Linked In

Online tools and technology help operators build connections with their customers.

“The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow,” Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, wrote in his 1999 book “Business @ The Speed of Thought.”

Gates wrote that book years before social media goliaths like Facebook and Twitter were launched and Google became a verb. What Gates understood then was that the connection made between people via the Internet, when properly leveraged, is a powerful business tool.

For foodservice operators, creating a community with their customers is often a priority. Some are following Gates’ belief and using the Internet to connect with their diners and employees. Here are some examples of operators who have “linked in.” 

A “Fit” Partnership

Last month Sodexo partnered with MyFitnessPal, a health and fitness service whose website and mobile app help people track their nutrition and exercise activity. The service is free, and so far more than 20 million people have registered.

MyFitnessPal’s aim is to help people create a food and exercise diary. Each day, users input the nutritional info for the items they’ve eaten, as well as any physical activity. That data is used to help people meet their self-stated fitness goals. Where MyFitnessPal helps, besides recording and collecting data, is its large—more than 1.7 million items—database. Instead of having to input nutritional info manually for each eaten food item, users can search through the database for a matching item. If the item isn’t listed in the database, users can add it.

That’s where the partnership with Sodexo comes into play. Sodexo has input into the database more than 3,000 recipes, and counting, that are currently served in its B&I accounts. The company hopes to add the program to its other divisions in the future, according to Bill Mitchell, national director of consumer technology solutions for Sodexo.

“We have the opportunity to really enhance the relationship we have with consumers by attaching the range of technology solutions and then tailoring those solutions to meet the needs of specific situations,” Mitchell says. “Research indicates that U.S. adults spend a third of their lives connected to digital devices and they are looking for technology to help them manage and add value to their lives. The smartphone is the go-to device consumers are turning to to help navigate their busy lives and stay connected to things that are truly important to them.”

One of those things consumers, and Sodexo, find important is wellness. “The key is not just providing nutrition information—we’ve been doing that for quite some time—but really delivering actionable insights that consumers can easily put to use to drive their personal wellness and physical objectives,” Mitchell adds. That’s where Mitchell says working with MyFitnessPal is so valuable. “It’s giving people nutrition information that they can actually do something with. They are creating their personal diary of everything that they eat and their exercise and they are able to track that against the objectives that they create for themselves.”

Sodexo is making it easier for its customers to input nutritional data into their personal MyFitnessPal accounts by posting QR codes at points of service. When the code is scanned with a smartphone, it draws up that item’s nutritional info from the MyFitnessPal database.

Mitchell says Sodexo has already heard from customers how MyFitnessPal has helped them achieve their goals, which is “exactly what we were hoping to see, how these people were delivering on their personal physical and nutrition goals. By delivering the best possible experience for Sodexo customers, we also drive increased customer satisfaction and loyalty, which in turn delivers important business results.”  


An App with a Future?

Earlier this year, Rhode Island School of Design launched a dining services app, which allows students to look at menus, see what local purchases were made that week and link to the department’s social media sites.

RISD’s app was a collaborative effort between the department and a student, Jeongwoo Lyo. Ginnie Dunleavy, director of dining, says the dining services team was looking for new ways to communicate with its customers and Lyo approached the department offering his help for just such a project. Dunleavy admits the app is a work in progress, saying the No. 1 reason students use the app is to look at menus, which is an area that needs some formatting work for a better user experience.

The app is currently available only for Android devices, but the team is working on an iPhone version, which will launch next semester. Dunleavy also says the app’s capabilities are being expanded to help drive business to the department’s food truck during the cold New England winters.

“We have a food truck and this semester we hope to allow students to place their orders through our app,” Dunleavy says. “Everyone thinks it’s great to have a food truck, but when you’re in New England it’s cold. If a student can order that food in advance it’s much easier to come over to the truck and pick it up than to have to get in line. That’s been one of the big feedbacks [we’ve received about] the truck, is that people would come out more but it’s cold.

“So many people are intimidated [by technology],” she says. “Surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing and don’t be afraid to get something up and tweak it to make it perform.” 


Back to the Blackboard

Operators aren’t using online tools and technology just to connect with their customers. They are also turning to cyberspace to train and inspire their employees. Jerry Clemmer, director of residential dining at the University of Richmond in Virginia, discovered that often when he needed to fill a manager position there wasn’t an in-house candidate ready for promotion. So Clemmer created Leadership in Development, an 11-month program consisting of reading and analyzing books, monthly lessons plans, planning a dinner event, and an online journal and discussion board. The program is for full-time, non-student employees who have worked for the department for at least six months.

During the development of the Leadership in Development program, Clemmer started using Blackboard, an online learning component that allows him to post assignments and interact with participants through discussion boards.

“The biggest game changer with Blackboard was the discussion boards, because as we are reading these books it is a challenge to get [participants] to think critically,” Clemmer says. “Challenging them on the boards as we are reading has created a whole new world. It also gives me an idea of their paradigm and how they see things.”

The books the participants read include “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” by John C. Maxwell and “The One Minute Manager” by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson.

Through Blackboard Clemmer also is able to give feedback, in the forms of grades, to the participants.  


Monitoring Meals

Parents like to know what their students are eating in school. A new program offered by Heartland Payment Systems allows parents to see their child’s plate. SeeMyPlate uses small cameras that are mounted on the checkout line by the cashier’s station to take photos of students’ meal trays. Those photos are then uploaded to an online portal for parents to view.

Terry Roberts, executive director of school solutions for Heartland, says the cameras can be linked to the cafeteria’s POS system. Students place their trays under the camera. When the cashier pushes the final button on the POS system to input the student’s tray information into the system, the camera snaps a photo. The photo is uploaded to a website for parents and foodservice staff to view.

Roberts says the program helps engage parents with the school nutrition program. It also acts as a quality assurance check because directors can view photos of all the trays to look for consistency and presentation.

SeeMyPlate has been implemented in five districts so far.  


UNH Turns to Video

Dining services staff at the University of New Hampshire in Durham knew they needed a new way to reach their customers. “I think over the last few years our printed messages weren’t being seen like they used to be,” says Deb Scanlon, area manager of Holloway Commons. “If we have a pancake night and we put it up on Facebook or text them, students respond to that.

“We will always have the need for human interaction,” Scanlon adds. “Our students need that and want that from us. In addition, what student isn’t hooked up to Facebook constantly? They want to have the human interaction, but they want the connection to social media for real-time information.”

To meet the students’ needs for human interaction and real-time news delivered through a social media platform, the department launched its own YouTube channel last year. To date, more than 50 videos have been posted. Many of the videos are taken during special events the department hosts, such as the Iron Chef Competition or Local Harvest Day, when local food is served and area farmers visit campus to talk about their products. The videos also highlight the department’s health and wellness initiatives; the university has a goal to become one of the healthiest in the country by 2020. Marketing also creates and posts videos about topics like purchasing meal plans and catering.

More than a third of the videos are filed under the “Fun Clips” category. Students showing off their karaoke skills in the dining halls and decorating gingerbread cookies are two videos in the Fun Clips section.

The videos are created in house, mostly from photos and footage taken during special events.

“The YouTube channel allows UNH Dining to be part of the social media process,” Scanlon says. “Current and potential students can view all the happenings at UNH via YouTube. It enables students to see UNH Dining and UNH as a community.”  

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