College’s kiosks paying off

College’s kiosks paying off

The community college replaced live workers with machines—and went from red to black.

In June, SUNY Orange announced it would shutter its cafeteria-style foodservices. The community college, which serves more than 5,000 full- and part-time students, fired the foodservice staff and installed a self-serve kiosk system. Nine full-time and three part-time employees lost their jobs.

Vinnie Cazzetta is a vice president of the college and the executive director of the nonprofit Orange County Community College Association, which oversees campus foodservices and other for-profit programs associated with the school.

He says the association was forced to make a change following an audit of the program, which revealed that they only had enough cash for about 12 months. “I wouldn’t have been able to make payroll,” Cazzetta says.

The kiosk system has turned the problem on its head.

 

“We’re gonna take a business that was annually losing about $150,000 a year and, conservatively, turn it into a bus that makes $60,000 a year,” he says. “So that’s quite a change.”

Before the change, all the food at SUNY Orange was made in-house by a private “mom-and-pop” operation and was set up in a traditional format, with workers preparing dishes to order and a point-of-sale system run by a live employee. Now, the certified kitchen sits empty and will likely be dismantled and renovated when the school raises the capital needed to make renovations. (The school has no plans to rent out the kitchen in the meantime.) The dining area now houses a pool table—it’s been converted into a student activity center.

When the college announced the layoffs, some students were disappointed, or even incredulous, about the decision. But options such as hiring an outside company or asking the college to underwrite the existing system weren’t financially viable.

And they faced more than just the high cost of running an on-site program. The Middletown campus is situated near a large number of low-cost food options that competed with college foodservices. Cazzetta says they counted 42 eateries, such as fast food restaurants and convenience stores, within a few miles of the college. The campus foodservice company had no budget or outside support for marketing, he says, so it was difficult for them to compete.

He compares their situation to a sister college just north, SUNY Ulster, where the majority of outside food options are a more than 10 miles from campus.

“They still have a foodservice company,” he says. “They have a captured audience.”

In all, SUNY Orange hosts four so-called “micro markets,” three on the 4,000-student Middletown campus and one on the 1,200-student campus in Newburgh. The sites were set up and are maintained by Pepsi-Cola of the Hudson Valley, which also monitors activity through a security camera system. Theft, Cazzetta says, has been “unbelievably minimal.”

Each micro market is a collection of displays and coolers filled with snacks, drinks, sandwiches, salads, frozen pizzas, fruit and cheese trays, ice cream and other options. Patrons select items and pay at a kiosk using credit, debit, Apple pay or a prepaid card. Though the machines don’t accept cash, patrons can load a card with cash at the point of sale and use funds on the card immediately. Each location has a small seating area where students and staff eat, work or socialize while they eat.

Pepsi-Cola delivers product to the kiosks twice daily, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Fresh options, such as sandwiches and salads, are made daily by a subcontractor, Lorenzo Food Group, a food preparation service located in New Jersey, about 60 miles north of the SUNY Orange campuses.

Though Cazzetta isn’t aware of other schools that provide food exclusively through a kiosk system, he notes that even colleges and universities with traditional foodservice programs augment their menus with subcontracted grab-and-go meals. 

Student feedback has been positive. In the first 90 days, he’s received 10 minor requests from students, such as replacing foam cups with a more sustainable option. They’ve fulfilled each request.

“Does every student like it? No. I’m not naïve. But the students that we’ve heard from are pleased,” Cazzetta says. “They like the flexibility, they like the variety of food, they like the cost, they like the multiple locations and they like the convenience of it.” One big plus, he adds, is the extended hours for evening students, who now have a food option on campus. Under the previous system, food was only available during the day.

Overall, Cazzetta is relieved that the system seems to be a positive, workable solution. “It’s been very, very successful.”

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