(Above) Cornell University's twice-weekly, roll-yourown sushi option attracts devoted fans; a Resurrection Medical Center customer shows off the appeal of DIY waffles.
Adding DIY bars helped boost lunch participation to 90 percent at Hardin County High Schools in Kentucky.
Experts stand by to help out Cornell University students who haven't yet mastered rolling their own sushi.
Above: DIY stir fry stations at University of Massachusetts at Amherst reduce labor costs while maintaining a high level of student interest.
Customers at Resurrection Medical Center/Holy Family Medical Center in Chicago love the ease and simplicity of the self-serve, weekly waffle bar.
Bryn Mawr students keep up a constant demand for DIY bars, since "they love to customize," says FSD Chung-Templeton.
DIY programs: Some operators won't go near them; many view them as a necessary evil, best kept to a minimum. But for others, self-serve systems present an appealing and practical answer to customers' increasing calls for variety, customization, novelty, and speed of service. Labor cost savings are an added plus. >
When she first arrived at Pennsylvania's Bryn Mawr College in the mid-90's, Director of Dining Services Bernie Chung-Templeton was taken aback by the amount of self-serve set-ups in the dining halls. "I thought, 'why are we making our customers do all the work?'"
She soon realized that many customers preferred the DIY approach. So much so, in fact, that Chung-Templeton proceeded to expand the number of D-I-Y options, purchasing inexpensive, personal-size grills and panini presses, butane burners and blenders to let students have an even greater hand in customizing their own meals. Still, she finds they can't get enough.
"So we're engineering new concepts continually, from quesa-dini bars with both paninis and quesadillas, to cook-your-own noodle fusion bars."
What Chung-Templeton and many other onsite operators have come to realize is that " selfserve bars give customers the chance to exponentially multiply their options, as well as modify their meals with individual choices." She adds, "That's critical when you have 1,600 recipes in your six-week cycle menu and you're still being asked for more variety."
The fear of high food costs associated with any kind of do-it-yourself, unlimited access program keeps some operators from venturing too far with them. But Chung-Templeton notes the opposite is true with her customer base.
"Every time we let our customers have more control over what they put on their plates, it improves our food costs," she says. "If, for instance, there's a hot line stir fry entree that includes some ingredients they don't like, they'll go through several portions, picking out and discarding the items they don't want, in order to get a full portion of what they really do like. If they make it themselves, though, they'll eat all of that original portion, because only ingredients they actually want are in there. There tends to be much less waste this way."
Echoing that philosophy, Director of Child Nutrition Programs Janey Thornton, SFNS, finds that an entirely self-serve bar approach at three high schools in Hardin County, KY, provides improvements in just about every area—even cafeteria discipline.
"When I first introduced this idea, though, I thought the employees were going to kill me," she laughs.
Switching over to a seven-bar format from a traditional cafeteria line meant substantial change and its accompanying resistance, but Thornton says it only took a couple of weeks for employees to get the hang of the new system.
"Now, they wouldn't have it any other way," she says. "There are two people on each line, and they've assumed complete ownership of their bars. They're prepping basically the same things everyday, so they know just how much of everything to make, so there are minimal leftovers. When we do have those, however, they can be swapped out the next day to a different bar ¯ say, a casserole from Mama's Kitchen bar might appear as a hot selection on the Super Salads bar the following day. And because the kids are very happy with the food now, that goes a long way toward making the employees feel valued."
With some variations, each bar offers a set menu, but since the bar choices range from Italian and Mexican to grilled items, salads, sandwiches, chicken specialties, snacks and comfort food hot entrees, there's always plenty of variety. "There's a minimum of 15 to 20 different entrees a day from which students can choose," Thornton says. "That's a big difference from before."
Thornton did not have to increase labor to operate on the bar system, although she does sometimes tap student helpers during serving time (they may be in a work-study co-op class, or club members earning money for their organizations). Food costs, she says, have not gone up (most proteins are preportioned and cupped). "If anything, the high participation that the bars generate — 90 percent at the high schools — is probably what's carrying the district."
Spurred originally by the desire to eliminate any visible differences between students on the free-andreduced program and those paying full price, Thornton coupled the bar system with tiered pricing and a pre-payment, PIN-number accounting system, so that no one can ever tell who's on what plan.
"The kids that had been too cool to be seen eating school lunch [instead of a la carte - a clear 'sign' of free-and-reduced status], would just not eat before, so they'd be sitting around with nothing to do, feeling resentful and angry. We used to have a fight break out at least once a week in the cafeteria, but now that so many more kids are eating lunch, we just don't have discipline problems any more."
Tossing their own salads, customizing tacos, pressing their own paninis — that's one thing. But rolling their own sushi? That's what students at the North Star dining hall at New York's Cornell University have been doing for almost two years now, and pretty dexterously, too.
The key to the program is having a staff member instruct students during the first few weeks of school on proper building, rolling and cutting methods. Offered twice a week at the Asian station, the option includes all the necessary ingredients set out in containers (such as seaweed wrappers, sticky rice and julienned vegetables, surimi, cooked baby shrimp, warm rice vinegar and other condiments) plus sushi mats, chop sticks and Japanese-style plates. The station can accommodate four to five students at one time rolling sushi simultaneously. If they need a refresher howto course, there's always a staff person available to help.
"Self-service bars give customers the chance to exponentially multiply their options." Bernie Chung-Templeton
"About 20 to 30 percent of the customer base will go for the roll-your-own sushi when it's offered," notes Director Colleen Wright-Riva. "We always have sushi available in our retail units, but it's not something you would expect to get very often in an all-you-can eat facility. But by making it roll-yourown, it keeps the cost down."
At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Director Ken Toong implemented cook-your-own stir fry stations a few years ago, and makes sure to have chefs and extra staff preside over them at the beginning of each school year to instruct incoming freshmen on how to properly prepare their choices. To keep up interest throughout the year, he'll have a chef pop up weekly to demonstrate a new technique or ingredient.
With students cooking their own dishes, the stations allow Toong to save on labor. Except for the times when a chef is demonstrating proper techniques, the stations are easily overseen by student workers, who replenish stocks, swap out used frying pans, and keep the counters clean. At $7.50 an hour, the student workers cost Toong less than having full time staffers man the stations and create the stir-fries to-order.
Arming customers with how-to instructions for any new bar concept is crucial in obtaining broad appeal as well as speeding up the lines, Chung-Templeton notes, although she finds simply posting recipes at the bars does the trick.
"We set out recipes when it's not so obvious what to do with the stuff," she says. "Like on the smoothie bar, or when we're introducing a new sauce. Students appreciate suggestions on how much of each ingredient to use."
But not every operator wants customers coming into personal contact with burners or electrical equipment. "A toaster is about as close as I like to let customers get to a heating element," says CulinArt's Director of Culinary Development Roger Beaulieu. "And even then, people manage to burn themselves, or a bagel can catch on fire."
At the Mongolian Grill station at Con Edison headquarters in Manhattan, the CulinArt team accommodates the big appeal of personally customizing meals, but leaves the actual cooking to an employee. This also allows the protein items to remain raw until they're cooked at the last minute, avoiding any overcooking or drying out. Total D-I-Y situations, like the stir fry stations at Bryn Mawr or the University of Massachusetts, must make use of pre-cooked protein, to avoid cross-contamination by customers as well as their inadvertently undercooking the meats.
Still, at Con Edison, customers do actually choose their protein selections themselves before handing the plate over to the cook. "But we keep the protein area segregated, and it comes at the end, so their containers are filled with plenty of vegetables by then," says Beaulieu. (The cooked and finished meal is returned to the customer on a fresh plate, for food safety reasons.)
"As it works out, the customers don't take excessive amounts of protein," he explains, noting that the customized dishes are sold by weight.
In an effort to upsell what is usually a small breakfast — a bowl of oatmeal — into a full meal, CulinArt's Beaulieu and staff Registered Dietitian Natalia Rusin are creating a concept for a "destination" DIY hot cereal bar.
"We'll set it up in accounts that serve breakfast and also have a soup station, where they can make use of two to three hot wells already there," he says. "The idea is to offer-it as a combo meal with juice and/or coffee and possibly increase the bowl size to accommodate toppings beyond the normal expectations."
The bar will include oatmeal, grits, cream of wheat or other hot cereal choices. In addition to the usual raisins, walnuts, brown sugar and honey, toppings will include such dried fruits as cranberries, cherries, figs, dried plums and apricots; fresh fruit slices (sautèed local apples in the fall and other seasonal choices, for instance); four to five crunchy selections, ranging from a variety of nuts and sunflower seeds to granola; yogurts; and spices.
"DIY is a necessary part of foodservice now, and can even drive sales."
— Roger Beaulieu
As Director of Food & Nutrition Services at Resurrection Medical Center/Holy Family Medical Center in Chicago, Ron Rech offers a few DIY concepts, but one of his favorites is the waffle bar offered every Wednesday. "People love it, and it's very simple ¯ just takes about two minutes," he says. "We set out little, pre-measured cups of batter that people pour into the waffle maker. Printed-up instructions explain the easy steps. A bell rings after one minute, they turn the waffle over and cook it for one minute more, and it's done. The great thing about it is we buy the waffle product, and the manufacturer gives us the cups and waffle machines."
Although some operators believe they realize labor savings with DIY approaches, others express some reservations.
CulinArt's Beaulieu says, "We rarely find much in the way of labor savings with selfserve programs. Someone still has to manage, refill and maintain; they can't really go away from the area."
Given a choice, "As an operator, I would rather have all the ingredients under my control,' he adds. "It makes it easier. There are complications with DIY.
"At the same time, DIY is a necessary part of foodservice today. It can sometimes help drive sales, since customers want to be able to pick this and exclude that—and they're willing to pay for that option. Since there are a good number of people who really like to customize their meals, like to participate and get into the interactive aspect of it, DIY will remain something we offer, because that's what keeps it interesting to those customers. It's a tradeoff."
Innovations in DIY concepts abound throughout the country. Here's a look at some tasty examples:
Beyond the Cafeteria
At Harvard University, when Executive Director Ted Mayer wanted to meet certain meal plan needs that could not be addressed through the normal dining hall, he turned to two DIY concepts to keep costs in line.
With FlyBy, a build-your-own bag lunch program, Mayer introduced a non-retail solution for students who can not make it back to their own residential houses for lunch or are unable to preorder a bag lunch through their house dining service.
Centrally located in Memorial Hall, close to many classrooms, the 784-sq.-ft. FlyBy unit offers several grab-and-go, pre-made sandwiches, packaged snacks, whole fruits, cookies, bottled and canned drinks, along with a hot entree option customers can quickly dip up themselves into awaiting to-go containers. They stash it all in a bag and they're out the door quickly.
Each customer is entitled to mix and match 5 items total, but can take no more than two sandwiches or one container of the hot entree. Two employees prepare items and staff the unit daily; and about 10 percent of the student body makes use of the service on any given day, according to Communications Coordinator Jami Snyder.
Likewise, to accommodate the "24-hour life of most students now," Snyder notes that the dining department started Brain Break "because the students needed to have something to fuel themselves in the later evening hours, and we couldn't afford to open a full dining hall."
A late-night retail outlet was attempted, but didn't generate any business, she says. Consequently, each residential house, along with the freshman dormitory, is now given a budget for Brain Break snacks — along the lines of bagels, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, crackers and cheese — that don't require supervision or heat. Dining personnel set up the items and leave out utensils, but students are on their own for service. During finals, the houses often use their own funds to pump up the offerings with nacho, smoothie and sundae bars.
"Both of these concepts have proven very popular with students," Snyder says. "Their satisfaction with the meal plan has gone up because of the options; they're a constant source of comment on our surveys."