Late night can be a double-edged sword for many operators. It’s something customers want; however, it often can be cost prohibitive. At 19,500-student Oregon State University, Rich Turnbull, associate director of University Housing and Dining, says his department decided to reduce late-night hours this year because of the economy.
“We used to have a location on every part of campus open until 1 a.m.,” Turnbull says. “Now our latest operation is open until 11 p.m. It’s unfortunate, but it’s one of those things that had to be done to tighten up our labor costs. We’ve been able to accommodate students with grab and go and packaged meal replacements. We really focused our efforts on putting together some great options that can be picked up before the dining hall closes. I think that’s taken some of the pressure off.”
Substantial meals: Although many operators have had to limit late-night options due to the economy, some still maintain those options as a benefit to customers. At the 2,200-employee PNC Bank building in Pittsburgh, Jeff Sinciline, associate general manager for Parkhurst Dining Services at PNC Café 36, says his department has continued to offer dinner service for those customers working the call center at the bank, even though the campus population has declined.
“The building population has decreased by 70% to 80%,” Sinciline says. “But PNC Bank still wants to provide the service for its call center employees. We offer scaled-down versions of what we do for the regular meal. Instead of a full-service deli, we arrange it so it’s self-service. The entrées are either the same or a heartier version of what we do during the day. Dinner service opens when lunch ends at 2 p.m. and is served through 6 p.m.”
Sinciline says it’s important for operators to look at how the the workload is divided and who actually eats during that period.
“If you are going to serve people dinner, then they are going to want something substantial,” Sinciline says. “Whether they are taking it on the go or eating at their desk or in the café, they want a dinner-type meal. I think a lot of late-night service is usually only grab and go and no one even offers any kind of hearty meal. I think that is a mistake.”
Hearty comfort foods are very popular during 34,000-student University of Maryland’s late-night service.
“We have two main dining halls on campus—The Diner and South Campus Dining Room,” says Bart Hipple, assistant director. “The Diner is located in the center of three quads of dorms so it’s the busier of the two, but both are open for late-night service until midnight Sunday through Thursday at the Diner and Monday through Thursday at South Campus.”
Hipple says although the department has tried experimenting with different types of food, they have found that during late-night hours students want to eat basics—items such as hamburgers, fries, pizza, wings, hot subs and cold sandwiches. There are also premade salads, a vegetarian station, pastries and ice cream.
“We’re finding that students eat later and later,” Hipple says. “For many of them, late night is when they have dinner. The hot deli sandwiches are new this year and they are going very well. We have about six specialty hot deli sandwiches that we rotate through that are made to order. We don’t really have to promote it. If the lights are on, they’re walking in. This is when students want to eat so they find out very quickly.”
New options: When 525-bed Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles reopened in a new building in June 2009, patients, visitors and employees got a chance to enjoy late-night options beyond just the vending machines that were available in the old hospital. Larry Harvey, assistant director of operations for Nutrition Services, says a snack shop was added to the new hospital to supplement the high activity in the main dining room.
“As we were moving into the hospital, a lot of nurses who worked the night shift were concerned that we didn’t have any food available for them,” Harvey says. “The vending machines at the old hospital were not well received. When we moved into the new hospital they asked if there was something we could do for them. We decided to make the snack shop into an evening shop to offer options to overnight employees and visitors.”
The snack shop, which is known simply as “Café,” opens at 10:30 p.m. when the main dining room closes and stays open until 6 a.m. So now food options are available 24 hours a day, except weekends and holidays. The shop offers daily premade salads featuring chicken, salmon or tofu as toppings; cold premade sandwiches; two soups, at least one of which is vegetarian; sushi provided by a local vendor; ice cream; coffee and specialty drinks and desserts.
“We also have a small panini machine,” Harvey says. “We make the sandwiches ahead of time and when someone orders one the employees just put it in the press. We also partnered with a local pizza company, which comes in at 11 p.m. and provides six pizzas. We always sell out.”
Though the snack shop doesn’t have a grill, Harvey says they are looking at adding some other products to the offerings such as breakfast items and burgers that can be microwaved. The snack shop employs two FTEs and is bringing in about $950 in sales per night. Harvey says the best advice is to survey customers.
“Just before we decided to build the snack shop, we distributed a survey to the night workers,” Harvey says. “We told them what we were thinking of doing and asked them, ‘Would you use this service? If so, how often?’ Once we had good results we said we’d open on a trial basis, provided we break even financially. It’s hard to say what the sales will be like overnight. For the most part, it’s worth it.”
Satisfying the third shift at a hospital balances breakfast, lunch and dinner.
At 296-bed Elliot Hospital in Manchester, N.H., Joe Stanislaw, director of food and nutrition services, says it is important for their third-shift dining operation to keep a balance between breakfast and lunch/ dinner options.
“Third shift is basically a full complement of our regular menu,” Stanislaw says. “They get the full salad bar, pizza program, at least two hot entrées and custom orders off the grill. A lot of customers also tend to want breakfast foods during the third shift. We offer omelets, scrambled eggs, pancakes and all of that if that’s what they’re in the mood for. At the same time we want to make sure we provide the other offerings we provide for lunch and dinner as well so they don’t feel slighted. The reception has been fantastic. They are so appreciative of having that service.”
Stanislaw says he is most impressed by the relationship that the customers have developed with the staff who work the third shift.
“It’s gotten to the point during the last year or so where the customer walks in the door and my staff already has their order working as soon as they see them because they know what they want,” Stanislaw says. “I have four staff who only work third shift and I have another two or three who will rotate in or be on call. That’s one of the serious things for the manager in offering a third shift. If someone calls out, the manager is stuck coming in. We started by finding people who prefer to work third shift. Then we talked about those times they’re sick. We put one person ‘on call’ for each evening and pay them on call pay. It’s taken away some of the anxiety about how you staff third shift with reliable people.”
Stanislaw says he has been surprised the third shift has become so successful.
“At first it was just being done as a benefit, but now we’re at a place where it’s no longer just that,” Stanislaw says. “When I first started, the hospital just had a food cart where customers paid on the honor system. The reality was we were going through $90 of food per night but finding only $5 in the bin. The thought process was, it’s not cost effective to open for the third shift, but it wasn’t cost effective to offer that cart either. It’s at the point now where we’re only open from 1:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. In those two hours they’ll do $300 to $400 in sales, which more than pays for the staff and food costs.”
Stanislaw says he thinks the third-shift program benefited from it slow start.
“Start with small steps,” Stanislaw says. “It is easier to add on than take away. As you add you will continue to look the hero. If you have to reduce your services you run the risk of being the villain. Also, it’s important to remember that about 50% of the customers are going to be looking for traditional breakfast offerings. The other 50% are looking for the same type of service they see during the day. Be prepared for both.”