Fresh Ideas Food Service Management, an FM Top 50 firm based in Columbia, Mo., and serving primarily a higher-education client base, has consistently been at the forefront of leveraging high-tech solutions to improve meal service on client college campuses. Among its initiatives have been a “selfie” based POS, an app allowing personalized customer service and a “panic button” that quickly alerts managers to problems and complaints.
When the coronavirus forced the shutdown of in-person classes and the closure of client campuses to most students, the company was able to leverage the existing technology it had deployed to adapt to the new circumstances in which it had to continue to feed the few students and staff who remained on the campuses.
“The hard work we did up front really paid off [because we were able to] create a framework that was highly adaptable to the way that each individual campus or [Fresh Ideas] management team wanted to serve their clients,” says Fresh Ideas Chief Technology Officer Bob Love.
Photo: Fresh on Demand units allow customers to make selections through a QR code access, with only what they take after closing the machine being charged to them.
Photo credit: Fresh Ideas Food Service Management
He cites one college that wanted a streamlined menu that still offered a daily choice of three or four options that customers could easily order and then either pick up curbside or have delivered. This was especially challenging because this college only had an eat-in dining hall that previously didn’t offer preorders or delivery, yet the Fresh ideas team was able to adapt the technology it had in place to offer both within 24 hours. It was also able to take what had been a fairly broad dining hall menu and cut it down to where it could serve the limited number of customers still around with enough variety to keep them satisfied, but without taxing its resources.
The tech solution was easy to use for both customer and the dining team.
“What we were able to do that a lot of off-the-shelf systems can’t is [set it up] so that customers could see the menu seven days out in the same system that they order from, so they didn’t have to go to these multiple sites to try to figure out, what’s my menu today, then bounce out of that to place my order,” Love explains.
Managers are able to input and update their menus quickly and easily with no tech support required and customers can order up to seven days ahead. Also, while they system allows the manager to set a cutoff for orders, it also allows them to override and take orders past that cutoff if they so choose. The order form includes not only each day’s entrée selections but also additions like sides, snacks, beverages and fruits that could be bundled into the order.
The platform also allows highly customized communication with customers when they place an order, confirming their order and whether it is to be delivered or picked up and at what time. “When we confirm an order we also ask, ‘How can we do better?’ and ‘If you like what we’re doing, honk a couple times as you’re leaving’, just fun stuff like that,” Love adds.
Fresh Ideas is now exploring how its technologies can be leveraged further, assuming colleges will be able to receive students back on their campuses this fall with social distancing and other restrictions in place. Strategies include extending mobile ordering, curbside pickup and delivery services as well as deploying or extending more cutting-edge technologies like touchless POS, voice activation, the company’s QR-code-activated Fresh on Demand automated kiosks and its new Text for Food program, which allows customers to preorder customized dishes from AYCTE food stations while also being informed of wait times, something that would encourage customers to patronize less busy stations, helping the operation space out traffic.
“The big challenge for college dining will be, how do we make it feel like we’re not taking things away, that students are still getting value,” offers Kris Lensmeyer, chief innovation & experience officer for Fresh ideas. She says that will require operators to not only extend services like mobile ordering, delivery and touchless transactions but also to reimagine some AYCTE station concepts to better fit a new model that incorporates preorder and takeout.
“For instance, taking a chef’s table or homestyle station and changing it into a barbecue kind of concept that still has that homestyle feel but it’s almost more of a retail concept that you can work into a Text for Food or mobile order [system],” she explains, “so that [customers] are excited about these new concepts and they don’t feel like they’re having things taken away.”
“We’re designing menus that will work with the technologies and delivery methods that we have,” Lensmeyer adds. “I want to make sure that as we’re doing our planning, that’s it’s not all grab-and-go kinds of things because we really want to focus in on that fresh food experience and the personalization and innovations side of it.”