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In the latest edition of the Food Management leadership series Back to School, college chefs at two universities discussed how to plan a menu for college students returning to campus while not sitting in a traditional cafeteria.

Grab and go is the word for the fall semester but comfort foods still on the menu

College chefs from UC Riverside and Ohio State University discussed how to package tricky items and draw students in with mobile app options while social distancing.

Menus for 2020 food service operations on college campus won’t look that different from years past, something culinary directors are working hard to ensure as coronavirus changes the fall semester indefinitely. New packaging, an increased use of technology and less customization are just some of the methods two directors are using this fall.

In this week’s Food Management Back to School leadership series, Senior Editor Tara Fitzpatrick spoke with Ryan Nagby, senior culinary manager at UC Riverside, and Lesa Holford, corporate executive chef at Ohio State University, about how to develop menus for this new environment.

The moral of the story: grab and go is here to stay.

“If somebody wanted a phrase for ‘what does 2020 food service look like,’ I would absolutely say grab and go,” said Fitzpatrick.

As of now, neither Ohio State nor UC Riverside are planning on hosting students for sit-down dining, which meant figuring out the logistics of packaging and portability was key.

Rather than eliminate classic comfort foods like french fries, mac ‘n cheese and burgers, both directors invested in packaging and held out hope in the product.

“Anybody knows if you get your fries to go it's not like eating french fries when you're sitting in the establishment,” said Nagby. “By the time you get back to your dorm room or wherever you are, they're going to be good, but they're not going to be as good, so we're going to do the best that we can to produce the food help it travel well so that [the students] do get those comfort foods.”

Ohio State introduced reheatable meals over the summer—to great success—but Holford faced the challenge of making the meals for a larger audience who may only see photos of these meals on their mobile app before ordering, a system both schools are employing.

“We’re creating this large program of craveable, reheatable meals that visually look like you want to buy them…we’re trying to make them very eye appealing,” she said.

Some of these dishes include flank steak with asparagus and sweet potato, Indian-style curry with basmati rice, salsas and a choice of protein and Thai bowls with spicy coconut broth.

Bowls may be a given, but sandwiches posed a problem for both universities.

“You have to be very careful about how you do a sandwich that's repeatable, what you put the protein in for it to be heated and then how to keep the bread fresh,” said Holford. “I never thought I’d think this much about packaging.”

Customizable grilled cheese sandwiches are one of the most popular items at UC Riverside, but the portability of the item is questionable. UC Riverside is looking into packaging for trickier items like this and elements of the also-popular taco bar to avoid sogginess and increase customization.

But there will not be a return to the assembly line that’s become so common at universities and fast-casual restaurants across the country.

“[Customizable food] is slower [to make] but not only that, you have to think about social distancing. So if there are 10 kids in line, that’s 60 feet of space to keep them waiting,” said Nagby.

At UC Riverside, each item is labeled with the proper dietary restrictions while the meals are prepackaged to assure students that they have taken their safety into consideration. Something dietitians at Ohio State are currently incorporating into the mobile platform but has not launched as of now.

“I think the biggest thing that has come into the focus of what we're doing right now is letting people know that we're taking all the necessary precautions as we're packaging and building these meals, we really don't want to change the quality or what we're serving,” said Nagby.

With mobile ordering, the orders are placed before students arrive at the dining hall, then they are notified when their order is packaged and ready. This causes a huge labor problem for the dining hall staff.

“You have staff who haven’t had to read a ticket in 20 years,” said Holford. UC Riverside has staff at the dining hall self-serve beverage stations who wipe down the entire machine after every student.

At the end of the day, it’s all trial and error.

“We need to be very fluid. There are many things we’re thinking of that aren’t going to occur to students until they come to campus,” said Holford. “These are things we haven’t seen before.”

Contact Holly at holly.petre@informa.com

TAGS: Coronavirus
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