The new 1891 Revolution dining concept on North Carolina A&T State University (NCATSU) campus, named to honor the year the public, historically black land-grant research university was founded, combines the latest in industry trends when it comes to dining at college campuses. The virtual (ghost) kitchen concept is a take-out/delivery only venue that uses student mobile-ordering combined with delivery by autonomous, on-demand robots from Starship Technologies.
Debuting March 14 this year, the virtual kitchen uses the space formerly occupied by a previous traditional retail outlet called 1891 Bistro, which already had all the equipment and infrastructure in place in its production facilities.
“Our team is always looking to find ways to implement creative and innovative concepts for our dining program, and a virtual kitchen concept just really seemed to fit the students’ needs and requests by providing a variety of dining and menu options, along with the convenience of the [mobile] ordering and delivery through our autonomous robot service,” says Sodexo Resident District Manager Joe Burdi.
As for what the robots deliver, 1891 Revolution offers a rotation of different cuisine concepts throughout the academic year with a diverse array of choices requested by students. It launched with the made-to-order Hibachi concept, which had been featured in a popup on campus earlier and “students absolutely loved it, so we decided to bring it back in our virtual kitchen rotation,” Burdi offers. Hibachi was switched out in early April to the Mr. Beast smashburger concept, which will run through the rest of the semester, and Burdi says he has plans for additional concepts for the 2022-23 academic year.
“Each concept has a standard menu that runs every day for the duration of that concept,” he explains. Currently, 1891 Revolution operates between noon and 6 p.m. weekdays, covering the campus dining program’s busiest times (12-2 p.m. and 4-6 p.m.).
The average turnaround between ordering and fulfillment is 20-30 minutes, depending on how busy the kitchen is and where the delivery is to be made. Each robot carries only a single order at a time. Because the university chose to use Higher Education Relief Fund (HERF) monies to support the launch of the robot delivery service, there are no delivery or service fees charged to students for the first two years of the program, so they only pay the cost of the menu items they order.
Twenty robots debuted at NCATSU on Oct. 25 last year and were so popular that Sodexo has since added 30 more to the fleet as the units created quite a buzz on campus, with the launch video generating more than 50,000 views. In addition to orders from 1891 Revolution, the robots also make deliveries from most of the retail dining concepts on campus. The program currently is averaging about 400 deliveries a day—about 120 from 1891 Revolution—and over 12,000 a month.
They are also used for express breakfast deliveries and with special robot pop-up restaurants featuring concepts like acai bowls and international fare, adds Sodexo Marketing Specialist Courtland Thomas. “To us, this is a key differentiator—that we deliver food that’s specific to the students on our campus,” he says.
Currently, Sodexo is also looking to extend the robot delivery service to groceries and is using the spring semester to refine it with the intention of full launch in the fall, Burdi notes.