When students at eight California universities head to the cafeteria for a meal, they don’t have to stand in line for a fancy sandwich.
During the pandemic, Pacific Dining—a food service management group that serves California universities—overhauled its grab-and-go program in the northern part of the state, moving away from the turkey-and-cheese set to more eye-catching options.
Rick McMahon, the company’s president, says the original grab-and-go program offered quick, affordable options; it was devised to fill in the gaps in an otherwise café-focused program. They sourced basic sandwiches, salads and soups from outside vendors.
The pandemic changed all that. Now the company’s grab-and-go menu is an integral part of its services at these campuses and includes upscale choices such as a caprese sandwich, a Cuban sandwich, grilled vegetables and a Halal herb chicken salad.
“We realized, post-pandemic, that people appreciate having that [expanded] option and some people preferred to have that ability to grab something right off the shelf,” McMahon says. “We realized that it was to our benefit, to…help us keep labor checked, [as] a more efficient use of our team and talent. We also expanded the offerings to include more upscale choices, which would drive bigger dollars per sale.”
Pacific Dining team members make the entire grab-and-go menu themselves out of a single commissary kitchen that serves all eight accounts. They created the space mid-pandemic as a ghost kitchen but transformed it into their grab-and-go center of operations in August of 2022.
A team of four, including a supervisor, makes all the grab-and-go menu items Monday through Thursday of each week. They spend about four hours per day preparing items for delivery the following morning. Accounts have standing orders but a team member checks in with managers at each campus daily to see if they’d like to adjust their order based on sales.
Standing orders vary widely from campus to campus, based on student population and student preferences.
The company does its own deliveries, ferrying items to campuses using a delivery truck and ice blankets. The daily route takes about three and a half hours.
Once they reach a destination, university staff place the offerings, which are packed in tamper-evident, clear plastic-hinged containers, into standard reach-in coolers or placed on iced salad bars for quick customer access.
Accounts can sign up for one of five tiers of service through Pacific; the appropriate tier is generally determined by the size of a university’s student population. The first tier includes one retail station, snacks, beverages and their extensive grab-and-go menu. The second tier adds another two stations, a grill and a deli. The third adds their South-of-the-border station and includes featured specials at all three stations. The fourth tier adds a Mediterranean or fusion station and the fifth a live-action sushi station and a chef’s station.
It’s worth noting that since the tiers are additive, every tier includes choices from their grab-and-go menu. McMahon says, however, that the presence of grab-and-go options diminishes as a university adds more stations to its cafeteria services.
McMahon notes that the changes to the grab-and-go program fit in with the rest of their work and that it benefits the company and their customers. “It reflects well on us that we’re putting out a high-quality product,” he says. “From a labor point of view, it saves us labor in each of the cafés…And just giv[es] the customer options. It’s been well received by our clients.”
It’s gone so well, in fact, that this fall they’ll start using a café kitchen during off hours to expand the new grab-and-go program to 14 more campuses in the fall, this time in the southern part of the state.