STREET VENDORS. When MIT opened its new Stata Center last fall, a prominent feature was the 300-yard long,serpentine "Student Street" on its first floor. The Street serves as a high-traffic campus crossroads and features an equally high-volume foodservice offering a wide variety of portable foods for on-the-go students (see sidebar, p. 52).
Aramark's Rolletto, a popular on-the-go choice,features all the savory tastes and textures of pizza with the ease and mess-free appeal of a wrap.
What onsite operator wouldn't like to foster more sitdown mealtime camaraderie in the cafe? But when even those most dedicated to the concept start looking for dependable on-the-go foods in order to ensure a sound bottom line and customer satisfaction, you know that take-away food is not only here to stay, but ready to evolve.
Thus, the next generation of grab-andgo: high quality food in reliable containers, not just prepared for a fast dart in and out of the cafe, but specifically made and packaged to be easily, quickly, and neatly consumed, preferably in one hand while hurrying to class, working desk-bound, dashing to the elevator, or zipping about in the car during a quick, lunchtime errand.
Making brown bags your friend
At Williams College in Massachusetts, the dining services department faced a challenge recently, when the building housing its Underground Express grab-and-go shop was demolished to make way for a new facility.
The question was, how to adjust to the loss of 400 square feet in a temporary location while awaiting construction of the new site? The answer, as Associate Director Mark Petrino explains, was to seize the opportunity to tweak the whole concept.
"We'd been looking at re-focusing on foods customers could truly eat while walking around, and also wanted to speed up transactions," he says. So out went the space-hogging soda fountain and time-demanding soups and hot foods. In came bottled and canned beverages plus whole, uncut sandwiches in specially-designed brown bags, and whole fruits.
"We keep the sandwiches and wraps whole so they're not so messy to eat," Petrino notes. "And we package them in window envelopes, so they can be pulled right out or pushed up as they're consumed."
Getting just the right packaging took several months, and ultimately, Petrino presented his department's own design to the supplier. The custom envelopes "do cost us a little more than standard sandwich bags," he admits, "and we had to buy in bulk, but they're just what we wanted for one-handed eating."
"The Rolletto grew out of our desire to combine the popularity of pizza with the need for handheld foods that could be eaten on the run"—Paul Carr, Aramark
The plastic "window" allows customers to see the sandwich; the rest of the envelop is made of brown paper. Petrino ordered smaller versions of the envelopes for his sitemade, grab-and-go desserts such as cookies, brownies and bars.
Further modifications to the sandwich menu came next. "We tried to keep out ingredients that would make the bread soggy or the sandwiches too messy to eat, such as sauces, oils and vinegars," he states. "And we don't do egg salad or a lot of mayonnaise-based sandwiches."
Instead, students find combinations such as ham and boursin cheese, hummus spreads, peanut butter with Thai tofu, teriyaki chicken and other highly-flavorful, but less-drippy ingredients. Bags of chips and pretzels, as well as some six-ounce yogurt containers and packaged, tossed salads, round out the menu.
Quicker in-and-out access was also a key factor in the revised concept. The horseshoe-shaped space is set up so that students enter, swipe their meal card (so a visit counts as one meal), grab a paper bag, fill it with what they want from the open refrigerated cases, and walk out the door.
"It takes about 30 seconds to get in and out," Petrino says. No one checks the bags as students leave, but Petrino maintains the honor system has worked at Williams. " Sometimes, someone will come in, take two sandwiches and nothing else, or three drinks and nothing else, or even just a bag of chips. It works out."
The students certainly have voiced their approval. On a good day at the old location, 400 students would come through the doors during the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. operating hours. Now, Petrino reports more than 600 visit daily, which represents over a quarter of the campus population.
Why such an upswing? "I think it's the ease of going in and getting out quickly," he says. "And the comfort of knowing they don't have to fumble with anything at all.
This is the slowest time in the dining halls these days; the grab-and-go outlet provides another choice for students. And since it's not labor intensive or high in food costs and presents minimal problems, we're definitely going to stay with this concept now."
Rolling with portable pizza
At Philadelphia-based Aramark, Senior Director of Culinary Program Development Paul Carr agrees all onsite segments are demanding on-the-go foods these days, but in the B&I sector especially, he says, " anything that's portable is a big plus."
Thus, the success of such concepts as the company's "two-bite" desserts, including quarter-sized cookies and house-made, mini cheesecake bites; pretzel-bread sandwiches that are "smaller and easier to eat on the go"; and the Rolletto, a pizza bread roll-up sandwich that looks like a cross between a wrap and a stromboli.
"The Rolletto grew out of our desire to combine the popularity of pizza with the need for hand-held foods that could be eaten on the run," Carr explains. Rolled up in cheese-and-herb pizza dough, the eight varieties sport fillings ranging from sausage/ meatballs/pepperoni to spinach ricotta, chicken Parmesan and Philly steak with provolone.
A two-minute run through the impinger oven produces a crispy, browned Rolletto with all the fillings warmed up and securely enclosed. Staff slip them into wax paper sleeves, so customers can push the pizza wrap up through the holder as they consume their meal. Originally introduced as a promotion, the Rolletto has proved so popular, it's "made the mainstream," Carr says. "It's a huge hit."
Operators share some of their customers' favorite on-the-run foods – those that pass the test for minimal mess and ease of eating:
• Yogurt parfaits
Students at Penn State's Berks campus find plenty of ready-to-go wraps and easytoeat finger foods at the Cyber Cafe.
With a large population of commuter students at the Berks campus of Penn State University in Reading, Jonathan Kukta, manager of housing and foodservices, has found bite-sized finger foods and dippable items really hit the mark for customers of the Cyber Cafe.
"We sell a lot of items that are easy to put on the car seat next to you, so you can just grab a piece and eat while you're driving," he says.
Pre-packed, ready to go choices include veggie sticks with dip (a portion-controlled container of ranch dressing); cheese cubes with honey-mustard dip; celery sticks with peanut butter or cream cheese; and imitation crab pieces with cocktail sauce.
At Stony Brook University Hospital in New York, Assistant Director of Retail Services Kristen Berry reports that finger foods account for substantial sales during lunchtime. "Items like mozzarella sticks, jalapeÒo poppers, and Southwest egg rolls
are quick and easy for customers who often finish them off before the elevator reaches the top floor!"
"We sell a lot of items that are easy to put on the car seat next to you, so you can just grab a piece and eat while you're driving."—Jonathan Kukta, Penn State Berks campus
Popular at onsite locations for several years now, sushi as one of the original finger foods has fit in well with demands for portability.
At Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, a Sodexho-contracted sushi supplier began producing sushi onsite in front of customers two and a half years ago. Director of Campus Dining Rich Berlin notes it was an immediate success, and still commands hefty sales numbers. "We're selling hundreds of packs a day," he says. "The kids are on the run constantly; it's hard to get them to sit down. Something like sushi is an easy, ideal on-the-go option for them."
No break for breakfast
Of all the meal occasions, breakfast has probably had the longest-running claim on the grab-and-go trend. While increasingly fewer people take time out for a sit-down lunch these days, many consumers opted out of traditional breakfast -- at least during the school and work week -- years ago.
As MIT's Berlin notes, "There are no early morning classes held at MIT, and students get up as late as possible. So we don't do traditional hot breakfast anymore; in fact, on most campuses now, breakfast is mostly a grab-and-go occasion."
As it happens, according to Virginia Tech's Marketing & Communications Coordinator Heather Chadwick, the "single most popular grab-and-go item sold by Housing and Dining Services is our breakfast biscuit."
With eight varieties available, the biscuits are presented simply wrapped in waxed paper, so students "can fold down a corner and they're off to class with a substantial breakfast in one hand." Dietrick Dining Center Unit Manager Kelvin Bergsten notes, "Those biscuits are halfway gone before the students even reach the door."
At the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, part of Capital Health's six-hospital system in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Manager of Regional Nutrition and Foodservice Khaleed Khan recently installed a new deli display case with top-and bottom-heating elements to provide hot, but still quick and easy to eat, breakfast items.
Using combination wrappers of lined foil and waxed checkered paper, he introduced a line of breakfast wraps, egg muffins and even fresh omelets ready to go. "The wrapping keeps the items from drying out," he says, and it must be true: since he began offering the new breakfast options in January, "breakfast sales have increased 200 percent."
In Chicago, Richard Robinson, the director of foodservice at Children's Memorial Hospital, serves breakfast in only one of the five cafeterias on the campus. "So I have to come up with items that can be eaten on the shuttle as people travel between the other hospital buildings," he explains.
That means plenty of hand-held, mess-less choices, such as French toast sticks and mini pancakes served in a French fry-style carton; breakfast sandwiches on biscuits, bagels and croissants; fruit kabobs (two per plastic container); packaged yogurt in push-up cylinders; and house-made yogurt parfaits in plastic capsules.
At St. Luke's Cornwall Hospital in Newburgh, NY, Chef/ Manager Ryan Conklin says his "Bag O' Bacon" is a long-standing favorite among busy morning customers.
"I know it sounds funny, but we sell at least 150 pounds of bacon a week most of it is in the Bag O' Bacon form--three slices in a waxed paper bag. Customers find it easy to snack on, there's no greasy mess, and they can carry it along with a cup of coffee."
Born to run
This food-on-the-run mentality affects the youngest of customers, too. As Marcia Smith, director of foodservices for Polk County Schools in Florida, points out, "Grab-and-go has become even more popular than ever now, no matter what the age. I first noticed it happening with the older students, but recently, I'm seeing the influence all the way down to kindergarteners."
"The campus foodservices had to retool five outlets into DASH cafes to keep up with the demand."—Brendan Ryan
She notes several reasons for the trend: "Secondary students like that option because they want to spend more time with their friends; for elementary students, it's just what they're used to doing in their lives now, plus, they love things they can pick up with their hands, so they don't have to use silverware."
Everyday, at all grade levels, Smith offers something under the "grab-and-go" label. "And it's usually the most popular choice each day."
Current favorites, she reports, include prepacked peanut butter-and-jelly or grilled cheese sandwiches with the crusts already removed; wrapped-up and ready-to-go ham and cheese biscuits and chicken patty sandwiches; a "breakfast buddy" (rolled up pancake product on a stick that can be dipped in syrup, "but those in a real hurry don't bother with the syrup"); and even plain, dry cereal.
"For breakfast, lots of students will just take cereal and eat it dry; that way, without the milk poured over, they don't have to worry about eating while walking down the sidewalk."
As customers increasingly demand more truly practical hand-held foods, operators have been forced to modify preparation techniques. At the Penn State Berks Campus Cyber Caf, Manager Kukta no longer offers traditional sandwiches for his grab-and-go, commuter student clientele. For them, it's wraps only. "They're so much easier to eat," he notes.
To minimize mess, he has also cut back on the amount of lettuce in the wraps ("that was the biggest culprit in complaints about falling-out ingredients"), and places what lettuce he does use right in the middle of the wrap. That has largely solved the problem, he says.
At Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, Kahn says there have been "many debates among the staff and chef" about how to fine-tune grab-and-go wraps. "We eliminated things like rice and beans, that typically fall out and increased the use of vegetable spreads for moistness and flavor. We also use larger chunks of chicken now, and the chef makes use of high heat, quick-searing preparation methods to seal in moisture content of products."
When the DASH grab-and-go concept at Harvard debuted about three years ago, it filled a small but necessary niche for ready made sandwiches. But within a year, the business "exploded," claims Executive Chef for Campus Restaurants Brendan Ryan. The campus foodservices had to retool five outlets into DASH cafes to keep up with the demand. "The second year, sales doubled, and we expect they'll increase possibly another 50 percent this year," he claims.
To accommodate the boom in business and ease production at the central commissary, the facility's executive chef, Andy Allen, had to bring in a high-speed sandwich wrapping machine that packs 40 sandwiches per minute.
"The sandwiches come out in a nice polypropylene package, with pinched ends and a seam on the bottom -- it's an airtight package around the sandwich that's more durable and has a zigzag seal on the end to easily tear open," he says.
In designing the new Stata Center at MIT, Director Berlin purposely kept tables and chairs to a minimum within the various food outlets, since there's increasingly less call for them. Instead, pockets of seating are scattered throughout the building, banquette-style, so that customers can grab a quick respite whenever needed. "That way, it's still 'quasi' on-the-run," he jokes.
Catering to "Street" Traffic
Although limited seating is available at the servery, and more is situated along other parts of the 300 yard-long street, "The space was intentionally designed with distributed seating in order to encourage casual group meetings and socialization," says Rich Berlin, MIT's director of campus dining.
One of several retail properties managed by Sodexho on the campus, all the food served from it is portable in the sense that it will be consumed on the run or is packaged so it can be carried to these areas. High volume outlets include an espresso and pastry bar, a hand-rolled sushi and Asian station, a full deli, a stone oven pizzeria, a traditional hot entrèe line and fully stacked grabandgo coolers and display shelving (see photos, p. 46).
"We designed the menu around a rotating mix of international comfort food," says Berlin."We serve a highly diverse, international community, and the idea is that one person's comfort food is another person's cultural experimentation."
Even though the menu is highly diverse in the course of rotation, the specific offerings on a given day are limited in order to simplify choices and speed up the lines during key high volume periods. Serving and cashier lines are also designed to limit waiting."As short, individual lines face the serving stations, other customers in a hurry can select grab-and-go packaged sandwiches and other items directly from display cases that are behind them and go immediately on to check out," Berlin adds.
"To streamline operations, we encourage the purchase of made-to-order, 'signature' sandwiches that can be assembled to order more quickly. The ingredients are already established and don't have to be individually selected by the customer, although they can do that if they wish to."
Customers move through the space as if driving through a shopping center parking lot, says Berlin."You pull up to the stations you wish to stop at, or move right by to a different station or a register. Even though space is tight, multiple lines of traffic keep moving at their own pace through the serving area."