The Big Idea 2013: Grab-N-Go

Published in FSD C&U Spotlight

Turning a facility into grab-and-go concept helps satisfy demand.

Charlie Thompson
Director of Dining Services
Amherst College
Amherst, Mass.

We decided to do a two-week trial last October of a grab-and-go program, named Grab-N-Go. It was very informal. We had comment cards out asking students whether they felt this had a negative or positive effect on their schedules.

Over the years, we had heard from many students who said they would miss lunch because they didn’t have time to go to a dining hall after coming out of classes or sports. The trial was hugely successful.

Coming out of the trial period, one of the things we took away from the comments was that the program should be located in the Keefe Campus Center because it was more centralized. The problem was then deciding where in Keefe’s we should go, since we already had an operation, Schwemm’s Café, in that facility.

My manager came up with the idea of shutting down the daylight hours that Schwemm’s is usually in operation, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and turning that time into a Grab-N-Go.

We began operating Grab-N-Go on a regular basis this past spring semester, utilizing the existing staff that’s there so people’s jobs are secure. We extended Grab-N-Go from 2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. because we saw that a lot of classes were letting out just before 2 p.m., and students were running like crazy to get to the dining hall, which can be very stressful.

What the extra half-hour of the Grab-N-Go being open has accomplished was reduce enough of the customer counts in the dining hall at lunch so that lines are now much shorter.

Ultimately we found that the number of students who stopped going to the dining hall in favor of Grab-N-Go was less than our original projections, because students who may have not eaten lunch at Valentine dining hall in the past because they did not have the time started going when they saw the reduced lines. So Grab-N-Go not only provided a service to those who were finding it hard to take the time out to eat at the dining hall, but it allowed for a much more pleasurable dining experience for those who continued to come to the dining hall.

We did, however, get a little bit of pushback at first from customers who were used to going to Schwemm’s during the day. Grab-N-Go needed to be shut down by 2:30 p.m. in order to begin cleanup in preparation for the start of dinner service at Schwemm’s. It left us with a gap between 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., where Schwemm’s was closed, the Grab-N-Go was not available and the dining hall was not yet open for dinner. We have a café in our library, called Frost Café, but it only serves pastries and beverages. So what we did to help fill the time gap was to start providing some of those sandwiches and salads that were being crafted for Grab-N-Go and make them available at Frost for purchase in the afternoon.

As we become more efficient, we will be able to reopen the Schwemm’s evening program a little earlier, so that will continue to have a positive effect on those folks who felt that they were forced to go elsewhere for something to eat in the mid to late afternoon.

Another thing that has helped students and staff with the transition has been the quality of food they can find at Grab-N-Go. They saw that this was a very nice program, and it wasn’t just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a can of soda. It’s really upscale sandwiches on artisan breads, with salmon entrées and salads. We priced appropriately so it wouldn’t cost the non-student customer more and actually lowered the pricing structure a bit under what customers would have had to pay if they had gone to the original Schwemm’s.

Overall, I think the program has been very well received. By the sheer numbers, we were anticipating we’d see roughly 500 people a day, but on average, at Grab-N-Go we see about 600 to 650, and have over 800 customers several times.