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Balancing the Eternal Foodservice Equation

Service industry or manufacturing discipline? The give-and-take inspires creativity.

One of the great ironies of foodservice is that while it remains a classic service industry, it is also essentially a manufacturing business. That is, even as it is focused on providing individual meals according to the time, taste, price and other preferences of individual customers, it is also based on converting raw materials into finished products, often using as much automated assembly and industrial efficiency as possible.

That leads to inherent tradeoffs as foodservice operators over the years have explored in infinite variation ways to provide the personalized service and product customization that creates customer satisfaction while also achieving economies of scale and lowered production costs. The equation is very dynamic, but also unforgiving. When it’s balanced, you get happy customers and reasonable profits. When it’s not—well, everyone in the business knows what that’s like.

I have always found it fascinating to observe the many ways talented operators have found to balance both variables. Several examples can be found later in this issue among Food Management’s 2012 Best Concept Award winners, but two seem particularly illustrative.

One is the new Arrillaga dining hall at Stanford University, which melds a high-touch (and high volume) servery operation on its second floor with a state-of-the-art (and even higher volume) central production kitchen on its first floor. Upstairs, wide ranging self-service menu choices are blended with customized counter options, chef-delivered training table service and sophisticated daily specials. Downstairs, high volume production equipment and disciplines that include cook-chill and sous vide bring the economies necessary to help make what goes on upstairs and at other campus eateries more affordable.

With FöD, a new program Sodexo has rolled out on a half dozen college campuses, one sees a quite different tack, targeted to different circumstances but also looking to achieve a similar balance.
Where campus building facilities can afford only small-footprint operations, FöD (Food on Demand) turns to mobile and kiosk-ordering technology to provide service customization, with guests ordering and paying for food in advance, specifying how and when they want it. Menu variety is as broad as a large, multi-station servery would offer, but production instead takes place in a compact open kitchen, again using state-of-the-art equipment to achieve speed and efficiency in production.
Meanwhile, students of foodservice history have a chance to see an exhibit with some classic reminders that this give-and-take dynamic is one that has inspired tremendous operational creativity over the years.

“Lunch Hour NYC,” an exhibition at the New York Public Library going on now through February 17, is drawn from the Library’s extensive culinary archives and is an iconic and intellectual feast for foodies. A centerpiece of the exhibition is a recreation of Horn & Hardart’s famous “Automat,” a machine driven, self-service cafeteria concept that first opened on Times Square in 1912. By the time of its heyday, variously-located Automats were said to serve more than 750,000 meals a day across the City.

The last Automat closed back in 1991, a victim of changing times, tastes and an inability to turn tables fast enough in the New York market. But as a child growing up there in the late 1950s, I experienced the Automat as high-tech America and a gleaming vision of what foodservice would be like in the future.

The Automat’s seemingly endless walls of small, coin operated chrome and glass compartments, each housing an apparently never-ending supply of freshly plated food, mysteriously created behind the scenes, was industrial magic pure and simple. You bought everything with nickels and dimes, turned a small crank, popped open the door, and carried off your selection. (My favorite was the—no surprise—baked mac and cheese, served in small, hot, oval casserole dishes, always consistent and always great!)

The Automat was a brilliant self-service concept supported by yet another high volume manufacturing system behind the scenes. And another balancing of an eternal equation.

Follow John Lawn on Twitter: @JohnLawn

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