Aladdin is a unit of Elior North America, one of the largest providers of contract foodservices in the United States, placing sixth on the 2020 FM Top 50 with 2019 revenues of $1.37 billion. The Aladdin unit manages dining services in a variety of markets, including public and private schools, businesses and colleges, the latter consisting primarily of smaller private colleges that have tended to be more receptive to opening for in-person instruction than larger public institutions, according to a recent analysis. Paul Kowalczyk, Aladdin’s managing director, estimates that about three-fourths of the company’s higher-education accounts are open at least in part for in-person instruction with most of the rest choosing to stay online-only at least until January.
Like other providers and operators of campus dining services, Aladdin faced the challenge of developing and deploying a campus dining solution that balances the safety of staff and customers, conformity with government and institutional regulations and the needs of students for convenient and appealing dining choices. Of course, they had to do it not just for one campus but several hundred, each with its individual needs and quirks.
Photo credit: Elior North America
Photo: Paul Kowalczyk is managing director for the Aladdin unit of Elior North America.
Kowalczyk spoke to Food Management about the challenges the new college school year brings and how the company faced them. Here are some highlights from that conversation.
“We have 200 clients and in essence 200 different needs. As an organization, we’ve been very nimble. Before classes even started, we had meetings with each client and the goal was to create a unique solution for each individual person. We have base blueprints and we were able to give them kind of a smorgasbord menu of all the solutions we have, all the things that we can do, and we work with each client to do what makes sense for them. So from a company perspective, we developed what we call our COVID Playbook [that] gives solutions for meal delivery, preordering, cashless services and all the other unique things that needed to happen so we could safely serve everybody.
We also came up with what we designated as Safe Café, which is our company’s internal brand that shows that we are taking strict health and safety [measures] and that we have strict standards—that stations are sanitized, that social distancing is being followed, that PPE equipment is being used, with the goal [being] to make the customer feel safe in their environment. [After all,] we are serving younger people who are away from home in what is a pretty concerning environment right now and we wanted to make them feel as comfortable as possible. So by having these strict standards and implementing these different things, it helps put them at ease.
You’ve seen the salad bars on college campuses—they’re big and they’re extravagant—[and] that’s the biggest thing that people have been missing: the ability to migrate to the salad bar, create their salad and add whatever toppings they want on it. We’ve come up with a variety of solutions for that. We have individual salads made to order, we do specialty salads on a daily basis, we have pre-packaged salads in some of our units that they can come and pick up—so just kind of catering to the student and making sure it’s something that they want.
We just really had to adapt from a meal delivery perspective. People have the ability to order ahead online in the cafeteria if they’re not comfortable coming in, and we have waiting areas where they can come and pick those meals up. So preordering’s been huge. Also cashless—we make sure all of our facilities have the ability to be cashless so we’re not transferring any germs on those cash payments.
We’re trying to do unique things within different institutions. As I said, everybody’s a little different and everybody wanted to go about it a little differently, but the blueprint remains the same with all the tools and resources we have as a company. For example, we created a blue vest team, which is our cleaning team. They’re in the dining rooms wearing the bright blue vests [that are] easily identified [to show] students the measures we are taking to keep them safe and to keep them healthy.
We worked with one institution, Augsburg University, where together with the RAs we created a fun, lighthearted video that basically showed all the do’s and don’ts of college feeding at that particular institution. We had some funny anecdotes while showing them everything from how swipe your card to the plastic plexiglass barriers we put up. It was really effective and really helped a lot.
You may have noticed that quarantine meals in our industry have been in the spotlight, so we’re putting an extra emphasis on those meals. In a few of our institutions, the teams have taken it upon themselves to put notes of encouragement on the meals—'Hope to see you soon!’ or ‘Hope you’re feeling well!’ Just some neat little things to make them feel good. In one institution, we put a random $15 gift certificate into one of the [quarantine] meals just so that they can be a little surprised. It makes them feel good as they’re looking forward to the meal and they get a nice little gift in return that they can use at one of our facilities.
One thing you see with students on a college campus is that they want to use the dining room to interact and we can do that safely by reducing how many people are at a table and how far apart they are. We work with the schools and at some we’ve put up plexiglass on the tables so they can sit across from each other and still interact. So we are seeing a good amount of students who are eating in the facility, but there’s also a certain percentage that just doesn’t feel real comfortable and we want to make sure we’re meeting their needs with the different programs we have available—either delivery or pickup. Certainly, pickup is available in every one of our campuses in the dining hall, which traditionally were all eat-in facilities. So as an industry, we’re adapting to the changes to make it comfortable for all the students.
[Other than to quarantined students] we’re not doing much delivery on the residential campuses from the dining halls. Certainly, from retail we continue to have delivery services, and that’s very popular, but within the dining hall itself, one of our obligations is to balance cost for both the client and the students and just the extra labor that we’re incurring now has had an effect on everybody. We’re trying to partner and work together to do what makes the most sense in a financially prudent way.
We’ve worked with some schools to have outdoor seating areas that incorporate tents. We’ve also had a couple that are using gymnasiums to help with seating and social distancing. We’ve had some schools that we’re serving in more than one location, so students don’t just have to come to the dining hall. They can come to the gym or a conference room where we’re setting up so they can keep that social distancing and keep the crowds down. At some schools, we keep a count of how many people have entered our facilities so that as people come and go we can let people in accordingly to fit in with the specifications that the school has set and we set to make sure everybody’s safe.”