FSD 2009 Potability Study: Portability Still Important
For a variety of reasons, customers still seek portable foods they can take away from the cafeteria, and most operators happily oblige.
In 1981, Psychologist David Elkind coined the term “hurried child” for kids who were being pushed too far and too fast by their parents to succeed in life. It became synonymous for a lifestyle in which kids were never relaxed and never at rest.
It could be said that the hurried child has contributed to the creation of a “takeout society”—the need to get things, like food, to go so we can move quickly on to our next task. Portable foods, ready to be taken from cafeterias and dining halls in all segments of the industry, have become a significant portion of foodservice operations’ business in recent years, and according to the respondents in FoodService Director’s 2009 Portability Study, the trend is continuing relatively unabated. Sixty-five percent of operators—compared with 75% last year—surveyed this year said they offer portable foods, with an average of 23% of their revenue coming from foods taken away from dining facilities. Colleges and schools reported the highest percentage of business, at 28% and 23%, respectively. Healthcare operators—both hospitals and long-term care—reported 21% of their business coming from portable food items, while B&I operators reported 20% of revenue.
What’s more, the majority of operators polled—52%—say they expect their carry-out business to increase in the current fiscal year, by an average of 13%. Hospitals and colleges (64%) lead in this category, followed by nursing homes (41%), schools (38%) and B&I (25%). (Perhaps the age of the hurried child is ending; 18% of school foodservice operators expect their take-away business to drop, and of those 38% who expect an increase, the predicted percentage is only 8%.)
Among those who expect portable foods business to increase, the most commonly given reasons are: customers are demanding it (64%), customers have less time to spend in the dining area (63%), overall customer base
has increased (52%) and less seating capacity in dining area (15%). Conversely, among those who expect business to drop, the two reasons most often cited are a decrease in customers (69%) and lower demand (25%).
“Portability—that’s what students want,” says Ken Toong, executive director of dining services at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Toong’s staff has implemented a number of elements to its dining program that cater to portability, such as street foods from various Asian and South American cultures, and the idea of “small plates” to encourage customers to eat smaller portions.
Most recently, in an effort to “sell” breakfast as the most important meal of the day, UMass Dining introduced a grab-and-go hot breakfast program that has been well received by students.
In some institutions, like Wood County Hospital in Ohio, space limitations drive many customers into making their meals portable—a situation Foodservice Director Tim Bauman hopes to alleviate within a couple of years when a new building with a redesigned kitchen and servery is built.
“The cafeteria was built when we didn’t think we would have more than 250 people on campus,” Bauman explains. “Now, we have more than 1,000 people. Seventy percent of the food produced in the kitchen is not eaten in the cafeteria, whereas in most hospitals that number is around 50%. So I need a big cafeteria to accommodate all the people on campus.”
NYU Medical Center in New York City is another hospital where portability is an important element of the foodservice program.
“Our main cafeteria is very busy; we are doing close to $3 million in revenue a year, but it’s very tight and we have to get a lot of people through in a short period of time,” says Foodservice Director Regina Toomey Bueno. “So we try to really emphasize grab and go.”
Toomey Bueno attributes a 20% increase in retail sales since she arrived two years ago to the push for more portability on the menu.
Probably few operators have increased portability in their institutions more than Tony Geraci, foodservice director for the Baltimore City Public Schools. To build the district’s breakfast participation, Geraci implemented several innovations, including a boxed grab-and-go program and marketing campaign, that has led to a 400% increase in the number of children eating breakfast in school.
The breakfast boxes contain a low-sugar cereal, a juice, a whole-grain snack and a carton of milk. Through a partnership with the Baltimore Orioles baseball and Baltimore Ravens football teams, the boxes are decorated in the teams’ colors and logos, and 5% of the boxes contain a prize code for items like free music downloads and tickets to the sponsoring teams’ games.
How much take-away food non-commercial customers will buy in the coming year may be a matter for debate, but what they buy isn’t. Survey respondents the last few years have consistently reported that the most popular portable food items are beverages, salads, entrées or grill items and deli sandwiches. Combined, they make up 59% of the total portable food purchases, followed by snacks, pre-packaged breakfast foods, other prewrapped foods, desserts, entrées to take home and reheat and breakfast to order.
For many operators, selling grab-and-go or portable foods not only provides a convenience for time-strapped or busy customers, it also saves labor in a way that boosts profitability. Overall, 63% of survey respondents said take-away business offers a strong profit margin, with the highest percentage of college operators (75%) agreeing. The only market sector in which most respondents felt portable foods were not labor-saving was B&I, where 69% said it was not.
Among the other markets, 67% of school, 61% of hospital and 59% of long-term care operators believe portable foods are labor-saving and profitable.
When it comes to business builders, the push toward environmentally friendly packaging may be having an impact on take-away items. Among the 76% of operators who said they are taking specific steps to increase the sale of portable foods, 53% said they are using new types of packaging.
However, when it comes to types of packaging, only 30% said they use biodegradable containers, versus 28% last year. The highest percentage of users are in colleges, where 53% of operators said they use these types of containers. But the fastest growth is in nursing homes, where 35% of operators said they use biodegradbale containers, versus 10% last year.
One such operator is the Indiana Government Center, a complex of state government offices in Indianapolis. Bill Schaefer, regional director for Treat America Food Services, the IGC’s contractor, says a shift to biodegradable packaging was made easier with the sharp increase in the price of oil, which made the new containers, which are corn-based, comparable in cost to containers made with petroleum-based products.
Schaefer says the containers can only be used to hold cold items like salads and deli sandwiches.
In addition to using new types of packaging to try to increase grab-and-go business, other time-tested marketing tools are merchandising displays (45%), dedicated stations for grab-and-go (44%) and promotions (22%).
At Texas Christian University, food management giant Sodexo responded to students’ requests for dedicated grab-and-go options with a concept called Simply To Go. The new station, part of the campus’s Sub Connection on the east side of campus, sells packaged sandwiches, salads, wraps, fruit cups and baked goods for takeout. According to Legia Abato, district marketing manager for Sodexo at this campus, the concept satisfies a need for students to get a quick meal, using their meal plans, when they are far from the university’s Market Square dining commons.
At Washington State University, Dining Services is building portable business through the Internet. Students here can order pizza from the campus’s Stonewall Pizza Express through wsu.webfood.com. Then they can either have the pizza delivered to their location or come pick it up. A similar concept is Webfood Fresh Express, whereby students can order sandwiches, salads or desserts online and pick them up at a special takeout area of the university’s espresso bar.
Dining Services Director Gary Coyle says the idea is slowly picking up steam, with the department promoting it online and through the campus newspaper.
Perhaps the most unusual option for portable food, at least on a college campus, are the food trucks found on the campus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. According to Director of Dining Services Scott Berlin, there are four independent operators who have contracted with his department. Most recently, a food truck called the Clover Food Lab made its campus debut. This truck brings the idea of local and sustainable to portability; the menu is vegetarian and uses locally grown ingredients.
The future of portability may lie in a rare concept that could be the ultimate in convenience: an automated c-store. At South Bend Memorial Hospital in Indiana, the foodservice department has installed a self-service kiosk in its Common Grounds Café, a 300-square-foot convenience store. The checkout kiosk reads items for purchase using Radio Frequency Identification tags. Foodservice Director Joe Vasta says the goal of the kiosk is not to build revenue but to save labor—about $100,000, he estimates. However, he says sales will increase because the c-store is open 24 hours, so late shift employees will have access to food in a way they never had before.
For more information on South Bend’s c-store, see FSD’s April 15, 2009 issue.