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Onsite learns how to go offsite

With schools needing to reach remote learners with meals, corporate dining looking to extend the amenity to at-home workers and other markets looking at serving off-premise customers, the onsite dining world looks to grow beyond its traditional footprint.

We recently looked at how onsite dining has had to adapt its on-premise operations to the changes forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, from scattered points of service and extended hours to reaching more customers and de-emphasizing large congregate dining spaces like college dining halls and corporate cafeterias. This is the “onsite” part of the COVID-changed dining world, but there is also an emerging “offsite” component that has school meal programs delivering to remote learning students and corporate dining programs reaching out to employees working from home.

While they haven’t been as impacted immediately by the “offsiting” of customers, healthcare foodservice may have some external market potential as well in the growing field of supplying healthy food to recently discharged and food-insecure patients, while colleges might start considering if they want to extend meal service in some way to students taking online classes who live near the campus, perhaps as some kind of extension of the traditional commuter meal plan. Meanwhile, some stadium and arena concessionaires have tried to stay afloat while fans were mostly barred from the venues with at-home meal packs of concession favorite items.

Here’s a look at the growth and future possibilities of the offsiting of onsite foodservice…


Schools lead the way to offsite

At the present time, the most developed onsite market for off-premise meal service undoubtedly is K-12 schools, which have an implied if not statutory obligation to include students taking online classes in meal service. And it was the K-12 nutrition services community that pivoted most quickly last spring to feeding offsite customers, initially through daily curbside pickup of individual packaged meals but quickly evolving to more sophisticated models ranging from reverse bus route meal drop-offs and multi-day meal packs to even delivery to individual homes when it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going to be a short-term issue.

By the time the fall 2020 term rolled around, most K-12 meal program had gotten quite adept at serving their young offsite customers, in many cases even managing to juggle shifting schedules that had kids in so-called hybrid learning systems bouncing between going to school buildings to take in-person classes some days and taking remote classes on others, forcing the meal program to serve them with two different models.

In shifting operations to serving students off-premise, the school nutrition community had the advantage of some institutional experience thanks to its longstanding summer feeding programs, which in many instances already took meal service outside of schools and into community centers, libraries and even some student residences. That meant the off-premise approach didn’t have to be completely re-invented for the COVID-19 pandemic response.

Of course, it’s one thing to do a summer feeding program with a skeleton staff, pared down menus and generally fewer customers in a relaxed, informal summertime setting, and another to feed more or less the entire school population in a way that at least replicates the kind of expansive meal service offered during a normal school year, all while dealing with the stresses, challenges and restrictions of a major pandemic that had eroded staffing, cut revenues, hampered procurement, traumatized customers and forced everything to be pre-packaged.

The response has been fairly ingenious and certainly impressive, with providers creating sophisticated multi-pack meal combos that provided both variety and quality while serving the necessary meal components. School systems had already developed fairly sophisticated grab and go meal programs to speed up meal service in their traditional cafeterias before COVID-19, so the idea of packaging meals to takeaway was hardly novel in K-12 environments. What was fairly novel was both the range of choices—far more than the packaged wraps, sandwiches, salads and parfaits stocking the typical pre-pandemic grab and go cooler—and the ways in which customer choice was offered, especially through the expansion of remote ordering.

Remote order of customized meals had previously been the province largely of smaller and independent schools in the K-12 market, offered primarily by some high-end outside services that let parents or students pre-order food that would then be delivered to the school in time for lunch. In the recent school year, however, some sizeable public systems have employed pre-order platforms to allow families to get meals for their kids—and sometimes for the entire family—from school meal programs.

The pre-order system not only allows more customization—and therefore more customer satisfaction—but limits waste and maximizes production efficiency because—other than a few extras to account for misplaced and last-minute requests—only ordered meals are produced. While pre-order is not likely to replace the mass service of meals required in a traditional school meal program when most students are back onsite, it can evolve into a customer-pleasing option in systems where it was already adopted to deal with serving remote learning students over the past year, in the process also speeding up serving lines by eliminating time-consuming customization at the service point.

While the prospects of a mass return to in-person learning in the nation’s K-12 schools—and therefore onsite meal service—are encouraging at present, there will undoubtedly remain a portion of students who will prefer to stay with remote learning, so the experience K-12 nutrition programs have gathered over the past year will still have relevance to feed them, if only in a limited way. Of course, if there is a resurgence of the pandemic, the processes developed should allow a much smoother transition to emergency service.


B&I heads for the exits

The challenge for corporate dining programs in the pandemic—and more alarmingly, the post-pandemic—environment has been that their very rationale for existing has come into question. After all, if most—or even a large proportion of—employees work from home, why allocate space to an onsite dining service?

This is where the traditional side mission of onsite corporate foodservice—as facilitator of company culture, collaboration and employee relations—plays a huge role.

While some businesses traditionally maintained—and even subsidized—onsite dining because they had to, many others did it as part of their employee satisfaction, retention and recruitment programs. This was especially the case in high-end industries where the competition for talent is intense, such as the high-tech firms like Google, Apple and Facebook in Northern California’s Bay Area.

So it is somewhat disconcerting to the B&I market that many of these firms don’t seem particularly anxious to get employees back to their sites any time soon, sites that by the way in many cases reflect substantial investments in real estate and facilities.

Part of the reason undoubtedly is a concession to the realities of the post-pandemic labor market, especially relevant in these high-end industries, which have seen employees get accustomed to—and comfortable with—remote work, or in some cases have moved away from near the workplaces they used to come to every day. Given that the competition for talent has not lessened in these markets, firms face significant pressure to accede to preferences for remote work options, though practices in different markets may vary depending on the type of work and security concerns.

So where does that leave the workplace dining amenity?

Well, for clients that still want such an in-house service, it may mean a modified program that is less congregate and more targeted, but an even more innovative option is emerging in the form of remote meal service to employees working at home. Several major contract firms operating corporate dining programs have made moves both overseas—such as Elior and Sodexo in France, and Compass in Ireland to position themselves for this new era. In this country, recent moves include Sodexo’s acquisition of Nourish and partnerships with Uber Eats and HelloFresh, and Compass Group’s acquisition of a majority stake in food technology firm SmartQ and, most recently, its deal for EAT Club. What each of these entities has in common is a pre-order/delivery platform that can be used to serve office populations but also holds the potential—or is already active in—delivering meals to homes, an extension that has also caught the attention of some non-traditional operators either already operating a similar service in the consumer market or developing specific platforms to serve business clients.

That extension of the office meal amenity has already seen some forays by several contract firms like American Dining Creations and ISS Guckenheimer to offer client employees gift boxes of premium foodstuffs as well as meal kits that could be consumed during a virtual social gathering to help build community in the pandemic environment. Guckenheimer recently announced a substantial expansion of the initiative, a significant move by a major corporate dining vendor into this growing area.

Meanwhile, a number of B&I programs have been experimenting with a hybrid approach to serving offsite meals as a kind of extension of the venerable Home Meal Replacement (HMR) approach, which traditionally was a form of takeout meal service that would give employees leaving for the day the opportunity to grab a packaged dinner at the workplace to take home, eliminating the need to either stop somewhere else to get food or cooking it oneself. Operational challenges and general lack of sufficient interest among potential customers largely relegated HMR to fringe status in the B&I dining universe for the past few decades, but COVID-19 may have given it new life in a modified form, with companies like T. Rowe Price, Hallmark and Penn State Health developing programs specifically to provide take-home meals for employees. The programs serve the dual purpose of extending the company’s meal amenity beyond the workplace and of giving the dining program—already under severe financial pressure—a potential additional market.

So far, none of these programs has generated great amounts of traffic or revenue, but they do serve as a test run of a service that could potentially evolve into something more substantial if large numbers of employees split their weeks between working from home and going to the office.


External markets outside K-12 and B&I

Other than extending service to the farther reaches of their campuses—emergency rooms, outpatient clinics, physicians’ offices—hospital complexes and medical centers currently have a limited market for providing offsite meal service. The main potential lies in meal service to food-insecure and nutritionally vulnerable discharged and out-patients, a service already being explored by healthcare systems and their traditional meal providers as well as some external vendors. Encouragingly, there is movement toward more public reimbursement of such meal services for an expanded population of recipients.

Meanwhile, college dining programs currently have little maneuverability to send meals to off-campus students except in the traditional way of takeout meals from on-campus retail outlets, something encouraged with commuter meal plans. The possible permanence of extensive remote class options might put some pressure on programs to find ways to generate more revenue from these students, but unless they live close to the campus, it’s hard to see how that can be effected in any viable way, though alliances with commercial meal delivery firms such as Sodexo’s recent deal with HelloFresh might offer a possible avenue.

One last interesting onsite dining foray into serving off-premise customers is the pandemic-induced programs launched by a number of sports concessionaires to provide at-home meal kits of stadium/arena favorites to fans watching games from home. This was debuted last fall for the Dallas Cowboys season by Legends Hospitality, the food & beverage provider at the team’s AT&T Stadium home as a temporary measure, and has since been adopted by a number of other teams and concessions providers looking to generate some sales in the face of mostly empty venues. However, now that fans are starting to be allowed back in the seats, with a growing number of ballparks and stadiums offering full occupancy, such extensions may become superfluous except as marginal sources of add-on sales, though there will have to be a viable pickup or delivery component that may complicate the process.

Ultimately, while onsite dining promises to remain primarily just that in the post-pandemic world, there’s little doubt that it will also incorporate a certain amount of off-premise service as a legacy of the past year.

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