In response to the sudden disruption of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Westfield State University Dining Services in Westfield, Mass., is now using its network of suppliers to create a temporary grocery delivery program for university affiliates. The college, which typically serves upward of 5,000 foodservice meals a day is now only prepping to-go dinners and lunches for 36 students who have been permitted to stay on campus during the outbreak.
“We started to hear from our dining staff that they weren't able to get basic items such as toilet paper, flour or eggs because of shortages and hoarding in local stores when the pandemic first started,” says Bill Connor, director of dining services. “Meanwhile our supply chain was and still is very strong so it seemed an obvious solution to an otherwise very anxiety-producing situation.”
When students were all sent home, dining services was left with plenty of inventory. “We knew we weren’t going to be able to use it this year, and it's exceptionally good food,” says executive chef Mary Reilly. “We started with selling what we already had on hand like jars of pasta sauce and then started working with suppliers to source more perishable items.”
To find out what households really need, Reilly did market research with her own dining staff. “I have to admit that I grocery shop like a chef,” she says. “By checking in with our diverse staff, I was able to get a range of wants and needs.” The first week the program had about 40 items available but the most recent inventory showcased 150 items.
Reilly admits managing the program’s logistics has been a steep learning curve but that they’ve devised a system that works. Each week, dining staff emails all university students, staff and faculty a list of available items for purchase, orders are then collected over email and users sign up for a 10-minute pick-up time via a shared online document. “Initially we sold bags of items with specific themes such as baking ingredients or breakfast items,” says Reilly. “We soon realized that people were more comfortable being able to customize in order to save money and limited food waste so we’re switched to an a la carte model.”
Reilly says she also moved beyond using spreadsheets to management inventory to building an Access database. “I feel like I could run a warehouse now,” she explains. They converted part of the dining room into a sanitized pack space, she says. There are bays of items that staff “shop” with a customer’s list in hand. They also pack orders according to when customers are coming in for pick up, so when they do loadout, they can go through the cooler in chronological order. “I think my and Bill’s restaurant background has definitely been beneficial,” she says. “These may be really big orders but the system is no different than when we were running a line in a restaurant.”
Items are priced at cost, says Connor, and as so many of area restaurants have closed, food suppliers have a surplus of resources they are offering with discounts and the school is able to pass those savings onto the university community. For example, they were able to get good prices on lamb of leg and ham the week before Easter. Reilly also says the program is a great way to stay engaged with her network of suppliers that she has cultivated relationships with, relied on, and hopes to soon use at scale again.
For the campus community, the program alleviates the stress of finding groceries as well as lessens potential exposure to COVID-19 in a retail setting. It also takes some of the bottlenecking out of the local grocery store market, which is struggling to keep up with demand as well as offer environments where social distancing is possible.
“We're taking the stress and worry out of feeding families,” says Connor. “We have a new role, as dining. We used to feed all of our students and now we're feeding our larger campus community, and folks are really seeing the importance and the value of having great food on their table at home.”
The great response has helped Reilly work through some very long days of wading through new operational challenges. “In dining, we do what we do, because we want to make people happy,” she says. “With this program, we can keep our community safe and nourished, and create tighter connections in their families. It’s incredibly gratifying.”