While the COVID-19 pandemic hit colleges and universities with numerous challenges ranging from enrollment shortfalls and resultant revenue declines to operational limitations and academic scheduling difficulties, not every school was similarly affected.
Take California Baptist University (CBU) in Riverside, near Los Angeles, which “recorded its largest fall enrollment ever in 2020 despite significant disruptions related to the coronavirus pandemic,” notes Dr. Mark A. Wyatt, vice president for marketing & communication. “The fall 2020 enrollment totaled 11,317 students, 272 more than CBU’s previous record enrollment of 11,045 students in fall 2019, an increase of 2.5 percent.”
This spring 2021, when classes were conducted primarily via live/synchronous remote instruction (except for those that require in-person learning, such as labs and studios), the enrollment included approximately 7,000 undergraduate students, not counting those enrolled exclusively online, of which nearly 4,000 lived on campus.
Perhaps part of the draw is CBU’s campus meal program, one of the highest rated in niche.com’s 2021 Best College Food listing, which incorporates student feedback as a significant part of its ranking formula. For a look at some of the program’s culinary creations, go here.
“We are so proud and honored that the CBU students continue to rate CBU’s food program so highly,” says Kipp Dougherty, vice president of culinary & operational excellence for Provider Contract Food Service, which operates dining at CBU. “It began with our amazing CBU partner which has ‘best of breed’ University leadership. Their commitment to excellence and desire to create a ‘wow’ experience in everything they do has allowed the Dining Program to flourish on the CBU campus. We are so grateful for the opportunity to work with their team.”
Traditionally, CBU has offered a variety of block meal plans, each with an allocation of Dining Dollars that are used as a declining balance, and residential students must select one of six plans; there is also a meal plan for commuting students.
“We also develop location-specific menus so that a ‘meal swipe option’ is available at every location on campus,” explains Dougherty. “We believe this gives students an even better value and allows them to explore the campus dining venues while still maximizing their meal plan.”
How residential dining adjusted to COVID
The campus dining mix includes a residential dining hall called Alumni Dining Commons and a variety of retail outlets. Alumni Dining traditionally offered all-you-care-to-eat service, which became impractical in the pandemic environment.
“When COVID-19 hit, we transitioned the Alumni Dining Commons from All-You-Care-To-Eat to three stand-alone concepts,” Dougherty explains. “Each of these new, unique concepts featured a rotating menu to continue providing students with variety while combating boredom. Students were able to customize their meals, which were individually served in single-use, to-go packaging [and they] also had a variety of side options to add to their meals including fresh fruit cups, whole fruits, garden salads, Caesar salads, spinach salads and an assortment of beverages and house-made desserts. As the largest dining space on campus, the Alumni Dining Commons provided the most flexible space to maintain six feet of social distancing.”
Seating capacity has fluctuated throughout the pandemic and has been determined by the county’s assigned tier, which is based on California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy. For most of the fall 2020 and the start of spring 2021 semester, indoor dining was not permitted but since moving to a less restrictive tier in March, the school has been able to reopen indoor dining at 25% capacity, providing about a hundred indoor seats.
Converting the dining commons menu to operate in the new service model has been a challenge for the dining team, Dougherty admits, but they rose to it.
“We have an extremely talented culinary team who work in collaboration with our leadership team to craft and develop our seasonal menus,” she explains. “Together, we identify the ingredients and menu items that will carry over into the next semester, along with new items we will rotate in. Offerings include time-honored favorites and current trend selections. We strive to find a balance between predictable comfort items and pleasant surprises, with items that reflect what may be found in local restaurants.”
Being in Southern California and its extended growing season has certainly been an advantage in menu development, she adds.
“We take a seasonal approach to planning, working with local farmers to forecast the availability of fresh, local ingredients, and planning our rotating menus around the harvests. This approach allows us to provide menus that maximize freshness and flavor, while working to reduce our carbon footprint.”
In addition to seasonality, the culinary team uses campus-wide surveys to learn what students want to see added. “We work to provide as much culinary diversity as possible,” Dougherty notes.” I am lucky to work with a very talented team, who continues to impress our campus community with their amazing skills.”
Of course, due to the pandemic, the program needed to reimagine the style and portioning of its offerings.
“Traditionally, we offer small, composed plates, in an all-you-care-to-eat environment,” Dougherty offers. “This approach encourages students to try a plethora of items, while staying conscious of food waste. During the pandemic, stepping away from all-you-care-to-eat required us to increase portion sizes, as items were packaged to-go, and students were limited to one of three entree choices.”
She says she hopes to return to all-you-care-to-eat in the fall, “but with some modifications. Safety will continue to be our top priority. Stations previously designated as self-service will be converted to attended stations with just-in-time items.”
The retail mix
On the retail dining side, CBU partners with national brands Chick-fil-A, the cooked-to-order fresh food concept Habit Grill and Shake Smart, which originated in Southern California (their VP of operations is a CBU alum) and offers core offerings of better-for-you blended drinks for college students.
“Each brand has proven to be an excellent partner,” says Dougherty. “The students enjoy having a combination of national, regional and homegrown brands to choose from.”
Those homegrown brands include El Monte Grill, Foodology, Brisco’s, Magnolia Crossing. Campus Express and Wanda’s Café and were developed by the culinary team in close collaboration with campus administrators. For instance, El Monte Grill, which references CBU’s original campus location in El Monte, features build-to-order Latin bowls, burritos and salads using its own marinades, recipes and just-in-time cooking.
“You can taste the handcrafted love in our food,” Dougherty offers. “Our Mobile App and surveys provide feedback on current offerings, as well as what items the campus would like to add,” she adds. “We follow culinary trends and genuinely have a love for all things food.”
CBU has been offering mobile ordering for the last three years, beginning with the commercially available Tapingo but eventually transitioning to its own POS software, which the university manages.
“Mobile ordering is a great option that provides the convenience students are looking for when managing their busy schedules,” Dougherty says. “Our team has done an excellent job learning to balance the tension between in-line guests and mobile orders.” Also, “mobile ordering proved to be a nearly critical tool as we moved away from traditional dining formats and relied heavily on to-go orders throughout the pandemic,” she adds.
It also facilitated service to COVID-exposed students isolated in designated quarantine areas managed by the Student Care Director and team, where an online ordering system was developed specifically to allow those students to order meals, which were then delivered by the Student Care Team using contactless procedures.
“We strive to keep food quality and hospitality at the center of our program and are always looking to deliver the best food and service to every guest, every meal, every time,” Dougherty summarizes. “Our team is always searching for that next great bite, and it is that constant desire to always be improving, that I believe contributes to our nationally recognized program.”