The start of the coronavirus meant the swift end of self-service in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln dining halls. Navigating that abrupt shift has been a challenge—but it’s also brought about fresh insights and some welcome change.
“We had sort of forgotten, I think, that in our push to always provide a little more variety, that it isn’t just about the food,” says Director of Dining Services David Annis. “It’s about bringing people back into the equation.”
Before the pandemic, for instance, students could choose from more than 60 individual items at the self-serve salad bar. In the past, dining services had even experimented with self-serve concepts like DIY stir-fry stations, where students cooked the stir-fries themselves.
These days providing opportunities for near-endless variety and customization is harder. “With more self-service, we could direct labor to other places like expanding menus and venues,” Annis explains. Now, putting employees on the line to serve food means fewer staffers in the back to cook lots of different menu items. Plus, having tons and tons of choices slows down the serving line.
“You can’t offer as much variety when you’re serving individual students. All the little things that aren’t necessarily super popular, they disappear,” Annis says. Right now, the once-huge salad bar is down to just 20 to 25 items. “This is college dining in 1990. We didn’t do all the self-service. We had the lines,” Annis laughs.
Fewer choices might seem like a negative across the board. But Annis doesn’t see it that way. As staffers have gone back to plating and assembling food for customers, many have remarked about how much they enjoy interacting face-to-face with the students—even with COVID restrictions like masks, distancing and plexiglass in place. Students feel the same. While they’ve said in satisfaction surveys that they miss some of the variety, “the thing that came back over and over was hey, I like being able to get to know these people on the line. Ruth is my favorite person,” Annis says. “They got to know our folks.”
Not every aspect of COVID has automatically lent itself to more interaction between students and foodservice staff, of course. The pandemic encouraged dining services to quickly develop a mobile ordering system, where staffers prep food in a converted ghost kitchen and students can pick up meals when they’re ready. “Going forward, we know that mobile and remote ordering will become even more important,” Annis predicts. With the pandemic showing just how enthusiastic students are about retail, “we’re working on our markets,” he says. “The next big step is probably to put in a quick mart with the 25 top sellers that students can order on their phone and pick up.”
But even with mobile, there’s an element of person-to-person interaction that Annis hopes to preserve. He initially liked the growing trend of having students pick up phone orders from a locker. That is, until he realized what would be lost. “Right now, we have stations where students come in, say hi to the cashier and scan their card,” says Annis. “Lockers would completely take away that personal interaction.”
After nearly 11 months of pandemic protocol, Annis doesn’t think dining will ever fully go back to what it looked like in 2019. “I think students will eventually feel comfortable coming back to those community dining hall settings,” he says. But it might take a while—and in the meantime, he’s focused on creating communal eating spaces that still feel safe. “I’m a believer that you build community over the dinner table,” Annis says. “We’ll concentrate on creating other spaces outside of the dining centers, whether it’s in the residence halls or courtyards, where students can be comfortable eating in small groups.”
He also sees foodservice staffers staying more involved in cooking and assembling. “I think there’s something to be said for that experience, of being able to choose but not necessarily having to make all the decisions yourself,” Annis says. “I believe we’ll do more direct making of the food, going down the line, where students can still choose, but we’re putting things together. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to full self-service.”
After all, fostering new relationships is what the college experience is all about. “Part of the beauty of the college environment is students get to interact with people of all different ages, backgrounds, everything—whether it’s a professor or the cashier,” Annis says.