games)

• “Better bingo” (same BINGO except that tables had linen on them)

• “The golden ticket was a nice touch.”

• “The decorations downstairs were a nice addition but the food was not the standard”

• “There were new games” (again, NO new games)

This year’s program assessments:

• Average rating (1-5 stars): 4.7

• This program was worth my time to attend: Yes = 96.7%

• All students pay an activity fee and a student life fee which funded this program. Was this program a good use of that money? Yes = 95.7%

• I would attend this event again. Yes = 94.9%

George Morrison was correct that “quality costs”, but it is much more than that. You are not giving them just an event or an experience. You are building a brand. Milton Hershey said, “Give them quality. That’s the best kind of advertising in the world.”

Join Keynote Speaker and Educational Session Presenter bill harcleroad at the 16th Annual Leadership on Broadway Experience! Register TODAY!