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Chef Rob Kinneen

Duke University chef and team repurpose catering into ghost kitchen for fall semester

It’s yet unknown how many Duke University students will return to the Durham, N.C., campus for classes, but Duke Dining is preparing for social distancing, mobile ordering and more as Alaska-born Chef Rob Kinneen pivots into a new world.

Back to school will look very different at Duke University. Nearby hotels and apartment buildings have been rented out or purchased by the school and converted into student housing to ensure students can be safely distanced as coronavirus continues to be a threat.

The Duke Dining team hopes to open each concept in its impressive and varied portfolio, but that may not be viable for all concepts and locations, with limited capacity and other safety measures, says Aris Marten, Duke Dining’s associate director of retail operations.

Since the college shut down, dining has focused on fine-tuning a mobile ordering system that had been underway before all this. “We had been doing a lot of things with mobile ordering for transactions, testing it, and all of a sudden, COVID hit and we got five locations onto mobile pretty quickly,” Marten says.


The mobile ordering app will work in conjunction with a pick-up system at several locations where students can get their food in a contact-free manner.

Catering will take on a new role in any of the possible scenarios this fall. Obviously, the campus catering arm has taken a major hit with the pandemic, but the workforce and culinary talent have been redistributed and repurposed. Chef Rob Kinneen is creating new menus at a catering-kitchen-turned-ghost kitchen on the lower level of Duke’s retail location 300 Café, operated by Thrive Kitchen and Catering. This operation will tie into mobile ordering.

“On a catering front, my experience with food will go from refined to comfortable and casual,” Kinneen says. “This is both for an economic response and to provide comfort and accessibility in these times. Our menu is protein dense with whole food ingredients, so keeping in synch with what we have been doing will be our priority.”

“As soon as COVID happened, every catering event we had in the books was canceled within 48 hours,” says Eric Burchfield, partner and GM of Café 300, operated by Thrive Kitchen and Catering. “In the first few weeks of the pandemic, we did a lot of first-responder meals for local hospitals. Moving forward, we will do a lot of boxed meals, sandwiches, bowls, salads and sealed, microwaveable hot meals.”

Kinneen stresses the need for “constant communication with our vendors, sometimes pre-ordering bacon and ham two weeks ahead of time, also certain beef cuts and even items like whole kale, for example.”

Regarding the catering space becoming a ghost kitchen, “Aris contacted us, and we’d been talking about this idea anyway for the fall, but we got it set up pretty quickly as a ghost kitchen,” Burchfield says. “Students can place orders on their phones, pay, put in their location and then we custom make the order for them, and we’ll delivery it masks and gloves to the drop-off location and text them when it’s there.”


“With the drop-off system across campus, students can place an order and it can be delivered to the specified location,” Marten says, adding that while there were only a few hundred students on campus during the summer, delivery was easy, but drop-offs will likely be the way to go if thousands of students are living on campus.

Burchfield says the team is currently looking into an express pickup area so different dining locations can bring food to one place, with an expediter helping at peak times to manage it.

For now, Duke Dining as a whole is keeping a close eye on what happens with the virus day by day and week by week.

“With disruptions in our food supply, this does make me a little nervous,” Kinneen says. “But we will do our best and be open to feedback and constructive criticism to make this time the best it can be.”

Burchfield echoes this attitude.

“Every week, there’s changes as we learn more and we change protocol,” he says. “It’s definitely been a learning process but we’re happy to be working and serving the students. That’s what we’re here for.”

Contact Tara at [email protected]m.

Follow her on Twitter @Tara_Fitzie.

Correction, July 9, 2020: The spelling of Eric Burchfield's name has been corrected.

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