The Food Management Back to School session on July 28th dealt with the topic “What is the Future of the Dining Hall?” with panelists Jill Horst, executive director of campus dining for the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB), and Bryan Varin, executive director and interim associate director for auxiliary services at the University of Georgia (UGA). It was moderated by FM Group Content Director Becky Schilling.
The dilemma facing Horst, Varin and almost every other college dining director who operates residential dining halls is that these hubs of campus culture and community-building suddenly are obsolete—at least temporarily—in an age when social distancing is the mandate. The two schools have come up with various strategies to cope with this issue while seeing that students remain both safe and well fed.
Here are some takeaways from the discussion:
• UCSB is splitting its residential dining halls into two separate serveries in order to space out traffic, “so you really have two dining facilities within one to help with the flow and the physical distancing,” Horst explained. She added that she will also reserve one of the four campus dining halls for delivery service to students being isolated due to COVID exposure while having the other three open.
• UCSB also will probably reduce hours “just based on the number of students on campus because if we only have 2,500 while we normally have 6,000, we will be able to effectively and efficiently reduce hours while still providing a safe service,” Horst said. The service will strictly be takeout, at least at the start of the term.
• UGA’s dining hours will depend on decisions made by surrounding operations, Varin noted, citing the Tate Student Center’s decision to close at 9 p.m. rather than the traditional midnight as an example. “We have multiple retail outlets in Tate that mirrored its operating hours, so since they’re reducing their hours, we will be too,” he said. However, on the residential dining centers, “we thought it was best to toe the line on our hours of operation and not shorten it because we’re already making so many modifications in the program that we’re concerned that perceived value may be affected.” That includes the 24-hour service at one of the dining commons.
• UGA will offer three styles of service at its dining commons: grab-and-go meals, a reservation system for dining in and a strictly to-go option in which a student can fill up a reusable takeout container (only one per person) with as much as it can hold from the available options, though extras like whole fruits and cups of soup can be taken separately and don’t have to fit in the container.
• UCSB plans to have “ambassadors” at dining hall entrances to guide students through the new procedures. As students go through the serving lines, there will be display packages to illustrate what’s in each meal package. “A big thing is that it’s about making sure that the integrity of the food is maintained when you put a lid on it, so we really have to look at what can go into a to-go container and what can’t,” Horst noted.
• The two schools will have different approaches to reservations for dining in. UGA will take reservations through GrubHub for 40-minute blocks separated by 20-minute windows when diners are evacuated and the space thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Horst said she’s leery about reservations because “what if they make a reservation and then don’t show up.” Across its dining facilities, UCSB ordinarily has about 2,800 seats but COVID-mandated social distancing procedures have severely cut that to around 650, which means seats left empty by no-shows make a difference. Fortunately, given its Southern California location, the school can set up extra outdoor seating spaces throughout the year.
• Varin conceded that dealing with latecomers who might have to be hurried through their meal is potentially an issue, as is which seats reservation holders will take as the reservation only grants them entry to the seating area but not a specific seat. The school will have a variety of seats ranging from one- and two-tops to four-tops and will ask diners to conform their choice to the size of their party.
• UCSB is planning to allow each student to enter a dining hall once per meal period though they will be allowed to take two entrees at a time. At UGA, dine-in students can “pretty much take as much as they like” while takeout is largely limited by what can fit into the reusable takeout containers.
This is part of special coverage of the Back to School with Food Management webinar series to help college and K-12 dining programs get ready for the fall. Register for live sessions or on-demand replays at https://webinars.food-management.com/back-to-school/. The series continues Aug. 3 with “New Menus to Fit a Changing Landscape,” and Aug. 4 with “Menu Development Ideas for Schools.”
This session was sponsored by Chobani Foodservice.