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University-of-Alabama-Starbucks-on-Bryant.png Photos: University of Alabama Dining Services
The campus Starbucks at University of Alabama has a drive-thru and that remained open through the spring.

Stories from the front lines: University of Alabama dining weathers a lean spring, looks forward to a challenging fall

Dining services at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa fulfilled its mission of continuing service on a mostly closed campus this spring, and now is preparing for a fall term filled with questions that have yet to be answered.

Kristina Patridge is director of university dining services at the University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa. She oversaw the department’s adaptation to providing meal service on the campus in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak that forced UA to close down in-person classes in March and send all students home except for those few with nowhere else to go. That meant a campus with over 35,000 students was down to only about 250 still living on the premises, and they, plus a skeleton staff of adults, still needed regular meal service.

Food Management spoke with Patridge on May 26 about how her department dealt with maintaining dining service on campus following the shutdown and also her thoughts about how dining might adapt to conditions come the fall, when the university is expected to reopen to some form of in-person instruction.

Here is her story.

Kristina-Patridge.png“Our spring break was extended [following the coronavirus outbreak] and students were moving out during that time, so our largest dining hall remained open for to-go service from 8 to 6:30, whereas before it had been open from 7 a.m. to midnight. Students could order online, come in and then take their meal to go. We also have a Starbucks on campus with a drive-thru, so we operated that during that whole time period, and we also have two unmanned markets on campus, but they saw very limited sales.

"For the fall, since the situation is very fluid, we have several options that we’re working on, but the priority is the safety of our customers and our staff, so staff members will wear their personal protective equipment [and we’ll have] floor appliques to indicate safe distances for customers while queueing. Obviously, masks are a new thing that we didn’t wear in the past, but they absolutely will be worn in addition to gloves and hairnets.

"Similar to what we had this spring, we’ll have students order ahead on their phones and then come and pick it up and take it to go. We already had GrubHub for our retail locations prior to this, but now it’s also been deployed for our all-you-care-to-eat facility, so students can go on their phone, click the link on our website, see what the menu options are for the day, select that, then press order. We already had takeout from our two all-you-care-to-eat dining halls previously [but without the preorder option]. Students took their meals out in reusable to-go containers they purchased. When they came back, they just exchanged it for a clean one.

"The menus will be changed some to encourage takeout. For example, at the deli station, instead of having made-to-order sandwiches, we’ll have sandwiches packed with some fruit and chips that you can just pick up and go. But students can also preorder custom sandwiches if they prefer.

"We are allowed to have dine-in in Alabama, and we will of course follow the guidelines from the Department of Public Health, such as the spacing of tables and things like that. Also, we’ll use disposable cutlery and our state guidelines ask us to use single-use items as much as possible for things like condiments. We might have our fountain machines available with disposable cups, but mostly we’ll have to eliminate high-touch areas as much as possible.

"We’ve looked at technologies for scheduling times to come eat, almost like Open Table, to ensure that we have enough capacity for those who want to dine here. I don’t know if we’re going to get to that point or not, but it’s certainly something that we’re evaluating right now while we have the opportunity.

"We were already cashless after 5 p.m. and we’re fortunate here that we’re one of the schools that went to mobile credentialing where students tap their phone to enter dining halls and make payment, so it’s already touchless. The one place where [eliminating cash] may be a problem is the student union, where K-12 schools come to visit, so we’re trying to develop a policy for taking cash in those instances to make it safe for everyone."

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