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Virginia-Tech-Chef-James-Zeisler.jpg Darren Van Dyke
“There’s a new challenge every day, but I prefer working in a fast-paced environment, so despite the uncertainty and hardship elsewhere, I’ve been fine,” says Executive Chef James Zeisler of Virginia Tech.

Stories from the front lines: Virginia Tech chef revs up grab-and-go, gets set for this fall’s demands

College dining survival amidst the pandemic might be summed up in three little words: grab and go. Find out what that means at Virginia Tech, where a grab-and-go marketplace is handling the new demands of campus dining.

At Virginia Tech, students will start the school year with a mix of in-person and online classes, with instruction shifting to entirely remote learning after Thanksgiving. Obviously, dining at Va. Tech is changing, too. For the first time, meal plans will be limited to students living on campus, so that means about 9,000 people.

Executive chef James Zeisler of Va. Tech’s Owens Hall and the dining team have been busy in the weeks leading up to reopening with redesigning the service model at Owens Hall. A new floor plan for seating, increased speed of service, plexiglass barriers, a mobile app and an amped-up grab-and-go menu (and an all-new grab-and-go marketplace) are all part of the action.

Zeisler is busy balancing the need for safety with the need for normalcy and comfort as the school year begins. Please read on for more of his story, as told to Tara Fitzpatrick, Aug. 14, 2020.

“As we reopen, we’re focused on everyone’s health and safety, but we also recognize the need to create some familiarity and comfort for our students. We pride ourselves on delivering a great guest experience, so we’re discovering ways to meet that standard of service while creating the necessary physical distancing.

We’ve re-engineered our menus for speed of service, and in some cases, limited the number of options and reduced the available toppings and sauces. In the past, there’s been an emphasis on customization but right now our focus is on fast service while maintaining our high standards for quality.

We’re launching a new concept in Owens Hall that will serve as a grab-and-go marketplace, which will help manage the foot traffic in our other venues. It will be a new, dedicated space, with merchandise refrigerators for our to-go options, hot entrees during peak times, convenience items like snack packs, a bank of microwaves and entrees our students can take and reheat in their residence hall.

Before the pandemic, our department invested in expanding our to-go menu, Grab&Gobble (a reference to our mascot), so we were well positioned to respond to the changing situation on campus and our dining centers.

We’ll still be making some of our most popular entrees—like General Tso’s chicken or our Mediterranean grain bowl—available for grab-and-go and kept hot in a converted station near the front of our serving area.

The station will be restocked every 15 minutes and since we know our students will want those items, they’ll be able to walk in, quickly grab and entrée and pay, rather than waiting in line and placing an order. We’re all ready to get back to work and focus on making our guests as comfortable and safe as possible.”

Contact Tara at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter @Tara_Fitzie

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