Certain events change foodservice so profoundly that chefs, operators and their customers instinctually know that things will never be the same again. The COVID-19 crisis has proven to be one of those events. This global coronavirus pandemic is unfortunately touching everyone, and the high-touch environment of the foodservice world is one of the least immune to the sudden changes.
“I honestly think everything is going to change. Life as we knew it, the normalcies we overlooked will be different,” says Nick Salvagni, national director of marketing for American Dining Creations, a contract management company that has been shifting operations all over the country—turning commissaries into curbside groceries, providing sponsored meals for communities and more.
“This is where we have to start thinking: How do we get ahead of the curve?” Salvagni says. “Menus that require multiple touches, touchscreen kiosks…everything you can think of, it’s going to be affected.”
Sorry, but that means you, salad bars.
“Self-service stations and touchpoints like soups, salads and yogurt bars will be greatly reduced, if not removed completely,” says Gabe Petry, assistant director at Virginia Tech’s Owens Food Court. “We’ll probably see more chef-driven creations of proteins, vegetables and allergen-sensitive items that will be packaged separately, which will allow for customization while meeting an increased desire for food safety. The added packaging required will need to be compostable so we can keep it out of landfills.”
A lot to think about! And, consumer surveys in confidence in food/restaurants are showing that folks may not be ready to jump back into dining as we knew it, so operators will certainly have to get ahead of the curve in terms of menu development in the here and now.
Some positive foundations already in practice by chefs and operators—commitments to local farmers, healthy, immune-boosting menu items and a tech-savvy ordering/carryout arm—will be instrumental in getting back to the new normal, whatever that will look like. (See a related photo gallery here.)
Gourmet comfort food
At Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla, Mo., a Chartwells account, comforting to-go dishes found on campus include cheeseburger meatloaf with cheesy hash brown casserole; sticky meatballs with rice and green beans and vegetarian chili mac. Fancied-up meatloaf alongside roasted veggies also makes an appearance at Northeastern University, and nacho boxes, pulled pork and mac ‘n cheese are going fast at Louisiana State University, two other Chartwells accounts.
For the healthcare foodservice segment, food as medicine was a sentiment that only became more galvanized during the pandemic.
“I think comfort food will come back, but as chefs, we need to use fresh, whole ingredients” to bring those comforting classics into the future, says Nazim Khan, CEC, WCEC, executive chef at Bryan Health in Lincoln, Neb., where the dining room has not shut down, but plastic dividers and spaced-out serving lines, relocated registers and far-apart tables have replaced the usual hustle and bustle of doctors and nurses having lunch in big groups.
Khan sent a memo to hospital staff to “please stagger your lunches, don’t come down in a group,” he says. The takeout business has gone through the roof, he adds, and hot meals to-go in cute, practical foil containers that look like old-time TV dinners are much appreciated by the staff. The meals stay hot, and the price—almost to cost at $4.50—is unbeatable in the city for a full meal, Khan says. Convenience is king for this community and being able to order and pay from one employee portal app makes things even easier.
Bryan Health employees are buying enough dinners to take home and feed their families after a long day. And these aren’t your grandma’s TV dinners. Khan, who loves to work with roasted veggies and seafood in particular, has created flavors, textures and a legit food adventure in each one of the meals: There’s lightly battered chili-lime tilapia that’s pan seared, finished in the oven and served with black bean salsa with lots of cilantro, lemon juice and olive oil (Khan notes these are all healthy, whole ingredients).
Another healthy seafood meal, salmon with roasted tomatoes and caper aioli, features crunchy fried capers for a bitter pop of flavor. And for chicken nugget fans, those types of dinners are available too. “Maybe a husband and wife order dinners; one has chicken tenders and one has salmon,” Khan says.
Bowls ahead of the curve
At Virginia Tech, quarantine cuisine hasn’t meant bland food. Thanks to the portable solution of bowls already in place at VT’s Globowl Kitchen venue, those sheltering-in-place on campus enjoy dishes like Bam Bam shrimp bowls and General Tso’s chicken bowls. There’s also a homestyle chicken Parm that’s also been a stalwart of the rotating menu.
At the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson, a Chartwells account, about 200 to 300 students have been served each day during the quarantine. Bowls have saved the day for these grab-and-go meals. There’s a shrimp and grits bowl and several versions of grilled veggies, rice and beans with Tex-Mex flair.
Pizza’s time to shine
The O.G. of deliverable, takeout food, pizza pie has been in its glory these past few months, bolstering diners with the familiar. The Morrison Healthcare team at the University of Virginia (UVA) Health System in Charlottesville has been leaning into pizza’s comfort factor with its TOGO Pizza program.
“The TOGO Pizza program gives us the opportunity to drive sales but more importantly provide a meal option to the hospital employees just like they could get at home,” says Chadwick French, director of retail at UVA Health. “I’ve heard from our security team here that being able to have a slice of pie is the best part of their day. It really puts into perspective how the little things can make the difference in these challenging times.”
The Morrison crew at UVA Health has also been keeping chef-inspired items at the forefront, with chicken cheese steaks, Thai chicken salads and a mash-up of Nashville hot chicken and Memphis fried chicken. In addition, UVA Health employees have a new option from Morrison, the FED (Fresh Easy Delicious) take-home food program with lunchtime or evening pickup. A recent featured meal was the Bayou Classic, chicken and sausage gumbo, Cajun red beans with rice, Cajun coleslaw, side salad and baguettes.
Meal kits and more
To stave off the boredom of being stuck inside—not to mention providing essentials—many operators, including school food providers, started packing boxes that would last for a few meals.
“People want meals that are not a one-off…they’re choosing the large pan of chicken and rice,” says ADC’s Salvagni.
The cannoli kit is one of American Dining Creations’ five family fun kits.
ADC took it a step further by creating family fun night boxes, where families can spend time together making a pizza, stir-fry, cupcakes, cannoli and more. Borrowing systems from summer feeding, many school districts have been using backpacks, big bags and boxes to get more days of nutrition into one trip to a pickup site.
At UVA Health, pork or chicken burrito picnic baskets are packed in paper “baskets” and include beans and tortilla chips. Simple but spectacular family meals like roasted chicken with mashed potato, side salad, cheesy casserole and rolls are also available to take home. Add-ons include sweet treats like brownies and pies.
Flavor and friends
James Zeisler, executive chef at Virginia Tech’s Owens Food Court, predicts that customers will always be looking for great flavor and—when the time comes—the value of sharing a meal with friends and family.
“COVID-19 has had a huge impact on how we eat, but I don’t see it changing what we eat,” Zeisler says. “Our industry has been hit really hard by this crisis and it’s shown how important our restaurants and foodservice workers are to our communities. It’s also reminded everyone of the value of being able to spend time with friends or family and share a meal.”
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