The University of Georgia (UGA) is expected to have pretty much a full complement of students on campus this fall, or at least that is the expectation of Bryan Varin, executive director of UGA Dining Services. That means Varin and his staff will have to deal with feeding just about the same number of students as in previous years—except that this time around it will have to be with the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Varin’s solution involves a combination of preordering, takeout and limited dine-in, with the biggest adjustments coming to the all-you-care-to-eat residential dining halls.
“Retail is simple,” he notes. “Of course, we’ll have to manage people and crowds and use queueing, but much of it already was takeout” and already had offered the Grubhub app that allowed customers to preorder their food, then come pick it up and go.
In fact, only a couple of retail dining units at UGA even had seating, and these are now being removed in order to provide more queueing space.
The only dine-in at the university this fall will be at the residential dining centers, where capacities will be severely curtailed and times limited. In fact, dine-in will not be something that will be encouraged, Varin says.
“We’ll encourage to-go meals as much as possible,” he declares, adding that the residential dining centers will also be limited to serving only meal plan holders to cut down on traffic.
Dine-in will still be an option, but it will require students to make a reservation through Grubhub for a seat during a designated time window—45 minutes is the current plan. They would go through a specified serving line to assemble their meal from the day’s menu, then find a spot in the open-seating dining area.
“At the end of that 45-minute block, anyone still there would politely be asked to leave for a transition period during which we can clean and disinfect the dining areas and reset them for the next period of reservations to come in,” Varin explains.
The other two options are for takeout, either by coming in and assembling a meal from the available options, or preordering one that would be packed and ready to be taken.
Meals assembled for takeout will be packed into a reusable container—only one to a customer—that are fairly sizeable and can hold a substantial amount of food, Varin says.
“You can still run the gamut of the serving line and take as much as you can fit it in the box,” he explains, adding that certain items like whole fruits, cups of soup and packaged salads can be taken separately, “so it’s really only hot food that’s limited to the box.”
A student gets one of the takeout containers the first time he comes to the dining halls, and then is asked to rinse it and return it on his next dining hall visit and drop it in a designated bin, from where the dining staff takes it to the dish room to be run through the dish machine, making it clean and sanitized for the next customer.
Dine-in customers, meanwhile, will eat off permanent ware.
“We decided to go that route in case there are supply chain issues with disposables at some point,” Varin says. “This way, we’re using what we already have on hand and so avoid getting into a predicament.”
Menus will necessarily have to be condensed and streamlined somewhat to accommodate the new restrictions, but Varin says he’s determined to maintain as many of the signature dishes and offerings of the various outlets as possible.
Meanwhile, a recent emphasis on branded concepts—the current mix includes major names like Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, Einstein’s Bagels, Chick-fil-A and Panda Express—in the retail mix promises to produce unexpected benefits in terms of dealing with the new reality, he notes, because they have been developing processes and protocols as part of their adaptation to COVID restrictions for their street units.
“We’re looking at those branded concepts not only for support in training and service models for their units, but we can use what we learn in those locations and apply them to other areas as well,” he notes.
Unfortunately, the inescapable negative impact of the new emphasis on takeout, limited dine-in and mobile ordering is to erode the traditional role of dining on a college campus as a community-building mechanism. That means campus dining operations have to work extra hard to add that hospitality component within the new restrictions.
“It’s in our DNA,” Varin says. “I’ve been in this industry for 20 years and [building community and encouraging socialization] is a cornerstone of what we do. Dining is a place to meet people, and we still have to be mindful that these are our guests, so we have to talk to them, make sure we show we appreciate them and explain why we are doing what we are doing. We’re not going to be able to give out hugs, but we can still make them feel welcome.”