For Kennesaw State University, the COVID pandemic put some plans temporarily on hold, but also created an opening for the university dining staff to hit reset.
The Georgia school implemented a broad range of solutions to protect students and staff when classes resumed last fall at its two metro Atlanta campuses. Among measures: reduced seating capacity, removal of self-serve stations, a move to cashless operations and a contactless POS upgrade, the expected social distancing/cleaning protocols, and more outdoor events.
Takeout took on greater emphasis at both campuses. All meal plan holders were automatically enrolled in the Takeout Club, which provides students with recyclable to-go containers. Grubhub, which already serviced the campuses, also came in handy.
“Fortunately, we had a well-established relationship with Grubhub, since we already offered a Grubhub pick-up menu in the dining halls,” says Jenifer Duggan, senior director of university dining. “We quickly pivoted and expanded our a la carte menu and introduced a ‘meal plan combo’ where students could choose from an entrée, side, dessert and beverage selection for one meal plan entry,” she adds. The arrangement affords contactless ordering, payment and pickup.
Arguably the toughest challenge in the COVID era has been switching from self-service to staff-service, Duggan says. “We had to increase staffing and completely change the layout of the stations, which presented setup, speed of service and guest traffic flow challenges,” she observes.
The Grubhub partnership also helped manage traffic. The retail locations transitioned to all Grubhub ordering, which helped them operate despite labor shortages last fall, and Grubhub has been a success story in the dining halls, “which is no surprise,” Duggan says. “It’s been a transition in consumer behavior that the industry as a whole is experiencing, and we aren’t moving away from that any time soon.” The two campuses will expand pickup areas in the fall semester and keep the to-go meal plan combos in place.
During the 2020-2021 academic year Georgia state colleges adopted fully online, hybrid and in-person learning. Commuters outnumber on-campus residents at the KSU campuses, and between the two groups, university dining facilities captured 55-60 percent of their normal volume.
In the interim, KSU has moved ahead with renovations and menu revamps that were paused once COVID hit.
A Marietta campus dining hall was outfitted with new custom millwork and new layouts for some stations—part of a much-needed refresh, Duggan says. New equipment and an improved production and service flow are providing more flexibility. The global cuisine station, for example, has room to prepare and serve more complex dishes, thanks to expanded cooler space and inset induction burners. That station also includes a fresh pasta production area, new to the campus, and new hot/cold units in place of the existing service wells, which will better accommodate menu updates.
On the Kennesaw campus, a new Moe’s Southwest Grill opened in August 2020, following a six-month delay because of COVID.
“Moe’s was shocked that we wanted to open—most C&U operators were closing locations, not opening new ones—but we wanted to open so that students had something exciting and new,” Duggan notes.
University dining also expanded its partnership with the university’s CARE Services to provide meals, dining hall entries and dining dollars for students who are homeless, food insecure or in the foster care system.
The foodservice team had the ability to adapt in part because it is unencumbered by outside management.
In 2017, the university ended its contract with a third-party foodservice manager and brought operations in house. Duggan says the desire for a more customized offering factored into the decision: with two unique campuses, the cookie-cutter approach of a management company wasn’t the best fit, she says.
“We are now able to react quickly to students’ needs and requests without a lot of back and forth with a vendor, and there are no contractual terms and negotiations necessary. On top of that, we were able to redirect management fee expenses to other areas,” she adds.
Going forward, Duggan expects some COVID-driven measures will remain. Students reacted positively to holding events outdoors, for instance. And the importance of takeout can’t be underestimated. The university is working on ways to expand its partnership with Grubhub, including delivery from on-campus restaurants to residents of dorms and nearby off-campus housing.
KSU also hopes to begin offering heat-and-eat meals and weekly meal kits in the fall.
“These check the boxes for students who live on campus and have access to shared kitchens or private kitchenettes, our high commuter student population and faculty and staff who want to take dinner home instead of dealing with meal prep and cooking,” Duggan says.