When the University of Denver launched its cashierless campus grocery stores last March, they included a robust array of grab-and-go items to accompany the stores’ fresh produce, snacks, microwaveable options, and more.
The shops, which are the first cashierless campus grocery stores in the nation, give students a quick way to access meals when dining halls and other campus food venues are closed.
They’re designed to be a frictionless shopping experience. Students gain access to the store by signing in on an app. Once inside, 150 cameras read their movements and record the prices of products they pick up, based on the location of each item in the store. (The stores do not use facial recognition technology.) Customers are automatically charged as they exit.
Almost a year after the launch, Tad Robnett, general manager Denver dining, says the stores are a big hit, and believes they’re so successful because students can use meal plan cash to purchase goods in the store.
Grab-and-go items are especially popular, he says. “It’s hard to keep them on the shelf.” Robnett estimates that they sell a total of about 300 cold grab-and-go meal items per week.
The dining team had hoped to be making all of their grab-and-go meals in-house by now. But staffing shortages have sidelined those plans. They started recruiting in earnest in December and although they’re getting more applicants for food service positions than they’ve seen over the past two years, they haven’t filled the three full-time positions they’ll need for the grab-and-go program.
In the meantime, they’re contracting with Etai’s Catering, a family-owned, Denver-based company that’s been in operation since 1994. The group delivers fresh options daily, including sandwiches, salads, snack boxes, and other higher-end choices. All items are packed in compostable plastic clamshells.
Robnett speaks highly of the contractor’s work but is looking forward to the day when the campus team can make these items themselves. “We want to eventually replace that with an in-house brand of ours called Simply to Go,” he says. “I’m hopeful that by next fall, we will have that program in place.”
The dining program also sources grab-and-go sushi made by International Food Creations, a subcontractor that operates two locations on campus. (The dedicated locations also serve ramen, poke and boba.) Sodexo will likely continue contracting with the group for sushi, even after they take sandwiches, salads, and similar items in-house.
The grab-and-go options don’t rotate but Robnett says they mix it up by ordering a slightly different combination of options every week. For instance, Etai’s offers about a dozen types of sandwiches, including jalapeno cheddar turkey, cashew chicken salad, ham and aged provolone on a croissant, and an egg salad wedge; each time they order, Sodexo requests about eight different sandwiches. Etai’s menu also includes a fruit and cheese plate and six salads, including goat cheese-mango, Greek and Southwest grill salads.
The self-serve milkshake machine is popular — it can make up to six milkshake flavors and three smoothie flavors. So are hot meal options, such as breakfast burritos and fettuccine Alfredo, which are up about 20 percent since last spring. Students access Starbucks products through the company’s Serenade machine, a self-serve, automated unit. The array of coffee, chai and tea drinks pretty much sell themselves. “It’s almost to the point that whatever we stock, moves,” Robnett says.
Once they’re making grab-and-go options on campus, they plan to expand to include Sodexo concepts such as a “kicked-up version of a yogurt parfait” as well as overnight oats and chia puddings.