2005 Portability Study: Meals on the move

FoodService Director's first annual portability study.

Some of the nuances of non-commercial foodservice pose special challenges to successful portable meal implementation. For example: at UNC, like many other campuses, officials wrangle with how to fit grab-and-go meals into meal plans. “We are very cost-conservative on how much we can put into [portable business],” Brown says. “Meal plans were designed to feed students in the dining room, so we have to be sensitive to our missed-meal factor as well as to customer needs.”

To do both, operators often set up dedicated portable meal stations, if not full-fledged facilities offering carryout meals and nothing else. At UNC, for example, there are two Gourmet to Go units on campus. Both offer a brown bag meal for three main dayparts that students assemble almost like a reimbursable meal in a grade school. For $4 at breakfast and $5.50 at lunch or dinner, customers make a center-plate selection (cereal and muffin at breakfast, say, or sandwich at lunch), then add a fruit and a beverage. Desserts are included at lunch and dinner.

Yogurt and bagels are the most popular breakfast items, Brown notes. A “simple” turkey sandwich on a baguette tops the lunch/dinner offering, while tuna kits and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches are close behind. They’re the do-it-yourself variety, which students assemble using squeezable packets. Other items include carrot and celery sticks with ranch dressing, soup cups, hot and cold cereal in carryable containers and fresh fruit.

“We try to control the protein items, and the key to [controlling fruit costs] is if [items] are ripe and in season,” he adds. “We are studying and looking at different hot [meal] options— that’s one of the things students keep requesting, especially during the winter. We’re offering hot chocolate and coffee, but haven’t made the jump to hot food yet.”

Many foodservice directors in higher education can say that their portable meal business is rooted in efforts to adapt to students’ changing lifestyles. In this and other market segments, facility modifications drive the shift as well. For example, the cafeteria at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, N.J., will soon go under renovation, according to Regina Toomey-Bueno, director of food, nutrition and transport. During that time, there will still be customers to serve—so a temporary servery offering pre-packaged items will be set up in the seating area.

This servery “will be much smaller than our regular servery and we’ll need to move customers through quickly,” she says. “So we expect a sharp increase in portable foods.” The current facility has a deli bar offering seven or eight varieties a day, and that will rise to a dozen once construction begins.

“Plus we’ll be promoting soup more as a to-go item, and offer a soup-and-sandwich combo,” she adds. “Since we’ll be offering less hot food, we’ll make the effort to make cold items more attractive than they are today.”

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