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Meal delivery is becoming popular at college campuses like the University of Wisconsin and University of Southern California-Davis.

How to do delivery on a college campus

A recent Food Management webinar focused on the robot-based meal delivery program at the University of Wisconsin and the person-based delivery program at the University of California-Davis that also serves the surrounding community.

College foodservice programs are looking at ways to provide service and generate sales in a post-coronavirus environment in which customers will be restricted in the ways they can access dining outlets and may be reluctant to do so in any case. One strategy that has emerged as a possible extension of campus dining service is meal delivery, something that a number of campuses had started offering even before the COVID shutdowns began.

As part of its Back to School webinar series to help college and K-12 dining programs get ready for the fall, Food Management held a session titled “How to Start a Delivery Program on Your Campus” on July 21 featuring Peter Testory, director of dining & culinary services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), and Darin Schluep, director of Associated Students Dining Services at the University of California-Davis (UCD). It was moderated by FM Group Content Director Becky Schilling.

Testory and Schluep made a nice complementary pairing as UWM instituted its delivery program before COVID hit while UCD launched its program in response to COVID. Also, UWM uses a fleet of 30 robot vehicles to make its deliveries across the campus and some adjacent off-campus locations, while UCD uses students to deliver not only on its campus but across the city of Davis, a six-mile radius around the campus.

“We are positioned centrally so we thought we could bring this service to the city,” Schluep said about UCD’s delivery program that encompasses the city of Davis in addition to the university campus. “Our operation has been on campus for over 50 years and there’s a lot of connection to the community and to alumni who live in the area, so we’re open to anyone.”

UCD was able to launch its program quickly because of its pre-existing relationship with the GrubHub mobile order app that it had already used at one of its retail locations. It uses a variety of vehicles ranging from bikes for on-campus delivery and vans and electric vehicles for more distant deliveries.

UWM “had talked about a campus delivery service for quite some time because it was what students wanted and expected,” Testory said, but knew it would be problematic because of a labor shortage the department was experiencing. Hence the decision to automate delivery with the robots.

Students create accounts and place orders, which are prepared at campus dining locations and then placed inside the robot. The student can then track the robot’s progress on their app “so they know when their meal will be getting to their destination.”

The menu approach differs between the two operations, with UCD limiting the selection available for delivery while UWM is much more comprehensive.

“We have seven service outlets on campus and over 450 different menu items,” Schluep noted. To pare that down for the delivery menu, “we looked at our top sellers, our less labor-intensive items and the things that would be conducive to easy transport.” As it turned out, the most popular items requested for delivery—burritos, including breakfast burritos all day, personal pizzas and espresso drinks—are also among the most popular generally.

By contrast, UWM generally kept its full menu available for delivery, with customizable deli sandwiches being the most popular along with breakfast sandwiches and c-store items in the late-night hours, Testory reported.

“Students told us they loved being able to get up, order the breakfast sandwich, hit the road and have it ready and waiting for them so they could continue on their way,” he noted.

UWM offers delivery 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with the mid-morning being the most popular time followed by late night. UCD, meanwhile, operates during the day for breakfast and lunch and found the late morning to early afternoon being the busiest times.

Here are some other takeaways from the session:

• While UCD has some difficulty promoting its delivery program—it was shut down over the summer for a reset—UWM found the robots “market themselves” both by their presence on the streets making deliveries and by catching the interest of the local media, which did a number of print, radio and TV pieces about them

• UCD adopted GrubHub’s 39-cents-per-transaction fee structure as the only delivery fee while UWM charges a $1.99 delivery fee.

• Schluep noted they use many different avenues as possible through which customers can order, not just the mobile app but also through the department website and even by phone.

• “Customers love to see where their order is,” Testory said. “They want verification that it’s been [received] and they want to be able to track it—that’s one if the things we heard over and over again on our follow-up surveys.”

• Students aren’t the only customer base. “Faculty and staff loved the fact that they can get their food delivered to them in their office,” Schluep said.

• In terms of advice for launching a delivery program, Testory suggested operators start by talking to students to see what service they’d like to see, what types of food, what operating hours, what locations most need to be reached and also what staffing changes/additions it might require.

• To better manage labor costs, UCD went to more convenience items for the delivery program, such as frozen, premade pizza shells instead of its usual housemade dough and pizza sauce.

• Customers don’t expect optimum food temps on delivered food, Testory noted. “They understand that when you order delivery it’s not going to be like it’s hot out of the oven as you might when sitting in a restaurant” and he says he had received no complaints about food temps regarding the robot delivered food (the robots are insulated and have separate compartments for hot and cold foods but no internal heating or cooling capability).

This is part of special coverage of the Back to School with Food Management leadership series to help college and K-12 dining programs get ready for the fall. Register for live sessions or on-demand replays at The series continues July 28 with “What is the Future of the Dining Hall,” and July 29 with “Building Revenue Ideas in a New Normal.”

This series is sponsored by Bush’s.

TAGS: Coronavirus
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