New spins on DIY stations

cicis salad bar

While customization is an expectation for many of today’s diners, younger customers seem to prefer self-serve bars over made-to-order items. According to Technomic’s RMS MarketBrief, 54% of Gen Zers and 63% of millennials favor DIY stations for retail foodservice purchases, especially when it comes to hot foods. Noncommercial operators are on track with this trend, going beyond the traditional taco bar and pasta station to differentiate build-your-own meals.

1. High school lunch gets personal

baked mac cheese

At Union Public Schools in Tulsa, Okla., build-your-own mac and cheese is a hit, says District Executive Chef Callie Fowler. Students choose from a variety of meats, roasted veggies, bacon, spinach and chili to personalize this comfort food favorite.

2. Asian bowls

pho bowl

Fowler also offers DIY bars serving Asian noodle bowls, with a choice of broth flavor, protein, scallions, peppers and jalapeno.

At Michigan State University in East Lansing, build-your-own pho, ramen, soba and sushi stations all have large student followings, says Executive Chef Kurt Kwiatkowski. Pho is also the most popular option at Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas, Ore. “We make our own broth and have rice stick noodles, Thai basil, napa cabbage, peanuts, daikon and several garnishes, along with a choice of proteins (chicken, shrimp and tofu) and hoisin and Sriracha sauces,” says Regional Executive Chef Gregory Gates. Customers heap on their choice of ingredients themselves.

3. Build a breakfast

oatmeal berries

Although customizable omelet stations are a staple at many operations, the increase in grab-and-go morning customers demands something quicker. At Michigan State, an oatmeal bar with assorted toppings is a draw, while University of Massachusetts at Amherst offers build-your-own congee with garnishes for a Chinese-style breakfast.

Ryan Conklin, executive chef at UNC Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, N.C., jumped on the avocado toast trend, setting up a station devoted to the item that can go from breakfast to lunch to snack. Customers choose their bread, then opt for a range of toppings and seasonings to scatter over the mashed avocado.

4. Regional themes and variations


Some global foods, such as burritos and rice bowls, are longtime fixtures at DIY stations. But operators are branching out into regional American preps. Cameron Clegg, executive chef with Parkhurst Dining, set up a build-your-own pierogi station at corporate dining account Highmark Pittsburgh, a city with a large Polish population. Topping options include shredded cheese, sausage, bacon, steamed vegetables and other fresh accompaniments. 

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