Like every other education institution in the country, Texas Tech University (TTU) was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with students taking online classes, staff and administrators working from home and communal venues such as dining outlets either shuttered or severely restricted. However, over this period of trial and challenge, the TTU dining team has proved to be adaptable and forward-thinking in redesigning what was already a cutting-edge, retail-focused campus foodservice program into one that met the needs of students navigating a new campus environment.
Innovations included adding technology solutions, re-formulating and simplifying menus while still satisfying customer preferences and adjusting the meal plan approach to better meet pandemic-imposed needs. For these reasons, Texas Tech Hospitality Services is being recognized as the Best of Show recipient in FM’s 2021 Best Concept Awards program.
TTU did have the advantage of being located in Texas, a state that was at the forefront of loosening pandemic-forced restrictions, but that hardly meant a return to business as usual for the major public research university in Lubbock. While top-line enrollment has remained fairly steady—36,974 this past spring compared to 38,209 in 2019—the number of students living on campus dropped, from 8,200 prior to the pandemic to around 7,400 this past year. Nevertheless, the number of meal plans sold actually jumped, from 13,500 in 2019 to over 17,600 this spring, a number that included 7,411 traditional on-campus dining plans and 10,204 commuter, faculty and staff plans as the program adjusted its approach.
“Initially, we did not push our commuter plans,” explains Kirk Rodriguez, managing director of Hospitality Services. “Instead, we concentrated on our on-campus residents, and like many other college programs, we did benefit from the struggles of the local ‘restaurant row’ near campus, where many did not reopen. But then we also revamped our commuter plan by opening it up and basically saying that you can buy one for 50 bucks as opposed to the $200-$300 threshold we had before, and we had some success there. It was just kind of making it a little bit easier for folks to buy and utilize our plan.”
Also making things easier was an expansion of the mobile order option, with all open locations featuring mobile ordering for pickup throughout the day during posted serving hours.
“I have to believe that we were living right!” Rodriguez laughs. “We had made the decision probably six to eight months prior to COVID that we needed to move into mobile ordering, so we signed up with Tapingo—which is Grubhub now—but we took a very conservative approach at first, with just a few locations and just a few options, but then, fortunately, we decided to just roll it out to all the operations.”
That expansion was well underway when COVID hit, “so then we just shifted our entire program to strictly online only,” Rodriguez recalls, noting that about 80% of the program was already on the mobile order platform at the start of the pandemic, and the rest were quickly adapted.
The initial expansion of the mobile order option had led to a 75% jump in usage of the system, which then basically went to 100% after COVID hit as it was the only way to order at that point.
One big advantage TTU Dining had when dealing with the effects of the pandemic was that its program is heavily retail-oriented, with only a single all-you-care-to-eat outlet. That allowed it to adapt more quickly to the new contingencies, as the service style of its network of Mini Market campus c-store outlets were already amenable to takeout and mobile ordering.
“In our larger operations, we niched out a space where a student could come in and [pick up their mobile orders] on a kind of one-in/one-out basis to control capacity,” Rodrigues adds. “We found a lot of success with this because we were creating some one-on-one opportunities for students who were [otherwise] holed up in their rooms because classes were mostly online.
Progress in mobile order implementation allowed the program to focus quickly on other areas when COVID hit to limit contact and speed up service. While some locations did reduce serving hours in the 2020-21 school year, campus dining options remained available Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 11:45 p.m., with all locations accepting only mobile orders after 8 p.m. until close. However, not everything remained open, with 14 locations in the fall and 16 in the spring remaining closed, including academic kiosks, a food truck and a handful of retail locations in the student union building.
In addition, to combat labor shortages and to increase the speed of service, Hospitality Services moved away from its traditional build-your-own menus and pivoted towards concepts featuring menu rotations.
“Thankfully, because we’d already done the mobile piece, we were able to concentrate most of our efforts on downsizing menus and taking out the customization piece,” Rodriguez comments. “One that we particularly had a lot of success with was our Asian hibachi concept [Khans Mongolian Grill at The Commons], where we went to a kind of Panda Express model.” Rather than broad customization, the revamped Khans offered two set entrées and one vegetarian option that changed daily, thus still providing variety but dramatically reducing the labor needed to operate it, which was a major consideration in addition to the need to limit the time the customer spent in the servery area.
In fact, menu shrinkage to allow efficient, safe, quick operation while still providing customer-pleasing choices was undertaken at all locations.
“We quickly identified off of our ordering history and velocity what were the top two and three movers, and that’s what we focused on creating in bulk—and had a lot of success!” Rodriguez notes proudly. “It saved us because we were struggling with labor [while dealing with] the number of folks that opted to stay on campus. We got through it, but I hope I never have to go through something like that again in my lifetime!”
Looking for labor
Meanwhile, labor remains a looming issue for the coming year, and the department is looking at all sources for potential employees. For instance, it created a hiring coordinator position strictly to handle student hiring, a traditional source of campus dining program labor that had been diminishing in recent years as students concentrate on completing their coursework and graduating as quickly as possible, leaving less time for part-time jobs.
“We're increasing our students salary rate starting at $10 plus a free meal plus room and board assistance, and we're also enhancing our scholarships, so hopefully all of these things will attract some to consider working a few hours with the flexibility we can offer that some students may not know is available,” Rodriguez offers.
Nevertheless, he and his team are formulating various approaches to deal with different labor supply contingencies this fall. If enough employees are available, there is a plan for a relative return to normalcy as the university is planning on a full return to face-to-face instruction as its primary academic approach in the coming year.
But there is also a Plan B to deal with possible labor shortfalls.
“We would [continue with] reduced menus and [fewer] options, and will still rely on mobile ordering,” Rodriguez explains. “We created a pretty robust pick up and go program through our grab and go and we’re going to continue that. [Meanwhile], in our all you care to eat, we had a reservation system, and we believe we're going to continue some of that. Fortunately, we didn't have a lot of build your own kind of things [in the all-you-care-to-eat facility], which also is a very small portion of our overall program, so it's not something that students will especially be missing or want back.”
Another efficiency-boosting initiative is expected be flexing of the mobile order menus.
“In some locations, you'll only have certain concepts available and at those, the entire menu won’t be available during certain times,” Rodriguez explains. “For example, our mobile order and the pickup component might be a little more robust at dinner, because they have more time then, as opposed to lunch when everybody is trying to eat at the same time.”
Mobile order isn’t the only technology solution TTU Dining is looking at to maintain customer-pleasing levels of service. In another fortuitous bit of pre-pandemic foresight similar to the mobile order expansion in the fall/winter of 2019, the program had secured a state contract to purchase high-tech fresh food vending units directly from the manufacturer.
“It’s similar to HelloFresh but we decided to create our own and will be rolling those out as part of our kiosk footprint along with a rollout of pickup boxes similar to Amazon lockers, where students can get their mobile orders with an individual code. We'll be rolling them out to one of our busiest operations to see how it goes. We figure if it works there, we can get it to work anywhere.”