As more people take food to go, operators are adding grab-and-go programs to increase participation.
According to FSD's 2008 Portability Study, 75% of operators surveyed say they offer portable foods and 50% expect to see growth in the area this year (see November 2008 cover story). This shouldn't come as a surprise considering how time crunched customers have become. As the trend for taking food to go increases, operators are finding that expanding, and in some cases, implementing new grab-and-go programs can be a profitable way to increase participation.
Increasing grab and go in schools: According to the Portability Study, schools are the market segment least likely to offer grab-and-go options, with 66% of respondents reporting they offer the service. Directors are, however, starting to add grab-and-go programs in their facilities in an effort to increase participation and cut down on time students spend waiting in line.
School district operators also know breakfast traditionally has a much lower participation rate than lunch. Because of this, child nutrition directors are starting to implement breakfast programs with portable options.
One such district is Cleveland City Schools under the direction of Child Nutrition Supervisor Shelly Copeland. The district won the Regional Best Practice Award from the USDA for a new breakfast concept at Mayfield Elementary School. In the concept, two different service lines have been created: Hot Hits the Spot and Cold To Go. Hot Hits the Spot offers what Copeland says are more traditional hot breakfast items, such as eggs and pancakes. Cold To Go is the grab-and-go portion of the concept. "Before we started the new program, the cold items offered were basically cereal and Pop Tarts," Copeland says. "Now we are doing things like jelly biscuits, bagels with cream cheese, cheese sticks and yogurt with graham crackers." The prepackaged cold items are sold in a decorative bag.
Copeland says breakfast participation has increased 65% at Mayfield since implementing the program in October 2007. She attributes this to the idea being fresh and says that the bags are appealing to the students.
"I think a trend in K-12 grab and go is increasing the number of breakfast options," Copeland says. "For us, we have tried breakfast in the classroom. It was very successful, however, with grab and go you have the opportunity to have more variety. The breakfast in the classroom was a little more [restrictive] and this will have more variety."
Copeland plans to start the program in two additional elementary schools.
Lunch is also getting a grab-and-go facelift in school cafeterias. According to research done by Aramark in 2008, students in K-12 schools have on average 23 minutes to eat lunch. Directors say this is often a deterrent to more students purchasing school meals because they don't want to spend time waiting in line to get food. To answer this concern, districts are starting to offer more grab-and-go options for lunch.
At Aramark's elementary school accounts, a new program called Cool*Caf is being implemented (see February 2009, p. 4). One of the program's components is an express line that offers a sack lunch option. "The sack lunches are kind of what McDonald's has done with Happy Meals," says Michael Pursell, associate vice president for Aramark Education. The bags offer similar items to what is already being offered in the main service lines, but Pursell says it's the bag that makes the option special. The bags have a section through which students can see what's inside. The bags also have bright colors, Aramark's mascots and nutritional information on them. The grab-and-go lunches can either be sold as a reimbursable meal or à la carte.
Mary-Jane House, foodservice director for Regional District #4, Deep River and Essex in Deep River, Conn., is also about to start a new grab-and-go lunch program. "I'm trying to do something that would be as acceptable as the Lunchables you can buy at the store," House says. The lunches will contain a protein such as lunchmeat and/or cheese, crackers or a whole-wheat roll, fruit such as raisins, a bag of baby carrots and a dessert like sweet Goldfish crackers. The meal will be in a clear container so students can see what is inside.
"Then they can just grab this prepackaged meal with a milk and turn it into a lunch," House says. "This will be a reimbursable meal. This way they don't have to stand in the lines. And that's what we are looking for to increase our lunch counts." House hopes to start the program in April in the district's three elementary schools.
Late-night shift: Oftentimes the only food option for third-shift hospital employees is vending. That is beginning to change as more directors realize there is money to be made by offering grab-and-go options. Last year, 188-bed Summit Medical Center in Hermitage, Tenn., began packaging leftover meals from lunch to sell later.
"With the current state of the economy, we were looking for ways to increase our café sales to capture more business from our second and third shift," says Michael Lineberger, director of food and nutrition services. "The problem was we wanted to do something without increasing labor costs too much. Previously, we offered a limited menu with just the grill being open. We've expanded that now so employees can have a full meal with an entrée, vegetables and rolls."
The meals are packaged in a microwavable container and sold at a reduced price. Lineberger says he sells between 30 and 40 of these meals per day. The only operational change Lineberger had to make to accommodate the new program was he now keeps the cashier's station open two hours longer.
"As a result, we have improved our evening sales by 25% and we have increased satisfaction among the nursing staff," he adds. "We no longer get requests to be open in the middle of the night because nursing now has the chance to eat before we close."
New grab-and-go market opened at CCRC for residents, staff.
At Sherwood Oaks of Cranberry Township in Pa., Cheryl Torre-Rastetter, senior general manager at this Cura Hospitality account, has built a grab-and-go program that is a big hit not only with the 350 residents, but also with the employees.
"We had residents calling to see if they could get a salad or a sandwich instead of dining in our dining halls, especially if they were on their way to an appointment," Torre-Rastetter says. "I saw a cart in a catalog and I thought this could be a great idea. We sell sandwiches, salads and products that we already have. One of my employees made me a cart, and soon we were in the lobby two days a week selling sandwiches, fruit and frozen soups, by utilizing our leftovers."
What started as a way to meet the occasional customer demand quickly grew into a popular dining option. "We just really started off doing the cart and in an hour and a half we were making around $75," Torre-Rastetter says.
When the community's foodservice department underwent a renovation two years ago, Torre-Rastetter took it as an opportunity to expand grab and go. The cart was "retired" and a new location named the Corner Market was opened. "I thought, ‘if the staff is eating out or ordering in, why not capture those dollars?'"
The market offers much of the same items the cart did, but in a larger scale. Whole pies, in-house made breads, fresh fruit cups, soda, individual bags of chips and breakfast items such as waffles and sausage packaged in a biodegradable container are all sold at the market. The market also offers residents items such milk, eggs, loaves of bread and spices for use in their apartments. Salads are the top-selling items, Torre-Rastetter says.
"Most of the products offered we have in house," she says. "We do order a few special items that we normally wouldn't carry. Things like 20-oz. soda bottles or individual bags of chips.
"We do a nice combination of people picking up single items and those who pick up a full meal," Torre-Rastetter says. "If they can't get out to the grocery store, they purchase from me. And that's what it's all about, giving our residents another convenience. They don't have to take a bus to go to the grocery store."
One FTE and two part-time employees were added to work at the market, which is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. The location does between $1,500 and $2,000 in sales each week.
The market is also a popular choice for employees, who often pick up soups or salads to take home so they don't have to cook, Torre-Rastetter adds.
Fast, Efficient Service
A dedicated grab-and-go location is helping time-crunched students eat on the run at UMass.
Two years ago at 25,000-student University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Ken Toong, executive director, capitalized on the quick pace of college students by opening a location that is dedicated to grab and go. The location, called the Flagship at Berkshire, does about 7,000 meals a day for breakfast and lunch. Toong says variety, efficiency and convenience are the keys to a successful grab-and-go program.
"We're probably the largest grab-and-go program in terms of the number of people we serve. In any given day we do 3,500 people using grab and go for breakfast and another 3,500 for lunch at four different locations. There are 14,000 people on meal plan. At Berkshire, we do about 1,000 a day at lunch only. This is our sixth year to do grab and go and I have seen a lot of growth. We started with about 1,000 grab-and-go meals a day.
What we try to do here is make our operations more efficient. So I will not have two grab-and-go locations open at the same time if they are located within walking distance of each other. I won't have two locations offering grab and go open for breakfast because that isn't an efficient use of my staff. Yes, you have to offer convenience to your customers, but at two of our locations, they are just too close together. For grab and go to be successful, you have to be convenient. I find most of the students use this on the way to class.
The Flagship at Berkshire is in a location that we purposely separated from the main café. It is downstairs and it is self-contained. We give students a hand-held grocery store basket and they go through and get hot food, cold food, sandwiches, beverages, chips and snacks. Our goal is to get students in and out in one minute. But because of class schedules, everyone comes at once so sometimes there can be a line, but it is a very efficient operation. I call it more or less an express take out.
One of the reasons grab and go has increased so much is because we offer more variety. We started to offer pizza, lasagna and general tso's chicken. For cold food we offer sushi, different kinds of wraps or something as basic as a peanut butter and jam sandwich. We also offer healthy items as well. Things not only have to taste good, but they have to be healthy.
I think the challenge is figuring out how to provide lots of variety without slowing down service. We've worked to make sure the flow is correct. It's hot food, then sandwiches, salads and beverages. Things that slow people down like soups, we put toward the end. Things that don't take much time, like chips, snacks and fresh fruit are also at the end. It has to be easy for people to want to use it.
I find the students really want to be able to see what is inside their food. For example, we changed our breakfast burrito to more of a breakfast wrap that is cut on the bias so students can see the ingredients. When we did this, sales went up immediately.
A big seller is bottled water. Sushi is hot, too. When it's cold outside, students are looking for warm foods like soups, lasagna, fried rice and burritos. Three years ago we started offering grab and go for breakfast. We offer that from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m., then we switch to lunch until 1:30 p.m. Next September we will offer a grab-and-go dinner as well. There is a need for dinner grab and go. We send out surveys twice a year and one of the things students are really asking for is grab and go for dinner. For the dinner grab and go, we will offer more hot entrées along with more items that are being offered at the main dining hall cafés.
Sometimes if students don't have time or they have to work, they will take stuff for the weekend and put it in their fridges. We did offer grab and go for dinner the Sunday night of Super Bowl weekend. We offered that because they didn't have time to eat in the dining halls because they wanted to watch the game. We offered chicken wings, chicken fingers and food typically found for the Super Bowl."