How to keep up when your customer base explodes

growth graph

Though Virginia Tech’s dining program is highly ranked perennially, its administrators know what it means to scramble. In early 2015, new university president Timothy Sands announced a plan to increase enrollment by 5,000 students within six to eight years. And implementation would begin immediately, with an additional 830 students in that fall’s freshman class.

Ultra-rapid growth can throw dining into chaos, raising questions about how to speed up service while maintaining quality, where and how to source a greater number of ingredients, how to manage staffing and how to create more space both for diners and cooking staff. These were problems that Ted Faulkner, director of dining services at Virginia Tech, knew would require both long- and short-term fixes. “It wasn’t like, ‘Three or four years from now, we’re going to start enrollment growth,’” Faulkner says. “Which is great; we welcome that. But it was a fairly fast timeline.”

And so last fall Virginia Tech expanded the hours at several of its locations, raised hourly pay by 50 cents to entice staff recruitment and retention, and improved efficiencies. One easy fix, Faulkner says, was installing hot-holding chutes that allow dining staff to prepare a batch—one or two dozen portions—of the most popular menu items in advance. The university also upgraded its point-of-sale terminals, saving a few seconds per transaction—which translates to 33 hours total every day.

With those systems in place, Virginia Tech was able to handle the additional 241,000 transactions it faced this past school year. But this fall, the university expects to grow by an additional 550 students—which “could mean another 150,000 transactions,” Faulkner says—so these efficiencies must expand further. The university will launch two new food trucks, roll out breakfast at Chick-fil-A’s campus location, curb “impulse buy” items at a grab-and-go kiosk and test a mobile ordering app. In the long term, Virginia Tech also is contemplating either constructing new buildings or repurposing old ones.

This kind of infrastructure development is not an option everywhere. Adaption has been a creative undertaking at Riverton Hospital, which lies in Salt Lake City’s rapidly growing southwest valley. Christine Rhodes, manager of food and nutrition services, says the hospital already was exceeding its dining capacity within a year of opening in 2009. To compensate, she says, her team transformed the patio adjacent to the dining room into additional seating, doubling it from 40 to 86 seats.

But young families continued to flock to the area, and the hospital is now averaging 3,200 trays a month. There’s no plan to build additional dining facilities, so to compensate, Rhodes has increased supply deliveries to twice a week and hired a couple of new employees, and is adding another grill to the kitchen. To keep patients happy, she instituted a “Hot Off the Grill” fresh food initiative. Now, Rhodes says, she’s focusing on keeping her busy staff happy by listening to and supporting their concerns. “That’s the No. 1 priority,” she says. 

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