Grab-and-go is an increasingly popular foodservice option in many foodservice sectors as customers seek more convenience to ease their busy lifestyles. This month, along with our 2010 Portability Study, we present the stories of six operators who for different reasons are seeing growth in their take-away business.
A Team Effort
As do most universities, Dining Services at Ohio University, in Athens, has several grab-and-go locations on the 21,000-student campus. Last year, the department wanted a take-away service in its recently renovated Baker University Center. So the retail team put its heads together and created the Fast Lane service at the West 83 Food Court, located on the first floor of the BUC.
“The grab-and-go option is part of our c-store program,” explains Kent Scott, senior general manager at West 82. “We had a need, and students were asking, for more healthy options. So Mary Jane Jones, associate director for retail operations at Baker, came up with a product line and recipes that could go with the program.”
What Jones and her team, which included Catering Manager Eve Wharton and Senior General manager Jeff Brooks, created was a bank of 45 items customers can choose from. Included are a variety of cold sub sandwiches, salads and wraps, and a line of microwavable foods such as macaroni and cheese, lasagna and three kinds of chicken wings: Buffalo, barbecue and cranberry glaze. Dessert items include fruit and yogurt parfaits.
All items are prepared, packaged and labeled in the kitchen, which retail operations shares with catering. Danny Groves and Annie Stanley are in charge of getting items delivered to West 82, as well as to other satellite locations.
“We began the program last spring, and expanded it in the fall to include the microwave items,” says Scott. “We’re averaging about $1,900 in sales through this program. Students really seem to enjoy the new offerings. The subs are very popular, as are the wings. We have used quite a few of the catering recipes to make this happen. It really has been a team effort.”
Grab and Go By Necessity
When the 100-seat cafeteria at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, Calif., closed for renovation in mid-September, Gail Ermer faced a dilemma. How was the director of food and nutrition services at the 252-bed hospital going to continue to provide meals for the more than 1,000 employees who relied on the café on a regular basis?
Her solution was to create Café Good To Go, a “quasi-delivery service” that allows staff to order meals online. Under the program, staff use the hospital’s intranet site to view and print out each day’s menu. They then circle their meal choices and fax the page to the hospital’s kitchen. Meals are paid for through payroll deduction.
A YouTube video, designed for internal use only, instructs employees on the order and pick-up process.
“We wanted to be able to continue to provide meals for staff and visitors,” Ermer explains. “We looked at a number of options and this made the most sense. There is one menu for breakfast and another for lunch and dinner.”
Café Good To Go is located in the hospital’s lobby. Meals are prepared and packaged in the kitchen and delivered to the lobby, where employees can pick them up at prearranged times on the hour and half-hour.
“Visitors can come to the lobby and place orders as well,” Ermer notes. “Those meals are ready in 30 minutes.”
There are two outside tented areas, one on the side of the administration building and the other outside the hospital’s cancer center, where customers can eat their meals.
Ermer explains that the lobby location was chosen over two other options—delivering meals to the employees and setting up pick-up stations on each hospital floor.
“On the delivery, we got push back from the nurses, who were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to eat their meals when they were delivered, which created an issue of where to store the meals,” she says. “Putting a station on each floor would have been very labor-intensive.”
A few changes were implemented to help sell the new program, Ermer adds.
“We already had to-go packaging, but we bought some sturdier containers for this service,” she says. “On the menu, we made some improvements like making the sandwiches larger and more gourmet. And we bought new uniforms for the staff.”
Ermer acknowledges that Café Good To Go is not a perfect solution, noting that sales are only 30% of what they were before the cafeteria closed. “But it is working, and the most important thing is, we have kept all of our employees working through the renovation. We are considering keeping this function after the cafeteria reopens early next year.”
The growth of grab and go on the campus of Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, is being caused by an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, according to Kirk Rodriguez, associate director for retail sales in the Hospitality Services department of the 20,000-student campus.
“On our campus the enrollment numbers continue to increase, but we’re limited on space for our food outlets,” says Rodriguez. As a result, Hospitality Services has grab-and-go options in 15 locations across campus—“just about everywhere we can, retail-wise,” he notes. The only place grab and go is not available is in the residence halls where traditional meal plans are honored.
“Our grab-and-go business used to be less than 10% of our revenue,” says Rodriguez. “Now, it’s about 25%. Students are telling us with their feet and their concept choices what they’re looking for from our department.”
One example of Texas Tech’s expansion of its grab-and-go program can be found in Sam’s Express, which are located in the five Sam’s Mini-Markets across campus. Rodriguez describes the markets as a cross between a food outlet and a convenience store. Other grab-and-go options can be found at sites like a Quizno’s on campus and a Boar’s Head deli outlet.
“We have a production area where we make up a wide range of menu options,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve altered some traditional items to make them more portable. For example, our club sandwich has become a club wrap for grab and go. We also offer premade ‘value packs’—a sandwich, chips and drink, for a set price.”
Rodriguez explains that cold items such as sandwiches and salads have been the best sellers. “We didn’t do well with hot items like pasta dishes and lasagnas. There were concerns about reheating these items and food safety.”
Grab-and-go options are advertised in Texas Tech’s dining brochure as well as other printed materials, but Rodriguez says Facebook and Twitter have been very popular marketing tools as well. “It’s instant advertising,” he notes.
This month, the foodservice staff at Paradise Valley Hospital in Phoenix, plan to begin an ambitious program to help diabetic and cardiac patients eat more healthfully. Jean Revard, director of foodservice and environmental services for the hospital, said the department will begin selling prepackaged meals specifically designed for these groups.
“We do a small amount of grab-and-go salads, sandwiches, fruit plates, etc.,” says Revard. “In the last few months we have done cooking demos for a diabetes class and cardiac rehab class for members of our community who are also previous patients. The feedback we received in both classes was they wanted us to make packaged dinners that would meet the requirements for one dinner for a diabetic and a dinner for a cardiac rehab person.”
The cooking demos came out of discussions that Revard and Juan Carranza, the hospital’s executive chef, had with director of the diabetes education program.
“They wanted to know if someone could come in and show them what they can do to make meals more healthful,” says Carranza. “About once a month I will do a cooking demo for about an hour.”
For example, he adds, one class dealt with picnic foods that would be appropriate for cardiac and diabetic patients on the Fourth of July. Carranza made some potato salad with red skin potatoes and Italian dressing in place of mayonnaise, healthy fajitas on the grill with yogurt instead of sour cream, and grilled fruit kabobs using pineapple, watermelon and strawberries.
“To us it is pretty simple, but it really wowed the class,” he explains. Adds Revard: “The kabob also represents one serving of fruit, so it helped to teach them about portion size.”
With the new program, cardiac and diabetic patients will be able to call in and place orders for prepared meals, perhaps a week’s worth at a time, and then arrange for a pick up time.
“I think what we are going to be able to do is have them call our room service office number because that phone is always manned during the day,” she says.
Revard explains that from a planning standpoint the new program will not require much work.
“We have a Health For Life program in our healthcare system, and we already have a number of items being served in our cafeteria,” she says. “We are just going to take what we’re already doing and expand on it. We have about 30 recipes, but we’ll keep coming up with more. We don’t want to keep repeating menus. The ‘wow’ of this is that it’s new, and we don’t want to lose that.”
When the Ronald Tutor Campus Center opened earlier this year on the campus of the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, Seeds Marketplace was the venue best designed for grab-and-go service. According to Kris Klinger, director USC Hospitality, the outlet has more than met expectations—80% to 90% of the business at Seeds is taken off site even though there is a large outdoor piazza connected to the campus center.
Seeds is an interesting marriage of grab and go and made to order. Although the campus center has a large production kitchen, much of the food sold at Seeds is prepared in front of customers.
“We do made-to-order sandwiches and salads,” Klinger says. “We have a station where we do sausages on those spike toasters, and we have a rotisserie. We even do ice cream sandwiches on site.”
The ice cream station uses two three-ounce cookies baked by a local operator, Kukees, to sandwich one of 12 flavors of ice cream. The Kukees and Kreme Ice Cream Sandwiches sell for $2.95.
“We also have a large grocery section, home meal replacement items and sushi,” Klinger adds. “We modeled Seeds after Whole Foods and Chow, in Lafayette, Calif. We are doing $13,000 to $14,000 a day out of a small space—2,000 or 3,000 square feet.”
Most popular among the premade grab-and-go items are an Asian chicken salad, a Mediterranean salad and the Aztec chicken sandwich.
C-stores, See Success
Convenience stores aren’t usually found in hospital environments, but Huntsville Hospital in Alabama has four of them. Combined, they generated $1.7 million in annual revenue for the foodservice department, and a good portion of the business comes from grab-and go-foods.
But Bill Notte, director of Food and Nutrition Services at Huntsville, harbors no illusions about why his campus’s c-stores are so successful.
“The driving force is coffee,” he explains. “We sell Starbucks coffee, and it’s that premium brand that brings them into the store. Once they’re there, they pick up other stuff they can take out.”
Retail manager Becky Lochner agrees, noting that 45% of sales at the four stores—which are named Grab N Go—are beverages. But breakfast foods, such as egg biscuits with cheese and ham, bacon, sausage or steak, are also big sellers.
“We do more food business at breakfast than at lunch, I think because people usually have more time at lunch to sit down and eat,” Lochner explains. But the department also makes a variety of lunch items for sale, including sandwiches on artisan breads like ciabatta, grilled items, salads and fruit and yogurt parfaits.
The largest of the Grab N Go’s, in the main hospital building, does $1.2 million in annual sales. The Women and Children’s Hospital has a smaller unit that generates $400,000 in revenue, and stores in the Governor’s Medical Tower and the Med Mall average about $100,000 each.
“This is my first experience with c-stores,” says Notte, who came to Huntsville last year from Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Fla. “They operate like the convenience stores at gas stations, and they are filled with all the brands you expect to find in such stores.”
When asked if there are changes planned for the Grab N Go’s, Notte jokes, “We could put some gas pumps along the side of the building.” But he and Lochner hope to get some capital funds to expand the stores to allow more product to be displayed at once, which Lochner says will make the stores less labor-intensive, since shelves won’t have to be restocked as often. Notte adds that the store in the Med Mall may be replaced by a Subway franchise to make it more like a café, since that location is several blocks from the main campus.
Grab and Go: 25% and Growing
Among foodservice facilities that offer portable, grab-and-go food options, one quarter of the total foodservice revenue is generated by such items, according to the 2010 Portability Study conducted by FoodService Director.
Our study surveyed more than 300 operators in schools, colleges, hospitals, long-term and senior care facilities and business locations, and 73% said they currently offer grab-and-go service. The percentage is highest in B&I (95%) and colleges (88%), while college operators reported the highest average percentage of total revenue (32%).
Most operators surveyed (52%) added that they expect the volume of takeout business to grow in the coming year. Seventy-two percent of college operators and 66% of hospital directors expect to see an increase in their grab-and-go revenue.
Customers’ busy lifestyles was the reason most often cited by operators as the reason for the expected increase, with 54% of respondents indicating that “customers have less time to spend in the dining area.” “Stated customer demand” and “increase in customer base” each were noted by 45% of operators, while 17% said “less seating capacity” and 11% cited “higher profits on prepackaged items due to labor savings.”
Conversely, only 5% said they expect to see a drop in grab-and-go business, with a decline in customer base or a decrease in demand as the reasons most often cited.
A wide range of items are sold in the grab-in-go format, with salads from the salad bar being the most popular.
Most operators (59%) said that grab-and-go service “saves labor in a way that boosts profitability, with 77% of college operators and 68% of school foodservice directors agreeing with that statement. Interestingly, 61% of B&I operators disagreed, possibly seeing the takeout option more as a customer convenience than a labor-saving device.
Also, operators by and large agree that point-of-sale merchandising trumps marketing tools in building grab-and-go sales. Only 21% of operators—with 3% of schools and 15% of hospitals being the lowest—use such items as promotions, coupons and discounts to attract customers, with most believing that dedicated take-away stations and improved merchandising displays and packaging materials will drive traffic.
Finally, biodegradable containers continue to rank among the less likely packaging option for grab-and-go service, with only 32% of operators offering such containers. Biodegradability is most often embraced by college (57%) and B&I (42%) operators.