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All the expected safety protocols have been instituted, and meals during the fall semester were all to go. Limited indoor dining opened up during the spring semester.

Vanderbilt University rethinks COVID-related revamp in dining services

Students, accustomed to variety and customization, registered their dissatisfaction; the school found a way to provide what was missing.

When your campus dining program ranks among the country’s best (No. 6 in the latest Princeton Review ratings), students have certain expectations—pandemic or no. Vanderbilt University found that out last fall when it rolled out a streamlined, socially distanced food-service program.

Students and parents weren’t thrilled, and they demanded more. So the university responded.

Fall 2020 was a time of uncertainty for many colleges and universities: how many students would return, how could they all be safely fed and managed and how could the production facilities keep up.

At Vanderbilt University, campus dining instituted social distancing, all grab-and-go meals and limited menu offerings to streamline service. The school invested in digital menus for all dining halls, placing them at the head of queues to give students a moment to decide what they wanted to order before they entered the line. The menus were streamlined and the emphasis was on prepackaged meals, designed to move students through dining halls quickly. Menus were also standardized across venues as a way to keep demand consistent. Food choices were narrowed down to two platforms: Chef’s Table, featuring “meat and three”-type meals; and Global Flavor, with a variety of ethnic-inspired options.

To minimize congestion during the busiest periods, satellite meal pickup locations were set up across campus in locations apart from dining halls, with their own menus of preordered box lunches, and giant dining tents were erected to provide alternatives to normal service and encourage eating in nontraditional locations.

“One factor we had not counted on, despite our best efforts, was the level of anxiety and frustration on the part of students and their parents at home,” says Sean Carroll, marketing and communications director. The school’s priority was to provide a safe experience, but many students responded to the changes with a thumbs down through emails and social media channels.

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Campus dining designated a handful of spots across campus for preordered meal pickup.

One of the biggest beefs involved the lack of diversity in the menu. To overcome that objection, the school partnered with Taste of Nashville local restaurants to provide daily pop-ups that included alternative fare like pizza, Mexican and Asian dishes. “These options were essentially a massive catering order, offered to students as a meal swipe alternative,” Carroll says. A few weeks into the semester, the dining halls also provided students more choices from a variety of proteins and sides.

That feedback helped shape the new approach launched at the start of the spring semester.

Today, Vanderbilt’s dining halls offer a greater degree of customization and choice. The lineup of old favorite concepts returned along with several new stations: Bao (Asian steamed buns), Smokehouse (Tennessee specialties) Crafted Flatbreads and Toasted (avocado toast). Certain concepts were designated preorder only, with advance orders entered through the GET mobile app.

Following a pilot in the fall, limited-capacity indoor dining reopened with the spring semester as well. Students who wish to eat in the commons must scan a QR code on entering; the code is linked to a text-based system that times the visit and lets them know when their 30-minute slot has expired. A similar timed system was used to regulates traffic in the tents last fall.

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Three tents were set up to provide socially distanced dining; the largest held 278 people. They were equipped with heated flooring for the winter.

Explaining all these changes to students has been a major effort on its own. Carroll’s team developed a printed brochure describing the updated service and menu, relied heavily on Instagram and other social media channels to share information on meal swipe protocol, updated location and services and new safety protocols. A series of brief online videos helped convey the protocols as well. And campus dining last fall added DiningNews text alerts, which could disseminate operational changes and other information quickly and directly. Similarly, the department created promotional materials to explain improvements for the spring semester.

“The tagline we applied to promotional pieces, ‘Let’s Eat,’ seemed to really resonate both with students and with our own staff, as it represented a big step toward achieving a sense of normalcy we haven’t quite felt since last winter,” Carroll says.

With more freshly prepared options available now, the daily pop-ups will continue, but on a less-frequent basis as special events. The dining tents, which proved to be very popular in the fall, will remain at least through the end of the spring term. They have been reformatted and downsized, and floor heating was added for comfort during the colder months. Eventually they could be repurposed as fitness facilities.

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