By the numbers, portability continues to be a driving force in noncommercial foodservice—and operators’ actions back the statistics. Read the results of FoodService Director's 2007 Portability Study and see how the statistics play out in cafeterias and retail operations.
Portability continues to be a big part of most foodservice operators’ business, according to the 2007 FoodService Director Study on Portability. Although the overall percentage of operators surveyed who say they offer portable menu items in their dining facilities is less than last year—62% versus 70%—take-away business is still strong and anecdotal evidence suggests that portable foods will be a mainstay in noncommercial foodservice for years to come.
“Everyone wants grab-and-go,” says Denisa Cate, food and nutrition director for Henry County Medical Center in Tennessee. “And they will take away anything. We don’t need to create a grab-and-go menu. Whatever can be put in a portable package will leave our facility. We have nurses who will group together, for instance, and one of them will come down and pick up the order for all of them, and they take turns. Grab-and-go is very popular.”
Randy Sparrow, director of foodservice for Bloomington Hospital, Bloomington, Ind., concurs.
“Grab and go is picking up for our facilities,” says Sparrow. “We are selling more and more pre-packaged items such as sandwiches, any variety of fresh fruit cups and relish plates in addition to desserts and side salads. We find that more the cooler is filled the more our staff purchases. More and more of our staff are buying items so they can take their food home, back to their lounges or outside to enjoy the weather. We have always had a steady take-out business. However, we have introduced display cooking within the past year and now employees are buying the featured items and taking them home to their families.”
It’s certainly not surprising that take-away would be strong in noncommercial foodservice, since studies show that, overall, we are more and more a “take-out nation.” A recent survey by the NPD Group, for example, revealed that the average American last year ate 208 meals prepared outside the home. Of those meals, 127 were ordered to go, and 37% of respondents indicated that they had used curbside pick-up from sit-down restaurants at some point last year.
On the noncommercial side, portability appears to have its strongest hold in corporate dining. Every B&I operator in the FSD survey indicated that they offer portable items. What’s more, these operators said that, on average, take-away business accounts for more than 30% of their overall revenue—more than six percentage points higher than the survey average of 24%.
“I think time constraints have a lot to do with the increase,” says Damian Monticello, foodservice liaison for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, in Tallahassee. “Our customers don’t have a lot of time to eat. They are taking food back to their desks so they can continue working, and we try to accommodate them in any way we can.”
But portability is a major component in most segments of the industry, with the exception of long-term care. More than 90% of colleges, 81% of hospitals and 54% of schools offer take-away items, while only 22% of long-term care facilities do. It also accounts for roughly one-quarter of the revenue stream, with hospitals reporting 25%, colleges 24% and schools crediting 23% of their revenue from take-away.
Portable business is a relatively labor-efficient form of service, according to the survey, with respondents indicating that they dedicate about two workers on average to handle this aspect of their operations.
Space is a major driver of portability, operators say. Offering foods that are more easily carried allows operators to design smaller footprints and to install foodservice outlets in spaces not usually considered for retail service. At Gannon University, in Erie, Pa., Metz & Associates designed a space called InterMetzo in the Palumbo Academic Building that serves a variety of items from entrées and soups to sandwiches and salads.
General manager Pete Mannarelli says the space has absorbed some of the overflow from a nearby popular dining hall, and has been so successful that the design is being considered for use in other settings, such as hospitals or corporations.
Sometimes, portability can improve business in a facility. Such was the case at the University of Southern Mississippi, where a full-service restaurant called The Power House was converted to a fast-casual concept. With a menu that relies heavily on sandwiches, salads and soups, check averages are down by an average of $2, but customer counts are up by 15%, according to Pat Foley, executive director of dining services for Aramark at the 15,000-student university.
“The menu is still upscale, but the items are things that can be prepared quickly,” says Foley.
Enhancing portability was on the minds of executives of Eurest Dining Services, a division of Compass Group, when they took a coffee bar and converted it to a full-fledged cafeteria. Caffe Ritazza debuted last year on the ground floor of the SunTrust bank in Orlando, Fla., and features entrées, specialty sandwiches and salads, soups and desserts. Dan Cramer, first vice president and corporate dining manager for SunTrust, called the conversion “the best utilization of space,” and a way to provide customers with a wide variety of items that can be picked up quickly and eaten in or taken away.
Operators say that when it comes to take-out foods, just about anything that can be put in a container can, and is, taken away from the cafeteria. Fresh-made tends to be more popular than pre-packaged, according to the survey, with entrees off the serving line accounting for 21% of the total take-out business, on average, and deli sandwiches making up another 15%. Pre-wrapped sandwiches represent another 15%, while ready-to-go entrees in refrigerated cases are less than 5% of the total.
Lunch foods tend to make up a bigger part of the take-away business than breakfast foods, as only 11% of portable business is in either breakfast to order or pre-packaged breakfast foods. Interestingly, although long-term care facilities do not do much grab-and-go business, those that do see 44% of their business from fresh-made entrees (31%) and sandwiches (13%).
The desire for portability causes operators to consider making popular foods more portable. One example is Aramark’s Corporate Services group, which has created an interesting twist on the panini. According to Scott Keats, director of culinary development for the division, the company simply took panini ingredients and placed them on a smaller ciabatta roll and is marketing it as a “minini.”
Promoting portability plays a relatively minor role in the take-away equation, with fewer than 19% saying they are looking at such ideas as couponing, discounting or e-mail promotions as business builders. College operators are most likely to use promotional gimmicks (30%) and elementary and secondary schools least likely (8%).
However, portability can enhance other types of promotions, particularly where wellness is concerned. For example, at Benjamin Hays High School in Atlanta, a program called “Walk It Out Wednesday” encourages students to use half of their lunch period for physical activity. Students who sign up for the program are given preferential treatment in the cafeteria line and are encouraged to take healthful items such as pre-packaged salads that can be eaten quickly.
At Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, portability helped Sodexho meet a hospital goal that at least 16% of the hospital cafeteria’s items be wellness oriented. So Foodservice Director Greg Brown created Mezza Luna, a station that offers half-portions of foods that can be combined to make a healthful meal that easily can be taken away. Combos include one-half a personal pizza and a small salad, and a half-sandwich combined with a cup of carrot or celery sticks.
When it comes to building business, packaging and merchandising continue to be the primary building blocks, with more than 50% of operators saying they are looking to buy new kinds of packaging materials to enhance portability and maintain food safety. More than 47% of respondents say they plan to improve the way they display their grab-and-go merchandise, while 42% indicated they plan to set up dedicated stations for take-away items.
However, when it comes to packaging portable foods, cost and durability still trump environmental concerns. The most popular forms of packaging continue to be plastic clamshells (62%), plastic salad bowls with clear lids (60%), other types of plastic containers (59%) and foam containers (57%). Almost no one in the survey indicated they were using biodegradable containers, and cost is very likely the reason. Operators with whom FSD editors have spoken say that they would like to see the cost of such environmentally sound packages come down before they make the investment.
One institution that has begun to make biodegradable packaging available is Stanford University. Because students are asking for it, and because the university has a composting program, biodegradable containers are being used in some campus foodservice facilities. But the cost is being borne by the customers themselves; where “green” serviceware—including take-away containers—are offered, customers pay a 15-cent premium for choosing to protect the environment. About one-third of the patrons who can, opt for the costlier containers.