The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences have forced a lot of changes on onsite dining programs, from offering off-site meal service and take-home meals to accelerated use of mobile ordering and automated service platforms like micro-markets. But that may just be the beginning of the long-term changes.
Most onsite dining professionals are aware of the potential changes in how they operate suggested by such broad cultural shifts accelerated by COVID-19 such as work-from-home and online classes. These certainly will prompt corporate dining and college dining programs to make changes, but there are some other trends bubbling under the surface that may not be so apparent at present, but which will have ramifications on how foodservice spaces are designed, deployed and operated in the different onsite markets.
In the following analysis, we will concentrate on anticipated changes in the way dining is offered onsite in different markets. A second article next month will explore serving offsite populations.
Stressing the collaboration mission focus in B&I
Perhaps no major onsite dining segment will see a bigger change from the experience of the past year than corporate dining, where the traditional employee cafeteria’s future is very much uncertain due to a combination of factors ranging from expected lower onsite population counts and continued social distancing jitters to the expense of the space and staffing required and the multiplying array of emerging alternatives.
To combat this, corporate dining programs are stressing the collaboration and socialization function they have traditionally filled alongside their core role of feeding people. Especially in an era when many employees are expected to be onsite only intermittently, this socialization role magnifies, goes the argument. When people come to the office, they are looking to connect in person with colleagues, and nothing facilitates that better than getting together over a shared meal—or at least a shared coffee break…
That in turn will require more flexibility in both hours and areas of service from dining providers as they can no longer count on lunchtime in a crowded cafeteria being the great middle-of-the-day break for socializing, not when employees are expected to wander in and out of the office at odd hours and often not for a full eight-hour day.
In such an environment, the traditional large-space cafeteria with its expansive seating and multiple food stations may become an archaic luxury, especially in facilities that will be under pressure to downsize space in the face of reduced onsite population counts. If only half of its staff—at best—is showing up on any given day while the rest work from home, can an employer afford to keep all the real estate those empty desks and offices take up—and more to the point for the dining operation, can it afford to maintain a cafeteria that even at its busiest will only serve a fraction of the population it was designed for?
Under those circumstances, and assuming that some sort of onsite dining option is still desired, a more practical approach would either be a disseminated foodservice that offers some combination of mini-break/social spaces with perhaps some kind of (mostly or totally automated) food/beverage component, or a downsized central café that also offers to-go or delivers to locations around the facility to serve small get-togethers and meetings.
In effect, the foodservice of the future in such venues becomes an onsite catering operation, and providers may want to tap into their existing catering expertise on how best to field such a program.
Dining operations in such facilities might also be well advised to boost their special event offerings, scheduling happy hours, after-work parties and themed/holiday menus to facilitate interaction and company-culture-building, given that this will be a role they will have to emphasize to help justify their value to the organization.
Menu quality and variety will remain critical in this environment as the customer base will hardly be a captive one. Employees coming in for only a part of a day can easily pick something up on the way in or arrange for delivery from external providers, so onsite café operations have to provide at least competitive variety and quality while emphasizing their convenience, freshness and—perhaps—price advantage. That means getting what you want (variety) the way you want it (customization) when you want it (quick turnaround with easy pickup or even delivery).
Expanding the retail reach of hospital foodservice
Even as visitors begin to be allowed back into healthcare facilities—and their retail dining operations—foodservice departments in hospitals and traditional medical centers face another challenge—telemedicine. Work-at-home and online classes have certainly impacted the B&I and education markets, but less has been said about the expansion of remotely offered healthcare services ranging from online consultations and diagnoses to even some outpatient procedures, interactions that traditionally called for patients to visit healthcare facilities, and thus become potential customers for the retail dining program there.
Call it the return of the traditional “house call,” except with a high-tech twist...
The COVID-19 pandemic period also saw far fewer patient visits to healthcare facilities for discretionary and non-critical procedures, which in turn hurt the finances of many hospitals, especially those in rural areas, some of which were actually forced to close. Perhaps more significantly, though, the pandemic both conditioned patients to use telehealth services and incented healthcare providers to expand and upgrade their remote offerings, which they generally see as more cost-efficient than traditional hospital visits.
That’s great for them but not for their onsite retail dining programs…
So where will new retail dining revenues be generated? There are several possibilities in areas that previously were left either unexploited or just marginally served. One possibility is second- and third-shift staff, who traditionally had been served primarily by old school vending machines but may now represent a potential added market for more sophisticated foodservice, perhaps prepared reheatable meals made by kitchen staff during the day that they can preorder and pick up when they get in or are ready to eat. Another possibility is expanded use of unmanned micro-markets and AI-powered automated retail stores with fresh grab and go and reheatable meal options.
The other underserved market is remote medical campus locations such as physicians’ offices, emergency rooms and family waiting rooms that also previously received little direct meal service under the assumption that if staff and visitors at these sites wanted something to eat, they could come over to the main cafeteria or one of the fixed satellite locations. Automated or even marginally staffed mini-outlets ranging from high tech “smart fridges” and automated meal prep units like Sally the Robot to mobile kiosks are possible ways to expand service to these areas, as is some sort of remote order/delivery service from the main café. For established populations like medical office staff, a café might set up order/delivery windows that would allow multiple meals to be consolidated and delivered together at set times.
Photo credit: Ohio State Wexner Medical Center
Photo: Ordering stations like this at remote locations such as family waiting areas and emergency rooms might be a way to drive more meal transactions from previously underserved areas of large medical center campuses.
Kiosks, meals-in-the-classroom expand in K-12
As most students in all likelihood head back to school buildings this fall, K-12 meal programs will have to adjust their operations to deal with an environment that, at least in the short-term, is not likely to accommodate traditional school meal service such as crowded lunch periods or a lot of self-serve.
Many K-12 meal programs got a taste of what this will be like this spring when a portion of their enrollments came back to in-person classes, even if only for part of the day. In most cases, this was a limited population as districts generally offered parents the option of either hybrid or 100% remote classes in addition to 100% in-person instruction, so most meal programs almost never had to deal with a full customer load.
That meant they could experiment with alternate forms of onsite meal service such as expanded breakfast (and sometimes lunch)-in-the-classroom, more grab and go options, scattered kiosks and meal vending units, staggered lunch periods and outdoor and expanded seating while dealing only with a limited population. That experience should come in handy if/when more students come back this fall.
While issues like scheduling lunch periods and setting rules on where students can eat may be up to principals and administrators, menus are directly in control of nutrition services departments, and these may face some added pressure going forward to be more appealing than ever as the customers have gotten a year-long taste of what a school day lunch outside school is like. Yes, many students received remote learning meals that conformed to National School Lunch Program standards, but not nearly as many as when schools were in full-time in-person mode before the pandemic. How will students used to getting a takeout pizza or chicken nuggets from the local QSR in between online classes react to lunches that conform to federal school meal regs once they’re back in school?
This may especially be an issue in districts with low poverty and high cash sale ratios, which probably already had some challenges generating participation before COVID-19 hit. Permanent implementation of universal free school meals may mitigate some of this but kids are notoriously less price-sensitive than adults, so the prospect of getting something they don’t particularly like just because it’s free rather than a tastier alternative they (or more likely their parents) pay for may not have the same resonance.
Potentially complicating things further is the possibility of tightened USDA standards in areas like whole grains, milk and sodium, given the new administration that has its roots in the Obama era and the original Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act, after some regulatory loosening in the past four years.
Pre-ordering has also expanded in the K-12 market over the pandemic period, with a number of programs offering that option for home meals. It’s not a stretch to see that service extended to in-school meals, especially if meals are going to largely remain packaged rather than set out in a traditional service line. In fact, the pre-order option could help make school meals more attractive because it allows convenient customization while also facilitating quick service, something that will undoubtedly be a priority at least in the early going to mitigate school lunchroom crowding.
Can AYCTE return to colleges?
The social distancing policies forced by COVID-19 had a devastating effect on one of the key roles of campus dining programs—community building. Students who used to gather en masse in residential dining halls or hang out and interact in retail coffee shops, diners and food courts have spent the past year holed up in dorm rooms, apartments or their homes, most often getting takeout meals if they patronized campus dining outlets.
While many schools did open some dining venues to onsite dining, seating was limited, and social distancing made the usual crowding, interaction and general communal vibe a shadow of what had gone on before.
With campuses generally expected to reopen fully this fall, a return to “normal” might be on tap, except that both the lingering concerns about virus transmission even among the fully vaccinated, plus habits developed over the previous year and a half—like depending on remote ordering and takeout—will probably continue to influence dining habits in campuses.
The biggest impact is likely to be on the traditional residential all-you-care-to-eat (AYCTE) dining hall, which had to evolve over the pandemic period in terms of what and how it offers its food and also how customers experience it. In effect, given no or limited in-venue dining and expanded takeout options—sometimes with a remote order component—AYCTE dining venues became pseudo-retail venues, though generally without the a la carte pricing.
Going forward, a big question will be how much preferences for routine takeout/remote order service introduced over the pandemic period will linger with customers and how that will affect the community building role of traditional dining halls on campuses. In addition, administrative and local government policies affecting areas such as self-service and seating density may continue to affect operations at these facilities, along with growing concerns about sustainability issues like food waste, which AYCTE tends to encourage even with mitigating policies like trayless dining and smaller serving plates.
In such an environment, is the future of campus dining going to be retail-intensive? In fact, retail intensive in a way that fragments and cocoons the customers with remote order, takeout, automated points of service and campus-wide delivery services?
Remote order was already growing on campuses in the retail dining area before the pandemic and expanded dramatically in its wake and automation is following, from pizza ATMs and automated salad makers to robotic delivery vehicles. Those trends almost certainly are not reversing for the convenience- and technology-oriented demographic of college students and thus will probably put more emphasis on the retail dining component of campus foodservices, along with an a la carte approach to meal pricing.