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Self-serve food bars are almost certainly going away due to social distancing requirements and cross-contamination fears, while pre-packaged grab and go will probably get a significant boost.

The road ahead for onsite dining: So long salad bar?

Any recovery from the coronavirus crisis will have to deal with a number of longer-term effects of the ordeal, including impact on how operations going forward will be conducted.

Social distancing requirements and cross-contamination fears are likely to produce some long-term changes that will affect most dining programs. For instance, self-serve food bars are almost certainly going away, perhaps permanently, while pre-packaged grab and go will probably get a significant boost, as it is likely to be seen by consumers as a “safer” choice and by dining operations as an efficiently bulk produced alternative to meals assembled to order at a serving station.

Another big winner is likely to be preordering—preferably by personal mobile device rather than a public kiosk touched by multiple users—which is perhaps the most efficient way for onsite dining to continue to deliver customization while avoiding the inefficiencies of to-order stations and the contamination hazards of self-serve. Many consumers received a crash course in online ordering during the coronavirus shutdown and it’s likely a fair number have found that they liked it.

Concurrently, “smart” fridges holding preordered meals awaiting pickup and accessible by individual codes texted to customers may spring up at café fringes to reduce crowding around the stations and limit customer interaction with staff.

Preorder is just one form of automation that may get a boost from coronavirus. While unmanned production platforms ranging from Sally the Robot and similar high-tech vending units remain curiosities, their enclosed, self-contained construction presents pristine antiseptic credentials to infection-wary consumers and they may well proliferate as technology improves, economies of scale kick in to reduce up-front costs and best practices emerge. One issue to be addressed though is how to limit the number of customers touching the unit or how to keep frequently touched surfaces on the units sanitized.

Further out, delivery robots—at present an exotic adjunct to a few campus dining programs—may become more prevalent, making antiseptic meal delivery possible in environments where it is in demand but where delivery personnel are expensive and/or in short supply.

Meanwhile, social distancing requirements will force adjustments to the traditional lunch rush and other heavily trafficked meal periods, such as dinnertime in college residential dining halls. Strategies to deal with this likely will include limiting the number of people in a dining venue at one time, or the number of people in a line at a station, something that will challenge operations that serve time-restricted populations, such as employees with limited lunch hours or students grabbing a meal between class periods.

That may necessitate more and more widely scattered serving outlets such as mobile carts and kiosks stationed around a facility, and for operations that are able to manage it, infrastructure adjustments in cafés to increase the space between serving stations.

While on-premise seating had been eliminated or severely restricted during the coronavirus period, it is likely to make at least a modest comeback, though with tables and chairs separated more widely as dining programs seek to balance safety and guest convenience.

Despite that, though, if delivery, preordering and social distancing proliferate, they may come to undermine onsite dining’s traditional ancillary role as a facilitator of socialization, interaction and collaboration in environments like colleges, businesses and senior living communities.

In addition to these more general trends, the coronavirus crisis will impact different segments of the onsite dining community in individual ways and to varying degrees. Here’s a brief look at key issues facing each segment.

This is part one of an eight-part series on the future of onsite operations following the COVID-19 pandemic.

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