Late night pick-up and delivery is now on the menu at Northern Arizona University. In March, the Flagstaff-based school of 30,000 opened Hole In The Wall, a mobile ordering concept that offers convenient after-hours meal options for busy students.
"NAU Campus Dining is committed to providing food for students so they can eat when their schedule allows," says NAU Campus Dining Marketing Manager William Brandt. Open from 8:30 P.M. to 11:30 P.M., after the main dining hall has closed, Hole In The Wall is "solving the challenge of serving students whose work or class schedules conflict with the usual dining times."
Located in NAU's student union building, Hole In The Wall is small, concession-window style space that stores meals brought from nearby retail dining units. The units include Burger ConFusion, Cobrizo Mexican Grill, The Coupe (which offers wings and sandwiches), The Wedge Pizza (which also offers convenience food items), as well as premade salads.
Photo: Starship bots travel across campus at 4 miles per hour to deliver Hole In The Wall orders to busy students.
Photo credit: NAU Dining
Students can use the mobile app Starship place orders that can be picked up at the window or place orders for delivery. Orders are brought from the individual retail unit to Hole In The Wall (for pickup orders) or the student's desired location (for delivery orders) by Starship bots. The autonomous, battery powered devices are equipped with sensors and cameras that enable it to travel across campus at around 4 miles per hour. Each bot has the capacity to carry up to three bags of takeout or groceries. (They can't carry whole pizzas though, so those are only available for pickup.)
"All of the retail locations [participating in Hole In The Wall] have a number of bots always waiting to send out deliveries. Employees prep the order, load it into the bot, and send it out immediately," Brandt explains. Delivery orders charge a small fee that can be paid for via student dining dollars or a credit card.
NAU had been using Starship bots to provide retail dining delivery since 2020, shortly before the pandemic hit. "They became prolific during Covid, when nobody wanted to sit next to other people at a restaurant," Brandt explains. "Our fleet grew rapidly from there, and this concept became almost an organic next step."
Some of the retail units that service Hole In The Wall are still open for walk-in customers during the 8:30-11:30 ordering window. Others are closed for walk-ins, while some staffers stay on in the kitchen to prep Hole In The Wall orders. This "bends the rule of dark retail as a single location," Brandt admits. "But it solves the problem of offering more convenient dining options for students in a way that doesn't cause financial hardship for student dining, and the point of order is seamless."
Roughly three-quarters of orders placed are for delivery, while the remaining quarter are pickups. The majority of orders are placed between 8:30 and 9:30, the most popular options being cheeseburgers, mozzarella sticks, buffalo wings, chicken strips, and fried zucchini. "Late ordering hasn't really caught on yet," Brandt says.
The main obstacle so far has been weather-related. "We rarely have challenges with the bots being able to deliver, they can navigate the hills and terrains. But this year we had a record year for snow, which made delivery more challenging," explains Brandt. Even with facilities staff working to keep paths clear, there were some snowy days where delivery routes had to be shut down. Large campus events like homecoming also force delivery paths to occasionally get rerouted. "We'll work with Starship to reroute the bots on those days, which can cause a five- to seven-minute delivery delay," Brandt says.
Order counts are still relatively low - around 60 a day, which Brandt attributes to a lack of awareness. That's expected to change in the fall with the launch of a major marketing campaign on campus dining TV screens, push notifications on NAU's app, and social media. "We'll have posts and stories on Instagram to announce Hole In The Wall, how to order, and weekly fall specials," says Brandt.
As for the students that already know about Hole In The Wall? "They love it. It solves their problem. What I've seen is thankfulness for the convenience to work with their schedule and also the variety. They're surprised by what they can order," Brandt adds.