2005 Portability Study: Meals on the move

FoodService Director's first annual portability study.

Students at the University of North Colorado, in Greeley, started clamoring for lunches-to-go in the early 1990s, just as the trend for portable meals started to heat up. The university had recently made changes to class schedules, shortening the time between classes and thus forcing many students to skip lunch altogether. They weren’t happy about it, to say the least, so foodservice officials seized the opportunity to meet student demands while injecting some life back into their midday meal business.

The portable meal concept grew quickly in Greeley, prompting those officials to offer it at dinner and then, a year later, breakfast. In short order, students were as likely to be carrying meals of some sort between classes as they were backpacks, portable music systems featuring cassettes or CDs (remember those?) and, for a privileged few, laptop computers.

Fast-forward to today, and grab-and-go meal volume amounts to almost a third of overall board plan business, according to Hal Brown, director of dining services. “It’s a program that has evolved over the years,” he says. “We had so many students requesting it, and, working through our food advisory board, we adapted to the needs of the customer.”

Brown and the UNC campus are not alone in that endeavor. Nearly 70% of non-commercial operators participating in FoodService Director’s first annual Portability Business-Builder Study offer menu items that are intended to be consumed away from the dining hall. This includes the ever-growing grab-and-go category, consisting of foods that are specifically formulated for portability and, typically, utensil-free consumption (see charts accompanying this study); as well as meals that are portioned and packaged at the time and point of service (otherwise known as “take-out”).

Most operators discussing their portable meal business say their portable meal volume is on-par with what study results show: portable meal items account for 25% of total foodservice sales, ranging from 14% in schools to 35% in higher education. Portable sales at operations in the western United States are higher (35%) than all other areas: South, 26.4%; Central, 24%; and Northeast, 19.2%.

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