Redefining Self-Prep

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Concerns about food safety, waste inspire directors to look for new ways to cater to customers.

Pick-and-assemble foodserviceThe tradition of make-your-own bars has satisfied customers for several years. But concerns about waste and food safety, among other challenges, are causing many operators to redefine self-prep with “pick and assemble” concepts, where customers have the ability to choose which ingredients they want, while foodservice staff assemble the dish for them.

Food safety, portion control and costs are some of the reasons that the “pick and assemble” style is becoming more attractive to operators. While food safety on a traditional self-prep bar can be assured through regular temperature checks and by using food guards, many operators agree that keeping the food under the kitchen’s control makes everything safer and more cost-effective.

Pick-up sticks: Schools and universities have taken the lead in the “pick and assemble” trend. Virginia Tech University, in Blacksburg, Va., has used an all-you-can-eat model for years, which incorporated self-prep bars such as “make-your-own” salads, sandwiches and waffles for the nearly 30,000 meals they serve daily. But Director of Dining Richard Johnson says Virginia Tech is moving toward a more à la carte dining model.

“In recent years we’ve gone to a flex plan, which gears us toward à la carte dining. That said, make-your-owns are fun and we still offer some, but there is this question of food safety,” Johnson says. “So now we have a Dean and Deluca station, which could easily be a self-prep salad bar but it’s not. Customers can see all the ingredients but [employees] make the salad.”

Similarly, at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs, Dining Services Director Dennis Pierce is heading toward a “pick and assemble” model to augment traditional self-prep salad bars, panini grills and waffle bars. This is especially evident at Gelfenbien Commons where at a new station called Fusion, chefs can prepare up to eight customized dishes at a time.

“[The business has become] all about ‘me’ and my preferences. I want everything customized to ‘me,’” Pierce says. “[Our new] Fusion station has just that. It can be an omelet bar, stir-fry or even offer hot specialty salads.”

Pierce says the new station has given dining services the ability to put on a monthly “chef’s table,” where students can sign up to go behind Fusion’s counter with a chef (either from dining services or from the local community) and help create a one-of-a-kind meal.

“Pick and assemble” options are relatively rare in school foodservice, but they are slowly making an impact, as schools offer healthier choices to finicky students. Students at schools in the Kent, Wash., School District have a “pick and assemble” option for deli sandwiches. Students write their choices of meat, cheese, bread and toppings on an order sheet; the orders are prepared at a deli counter. The sandwiches are served with milk, vegetables and fruit at a cost of $2.10. Director of Food and Nutrition Services Dan Johnson says, “We consistently sell 2,000 sandwiches daily across 11 campuses.”

Still making it: However, traditional make-your-own bars are still serving some operations just fine, especially in B&I and healthcare. At the SAS Institute, the software company’s headquarters in Cary, N.C., foodservices has been using self-prep food bars to feed its 2,800 employees for several years. Foodservice Manager Julie Stewart says the salad bars and the food bar, which rotates between Mexican, Chinese and pasta options, are inexpensive and easy to operate.

“Sales from the salad bars have always been strong and the food bar concept increased sales in that facility,” says Stewart. “Our customers enjoy the quickness and flexibility.”

Traditional self-prep bars are also still popular at healthcare facilities like Lakeview Medical Center in Rice Lake, Wis. Because of the facility’s small size—they serve only about 320 meals daily—Director of Food and Nutrition Services Leslie Anderson says her make-your-own salad, soup and sandwich bars maximize the choices the operation can offer within a small space.

UCLA Medical Center’s Director of Nutrition Patti Oliver says they still offer a self-prep salad bar for the 6,000 meals they serve daily, but they’re adding more “pick and assemble” options like a sandwich and pasta bar.

“The biggest advantage of the ‘pick and assemble’ system is food safety. It’s also a way to ensure the finished plate looks attractive and it helps control portions and cost,” Oliver says. “The self-serve salad bar is very popular, but I think eventually safety concerns may force us to change [salads] to a ‘pick and assemble’ style too.”

Traditional food bars may soon be relics of the past. The University of Oklahoma, in Norman, is making the permanent switch to “pick and assemble” styles. Senior Director of Food and Beverage Operations Thomas Stevenson says that, considering food cost and food safety concerns, “pick and assemble” is the future.

“It reads more like hospitality and less like food service, which corporate America has done a good job of equating to value,” Stevenson says. “And if you’re not growing, you are going.”

Controlling Choices

One school district tests the waters with a new ‘pick and assemble’ option.

Despite the benefits of offering “pick and assemble” options, the concept has been slow to catch on in K-12 schools. Cost and speed of service are just two of the problems schools have to overcome in order to offer this service. But the Dallas Independent School District, which serves 160,000 students at over 200 campuses, recently piloted a “pick and assemble” option called Crisp Creations at some of its high schools. With this option, students can pick from two to four protein options (including vegetarian), various vegetables and fruit toppings along with condiments, all of which are served on a bed of mixed greens. Each salad is currently served as an à la carte dish for $3. Executive Director of Food and Nutrition Services Dora Rivas says the pilot program has been so successful that her department is considering changes to bring the cost down for the 83% of her students who qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

Commodity price: “We know it’s achievable at $3; but we are looking into the feasibility of using commodities for condiments and other ingredients, so we would be able to price it at a reimbursable level,” Rivas says.

Pick-and-assemble foodserviceChristina Smith, the school district’s dietitian, says the schools struggled with traditional self-prep because of portion control and food safety. Making the switch to “pick and assemble” allowed them to alleviate these concerns.

“I think ‘pick and assemble’ is the newest trend because it’s the best of both worlds for the customer and the foodservice establishment,” Smith says. “Customers get to pick what they want and the foodservice establishment controls food safety and portion sizes. The cost [of making the switch] was so nominal, just adding the extra variety of vegetables, fruits, and condiments, and the customer satisfaction was so great, it was definitely worth it.”

Crisp Creations suffered from a few growing pains. At first, Smith says, the kids were uncertain how many toppings they could add and who assembled the meal. These problems were solved with displays explaining the process. Rivas says that once the initial problems were solved, the program increased sales and customer satisfaction.

“Salads used to be just a side item so we would prepare about 10 to 15 a day. [With the start of this program] we actually had to prepare about 200 for the Crisp Creations line,” Rivas says. Crisp Creations has been such a success that Rivas says they are looking into adding a “pick and assemble” pasta option. The pasta bar could be in place as early as next school year.

“We are exploring the option of the customer writing or checking off their choices, as opposed to verbally placing their order,” Smith says.

The district wants to expand the Crisp Creations option for more high schools for the upcoming school year.

Opinion poll: Seeking out students’ opinions is important. “They’re going to give you the best pulse on whether the concept will be successful,” Rivas says. “Usually pilots are successful initially because of the novelty, but it’s better to pilot the program for a couple of months before you roll it out on a grander scale.”

Launching the program at more schools also depends on having space for the equipment and not overloading a smaller school with too much emphasis on one option.

“We want to be able to have that healthy option, especially while we are attempting to get the students to eat more fruits and vegetables, while trying to keep it at a price students can afford,” Rivas says. “With students becoming more health conscious, I think a concept like this will remain popular so we’re certainly going to keep trying.”—LR

Here to Stay, For Now

One university shares why they are happy with traditional self-prep.

Although operators are steadily moving towards “pick and assemble” options, traditional make-your-own bars still have a place. At Brown University in Providence, R.I., dining services has been using a variety of different food bars for several years. Brown Dining Services Dietitian Bridget Visconti talks about the benefits of traditional self-prep and how Brown is making it work to their advantage.

Bridget Visconti, Brown Dining Services“We are happy with the traditional self-prep options because they allow customers more options without adding the labor required for ‘pick and assemble.’ The only ‘pick and assemble’ options we offer in the dining halls are omelet bars. Both of our dining halls have areas designed for bars where customers can choose from a variety of ingredients. For example, our pasta bar includes two different pastas, two different sauces, vegetables and a meat item like meatballs, Italian sausage or shrimp. We have a noodle bar, vegetarian sandwich bar, mashed potato bar, deli bar, bruschetta bar, baked potato bar, nacho bar, PB&J bar, Belgian waffle bar and salad bars. Each bar is set up slightly different, depending on the ingredients included. For the most part, they’re set up so the customer would first come to the ingredient to be topped, like the rice, noodles, bread, potato, etc. Next comes the toppings, with cold items served in refrigerated units and warm items kept in heated units.

Proper temperatures are maintained from preparation to service. Our staff, including receiving, culinary and service personnel, knows that quality and safety are of utmost importance. They are empowered to question [and/or] remove items that they feel do not meet safety standards.

Beyond using certain serving utensils, bowels and plates, it is difficult to manage portions in these areas. However, we feel that giving our customers the option to include more of one ingredient and less of another is [one of the] benefits of offering self-prep options. Portion control is one of the few disadvantages of traditional self-prep.

The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Customers have the control over exactly what goes into the meal. Plus, these increased options come without the need for labor at the point of choice. The customer doesn’t have to wait while something is cooking; they can just take their choices and go. The layout of our dining halls is really more conducive to self-prep rather than “pick and assemble.” Years ago, the buildings were designed so kitchen production is done mainly behind the scenes. We have manipulated the serving areas we have in order to offer as many self-prep areas as we can because we know students are looking for more customized meals.

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t include too many options because it will be tough to replenish them all. Careful attention needs to be paid to adjusting the quantities prepped for each ingredient on the bar. Some ingredients can be more popular than others, and customers may use ingredients for other purposes, like using vegetables from the noodle bowel on a salad, which will affect quantities.

I think the best advice is to alternate themes at least yearly, or at least the ingredients, in the self-prep area in order to keep customers interested and to stay current. Use the self-prep area to offer options that are in line with food trends that customers are seeing in restaurants. Try to include authentic ingredients if appropriate—bok choy or rice noodles in an Asian themed area, for example. It’s best to try to find a balance between expensive and inexpensive ingredients.”