When the coronavirus pandemic changed everything last spring, onsite dining programs were challenged with continuing to operate in an environment where many traditional service models such as self-serve bars no longer were feasible.
In response, operators either modified existing service outlets—for instance by converting self-serve stations to staff-serve—embraced or fast-tracked emerging new technologies such as mobile ordering and/or created whole new ways of service, such as the curbside meal distribution deployed by many school systems, impromptu mini grocers set up by hospitals to serve staff and even home-delivered meals to remote-working employees by business dining programs.
While the current pandemic will eventually pass, its effects on in-house dining programs are likely to last much longer, which means that the new service models developed and deployed during the course of the crisis will have to remain viable while offering an approximation of the same levels of service, convenience, quality and choice—and of course safety!—as before COVID-19.
Here’s a rundown of some of the most prominent developments in new and emerging service models in the major onsite dining markets and how they’ve been refined to meet the challenges of a post-pandemic world.
Mobile order, delivery and ghost kitchens in colleges
With the traditional role of campus dining programs to get students to congregate and share meals severely curtailed by COVID-imposed distancing policies, college dining operators have had to develop new service models to provide students not only with meals but also meals that approximate the quality, variety and convenience they offered previously, if only to justify meal plan prices and help provide an enticement for students to continue to come to campus for the “college experience.”
Perhaps no service model has seen more growth over the course of the pandemic period than mobile ordering, which had already been making inroads pre-pandemic in the college/university segment with its young, tech-savvy core customer base. The major development in the past year in this market has been not just in its expansion to more campuses but also its spread to residential dining menus.
Previously, campus mobile ordering had been confined almost exclusively to retail outlets with their a la carte menus, a fairly easy extension of the way the technology works in the commercial restaurant world. However, the need to keep crowds down and get customers through service lines quickly while still offering customization and fresh preparation forced college dining operators to adapt residential dining outlets with their traditional all-you-care-to-eat service models to a kind of quasi-retail format that could accommodate remote ordering while retaining some of the aspects of all-you-care-to-eat variety and flexibility.
Photo: Employees of Penn State Health can get family meals to take home from dining services company Metz Culinary, which derives extra revenues from the program.
Credit: Metz Culinary Services
For example, at the University of Rochester, the two campus all-you-care-to-eat dining halls this fall for the first time offered mobile order and takeout options, with menus and preorder enabled through the third-party Grubhub app, which previously was available only at campus retail locations. The approach allows students to have some of the customization and individualized meal variety they enjoyed when the dining halls operated normally, while safety is prioritized with preorder pickups made outside the facility. Inside, students who are not preordering can assemble full meals at each open station rather than having to go to several to get sides, beverages, desserts, etc., thus reducing the amount of time they spend in the servery.
The University of Georgia also offered preorder from its residential dining halls, bundling selections in reusable takeout containers that are “fairly sizeable and can hold a substantial amount of food,” notes Bryan Varin, executive director of UGA Dining, which replicates some of the advantages of the grab-as-much-as-you-like ethos of the all-you-care-to-eat format, but in takeout form.
Once mobile ordering is established, some colleges have found that extension to delivery services also became viable. The early pandemic period last spring, when campuses were relegated to skeleton onsite student populations, ironically also allowed experimentation with this approach without the danger of being overwhelmed by volume demand. Virginia Tech, for example, went to all-remote ordering and dorm delivery with the few students left on its campus, providing valuable experience for the staff. The University of California-Davis not only initiated delivery services following the COVID-mandated campus evacuation but also extended it to the surrounding community, a way to keep the university engaged with the local population.
So did Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which used robots to make both on- and off-campus deliveries (UC-Davis used staffers on bikes and in vans and other vehicles to make the drops) and won an FM Best Concept Award for its innovation.
Photo: Automated fresh meal dispensers like this salad/bowl unit at College of Holy Cross from vendor Chowbotics offer onsite dining programs a way to serve appealing food round the clock with no labor allocation in a minimal footprint.
Robots, in fact, have started to make inroads in college dining programs as delivery vehicles, starting two years ago at George Mason University and quickly expanding to other campuses such as the University of Wisconsin, University of Texas-Dallas and Northern Arizona University.
The fact that some of these deployments predated COVID shows that campus dining programs already saw potential in an exotic—if still rather expensive—technology as a way to provide meal delivery services without finding and deploying the manual labor to do it. Presumably, as more operations—not just on campuses but other markets—employ delivery robots, prices will begin coming down even as their capabilities improve. That, combined with the rising cost of labor and the need to limit personal contact, may drive robotic delivery into the mainstream much faster than might otherwise have been expected.
Meanwhile, college campuses are natural pilot sites for robot delivery technology as they offer a limited and defined service footprint the units can easily navigate, bringing food that can be prepared fresh and sent out quickly because the production kitchens are nearby and the target population is already connected to the dining program through meal plans or campus declining balance accounts, facilitating transactions with a set customer base.
But robots and mobile ordering are not the only high-tech additions to the emerging campus meal service model. With the critical need to restrict interpersonal contact and limit crowds in traditionally packed dining venues, tech solutions are making minimal-contact meal service viable with newly emerging approaches like ghost kitchens, which are production kitchens with no or very limited onsite customer interaction beyond meal pickup.
Photo: Maryville University converted its residential dining hall into a multi-station ghost kitchen from which students can mobile order for either pickup at a designated station or have delivered to their dorms from dining services provider Fresh Ideas Food Service.
Credit: Fresh Ideas Food Service
As the pandemic has emptied traditional dining venues, some schools such as Maryville University in St. Louis have converted their traditional dining halls into ghost kitchens that still offer menu variety from multiple station concepts, but with ordering confined almost exclusively to remote platforms while the now unused servery area was repurposed into more production space. With this model, students can either pick up their orders at a designated window outside the dining hall or get delivery of lunch and dinner meals at their residence halls.
Pickup orders are physically handed over to customers by dining staff at Maryville, but a high-tech alternative is now appearing at some campuses that eliminates even that minimal point of contact—automated food lockers that are accessed by individual codes sent to customer mobile phones. The system is already in operation at Auburn University, where mobile orders made to the various station concepts in the Foy Commons food court are placed in one of 48 lockers and a code sent to the customer to say it is ready for pickup. They then access their individual order with the code they receive at the same time.
Other emerging or expanding campus service models in the wake of the pandemic include unmanned and automated outlets similar to micro markets and high-tech vending machines that operate as individual meal stations but without staffing, which means they can be open round the clock, adding sales in off hours that help make up for lower counts during more traditional dayparts due to pandemic restrictions.
In one notable instance, the University of Houston and contract partner Chartwells last fall debuted what its vendor said was the first retrofitted, completely touchless and cashier-less retail outlet on a campus. The technology, similar to automated Amazon Go retail stores, allows customers to enter, shop and exit without stopping at a point-of-sale as the technology automatically charges them for whatever they take out. Other campuses have experimented with automated serving stations such as Farmer’s Fridge and Chowbotics salad machines, which dispense healthy, high-quality meal and snack choices without the need to have a person manning the station.
Hospitals tinker with technology, expanded services
Colleges aren’t the only onsite dining venues deploying mobile ordering or other forms of high-tech customer service, though they probably have a broader adoption rate. Nevertheless, the hospital segment—impacted by the loss of retail revenue from visitors and the administrative staff now working offsite—has been extending service into heretofore largely unexploited areas such as inpatient clinics, home meal kits for staff and even foodservice for external customers.
Mobile ordering had seen little penetration into healthcare institutions prior to COVID but a number of operators report that the crisis forced their administrations to fast-track proposals for implementing the technology. As in colleges, these systems allow no-contact transactions and limit servery crowding while still providing customization and fresh preparation. Furthermore, in a healthcare environment where staff have limited time to get meals and may have to take extra safety precautions when leaving their work areas, the convenience of being able to order remotely—and perhaps even have the food delivered—offers substantial value, which can help boost both meal counts and customer satisfaction.
Photo: Management company Unidine found an extra revenue stream and a way to promote community relations by opening a takeout restaurant from its cafeteria operation at New Milford Hospital that residents can mobile order from.
One of the most recent forays into this technology—and into delivery services building off mobile ordering availability—has been launched at University of California San Francisco Health, where a pilot mobile order option had been operating since the summer at three smaller retail outlets at two of the system’s hospitals. That was extended to two main cafes this fall, at which time UCSF Health also delved into meal delivery with a pilot program that serves 55 drop-off points in both the hospital buildings and in surrounding offices and clinics. That was then extended further a couple of months later to serve patients receiving chemotherapy treatments in three campus infusion clinics.
Getting food to outpatient clinics, emergency rooms and other venues like surgery waiting rooms where potential customers spend extended periods of time is a possible and largely unexplored market for hospital dining programs. Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center had tinkered with mobile ordering and delivery to such areas before the pandemic as an extension of its remote-ordering kiosk program BistrOH! Café. This summer, the facility added full mobile ordering as a way to limit café crowding.
A different twist on the bring-the-food-to-customers idea is the Market on the Move program from management company Morrison Healthcare, which brings snacks, beverages and packaged foods directly to the hospital floors (where allowed) through the use of a mobile cart and mobile POS, providing convenience for busy staff and extra sales for the dining program. The selection is rotated based on daypart, so mornings feature breakfast-oriented items like baked goods and smoothies while later in the day, offerings include packaged sandwiches and salads.
Another new service platform is takeaway home meals designed to serve various numbers of individuals, a huge convenience for families of busy staff. One such program at Confluence Health in Washington state offers take-home meal packs for four to six people that are complete with salads, sides and desserts. Home meal replacement had been a brief hot trend earlier this century and may now be revived by in-house dining programs aggressively looking to find new revenue streams and new ways to serve in-house customers outside the institutional walls.
Another new revenue stream definitely outside the institutional walls is service to external customers, such as the OrderIn program launched this year at New Milford Hospital in Connecticut by contract firm Unidine. The initiative tries to make up for the loss of the hospital’s retail cafeteria as a community gathering space—termed by some “the best restaurant in town” per Unidine District Manager Anthony Pacchioni—and of course also as a way to recapture some lost retail revenue.
Like Confluence Health, New Milford also offers take-home meal kits to staff and established an in-house mini mart stocked with grocery and sundries essentials for the convenience of the staff, a strategy employed by many other healthcare and other institutions in response to the spot shortages and long lines seen in some parts of the country early in the pandemic.
Hospitals have also embraced automated service concepts like Sally the Robot, Chowbotics and yogurt making robots as ways to offer round-the-clock contactless dining options that still provide healthy, freshly made selections.
Senior dining balances safety and meal service duties
Meal service in senior living communities underwent major changes over the past year as dining programs shifted from site-based dining offered in onsite cafes, restaurants and snack shops to meal delivery to individual residences. Granted, this was already something many had been doing for some residents, such as nursing home patients, but hardly on the same scale, or even with the same expectations, as independent living residents are used to the quality, convenience and service levels offered by their community’s various dining establishments, something not easy to replicate with delivered meals.
However, given the vulnerability of seniors to contagions like COVID, senior living communities can expect residents to remain highly safety conscious for the foreseeable future, which means that there will probably be a continued demand for in-home meal service on a scale much larger than pre-pandemic, and dining programs will have to adjust even as they reopen their congregate dining venues.
Fortunately, systems established since past spring to bring quality meals to individual residences give dining programs a major boost in dealing with the coming environment. Increasingly sophisticated cart-based meal delivery programs that offer residents choices and add-ons like alcohol service in the evening provide quality, choice and even some fun as it gives dining staff a window to engage with residents while maintaining social distancing protocols.
Photo: Cart programs deliver not only meals to residents at Rockwood Retirement Community but evening alcohol service as well, a way to try to make up for closed community venues like cafes and pubs.
Credit: Rockwood Retirement
As restrictions in some states begin relaxing, senior communities are taking advantage by opening up some dining rooms to limited access, sometimes rotating schedules for residents to come down and share a meal with distancing protocols in place, such as has been taking place at Ohio Living, a multi-level senior living complex that had shifted to full delivery when the pandemic hit but is now slowly reopening some dining venues to give residents who wish to do so some socialization opportunities.
Socialization is a critical issue in this market because it is strongly associated with mental well-being and even physical health, and dining programs have traditionally played important roles in promoting interaction, both between residents as they dine together and between dining staff and residents as they inevitably become familiar to each other. Unfortunately, with the isolation imposed by pandemic-related restrictions, this aspect has been compromised, so alternate or modified ways to encourage socialization going forward have become important considerations for senior community dining teams.
For instance, to mitigate total isolation, Legacy Retirement Communities has set up serving lines in residential facility hallways where residents can get meals while enjoying a semblance of interaction with each other with safety protocols firmly in place.
Other strategies range from pop-up and special themed events in dining rooms where limited numbers of residents can congregate to the food truck deployed by Morrison Living that adds a bit of excitement and change to mealtimes.
As in other segments, technology is expected to play an important role going forward in facilitating new meal service models, ranging from fairly prosaic initiatives like virtual cooking sessions and chef presentations to more exotic ones such as having robots to do some routine tasks like bussing tables and making salads as a way of limiting the chances for contamination. Even more striking is the use of automated delivery vehicles to get meals to residents in a senior living community, a technology that may continue to grow along with commercial self-driving vehicle technology.
Whitsons Culinary Group
K-12 dining has left the building
The K-12 school meal market has been challenged not only with finding new and safer ways to serve meals in school buildings but also offsite, which is something fairly new, at least during the school year, as offsite feeding had previously been confined mostly to summer feeding programs.
Down the line, even though school districts are expected to eventually return to mostly full-time in-school instruction, the capability to provide meals to students learning offsite can’t be dismissed and lessons learned over the past year have helped meal programs refine their operations in this area.
Photo: Elior North America developed flexible multiday meal packs for remote-learning K-12 students that are now being delivered to homes.
Credit: Elior North America
For instance, Elior North America has developed and deployed a meal program for remote-learning students that can flex to provide two-, three- or five-day bundles of meals to students depending on their school vs. remote learning schedules. Recently, the company expanded the program to include home delivery, which about 15% of respondents to a School Nutrition Association survey last fall indicated they were using as a way to boost lagging meal count numbers and lost a la carte sales resulting from kids not being in school buildings.
Safe, effective delivery of meals and meal packs to homes is a challenge, though one that commercial restaurants have generally overcome with either their own delivery services or the use of third-party outfits. Atlanta Public Schools and contract firm Southwest Foodservice Excellence deployed district buses travelling their usual routes to make meal deliveries while in New Orleans, contract firm Chartwells K12 last fall partnered with local delivery firm d’Livery to take five-day meal packs produced in its school kitchens to student homes. For now, the service is confined to serving home-learning students in 13 charter school campuses.
The quality of the meals poses another challenge. While pre-packaged grab and go served a useful purpose in providing safe and convenient meal alternatives in the early going, school nutrition directors committed to high-quality, freshly prepared meals are determined to maintain their pre-COVID standards even with meals sent offsite.
Oklahoma City Schools found a way to provide hot meals in its curbside meal dropoff program through a combination of a batch-cook-and-package system while Vacaville USD in California actually converted two heat-and-serve kitchens into scratch-cooking hubs that turn out freshly prepared components like marinara sauce and proteins that are sent out to distribution sites where they are assembled into meals and packaged.
Inside schools, the traditional lunch rush of students descending en masse on cafeterias in designated lunch windows obviously has to be modified, at least for the time being. So far, districts have used a combination of more staggered lunch periods involving fewer students at a time, scattered service points such as kiosk carts, breakfast-in-the-classroom protocols extended to lunch service and more broadly distributed seating arrangements—often outside the cafeteria proper, and sometimes even outside the building—to keep students properly distanced while they are getting and eating their meals. Making this easier so far has been hybrid scheduling and limitations on the number of students coming into school buildings, but how effective these strategies may remain once most students are back in schools is yet to be determined.
Of course, schools can simply offer pre-packaged grab-and-go meals that can be dispensed quickly, but that almost totally eliminates any customization and compromises the perception of quality. One possible solution is a modified grab-and-go system in which students can take their choice of different meal components to assemble a complete reimbursable meal, such as the Good To Go system introduced before the pandemic by management company Lintons.
One potential avenue for providing meal customization without having students linger in serving lines is pre- and mobile ordering, a technology that has seen little penetration in the K-12 market outside private and independent schools and smaller public districts without their own meal programs. However, that may slowly change as the technology standardizes and spreads, producing economies of scale along with broad cultural acceptance and familiarity.
Already, a few forays in this direction have been made by public school districts, including one in Colorado where the district uses a third-party platform to take meal orders that it then produces in its kitchens. This is distinct from most other pre-order systems in school environments, where the meals are produced externally by third parties, so there is no loss of business for the district dining program.
Corporate dining deals with a changing workplace
Photo: More, smaller foodservice outlets rather than large central cafeterias may be on tap for corporate dining programs, such as this retail nook operated by Sodexo in Buffalo’s Seneca Tower complex.
Business dining may have to undergo even more of a transition in a post-COVID world than most of the other onsite dining segments as the pandemic seems to have accelerated pre-existing trends toward more offsite work. Even assuming that workplaces reopen once the crisis passes, few expect a return to the same population counts as previously, due both to more comfort with and preferences for working from home—by both employers and employees—and also because of safety concerns that will put limits on crowded public spaces.
The impact on onsite dining inside businesses will probably be considerable as the traditional operating model of having cafeterias and cafes designed to do volume business during defined dayparts—primarily lunchtime—will need to transition to operating more through fragmented service outlets such as mini kitchens, preorder meals, desk delivery and automated retail systems like high-tech vending units and micro markets.
The challenge for corporate dining providers will be to deploy these systems in a cost-effective way while still providing enough quality, convenience and choice to entice customers, suggests Bill Billenstein, director of food excellence for major corporate dining provider Guckenheimer. Encouragingly, he does anticipate a general desire for workers to return to offices at least occasionally for in-person meetings, to access support services and to engage in general socialization with colleagues, which at least provides a possible market for continued onsite dining services. But those services will have to adapt, he says.
“We’re seeing tech solutions [to providing dining] as more of a necessity not just from our side but from guest side as well,” he notes. “[We expect] different hours, different working situations with them flexing in and out of the buildings, so we want to make sure there’s an option available all the time that is safe with hot food hot and cold food cold. I see cafes as being smaller but more of them in the building.”
He also senses a movement toward preordered table service for small groups rather than the traditional lunchtime crush in cafes.
“I see team collaboration and ideation spaces where we can do personalized table service or even desk delivery or zone delivery to them from a central kitchen. We’re already seeing more of that in big office buildings, where if you work on Floor 4, you have to stay on Floor 4 because we don’t want you travelling around the building” posing a potential safety hazard.
These are strategies already being deployed by other corporate dining programs as well. For instance, at American Express in New York, meal service this fall was confined a micro market, but the company is gearing up plans to use its already existing mobile order platform combined with scattered kiosk outlets and even desk delivery to serve employees who come into the facility.
Meanwhile, the traditional café operating model is getting an overhaul. Sodexo recently rolled out a COVID-compliant concept that balances safety and the amenities of traditional cafes by using station concepts emphasizing cuisines that lend themselves to a quick but personal customer interaction while integrating with the company’s Bite+ contactless mobile order and payment platform.
Because self-serve bars—especially salad bars—have been such a staple of corporate cafes, their near elimination in the wake of the pandemic has been especially impactful, but some operators are beginning to rethink the concept in a way that allows some of its traditional appeal to remain while maintaining the necessary safety protocols. Management company American Dining Creations (ADC), for example, retooled its popular self-serve salad bar concept by packaging various components in sealed containers and then giving customers the option of mixing and matching them to produce customized finished salads.
With so many employees working from home, ADC has also been exploring ways to generate revenue while serving this heretofore unreachable, launching an Employee Connect Box program for the holidays that sent gift boxes to remote working employees from their companies. Guckenheimer introduced a similar program last fall that initially sent healthy home-delivered meals to client employees working at home and then ramped up with holiday-themed gift boxes containing premium fare like wine and cheese that staff could enjoy together during online holiday get-togethers. It is an idea the company plans to leverage further over the coming months, Billenstein says.
That serving the remote working market has some potential was highlighted last fall when consumer home meal delivery firm Freshly launched a unit called Freshly for Business that sends meals not only to workplaces but also to employee homes based on client preferences. This service, still in its infancy, might become a way for corporate dining programs to extend the amenity role they traditionally offered inside company facilities to the new remote work culture.
Offsite meal service in a more traditional sense—take-home meal kits—offers another potential revenue stream, as with the program launched last year by Metz Culinary at Penn State Health, which generates some extra dining revenue by selling boxes of prepared meals employees can take home and which serve two, four or six people.
The new year will undoubtedly see more innovations as onsite dining programs across the various markets look to deal with an environment that probably will have fewer customers, more restrictions and a host of unknowns to deal with.