What will college dining halls look like in the future?

As the pandemic wiped out communal dining on campus, foodservice teams were quick to pivot. But as dining in resumes, what comes next?
college students eating
Photograph: Shutterstock

As part of an ongoing roundtable series in FoodService Director’s FSD Community, four dining directors from the Big Ten Conference shared how their facilities adapted during the pandemic and what they see ahead.

Here’s a sampling of what they discussed.

On rethinking the dining experience.

“Communal dining is what colleges have been built around,” says Joe Charette, executive director of dining services at Rutgers University, noting that “we’re not really set up to have hundreds or thousands of orders queued up and ready to be picked up. We don’t have that design, that layout, that delivery system from where the food is produced, the pickup system.”

Now that multiple styles of food delivery are commonplace, flexibility is something operators will need to think about for all-you-care-to-eat and retail facilities, he says.

“I think people want to be back together," Charette says. "It’s been so long that they haven’t been with their friends that perhaps they’re really anxious to get away from takeout … but they’ve tasted it, they know what it’s like and how convenient it is.”

On obstacles to innovation.

“The conundrum we have is that we’ve been challenged with our reserves, et cetera, and our capital funding is going to be significantly set back for a while,” says Steve Mangan, senior director of dining at University of Michigan. “To rebuild and renovate is going to be very difficult, at least for us at Michigan, so we’ve got to be thinking about how can we incorporate some of these additional services in the facilities we have.”

Labor shortages may also complicate future plans. “The other conundrum we have is we’re all facing staff challenges,” Mangan says. “Can we really start adding on services that are labor intensive and [make it] difficult to staff our existing programs, let alone add to them?”

On tailored approaches.

Though the “genie’s out of the bottle” when it comes to takeout and, on many campuses, delivery, Michigan Dining will stay true to its core mission and not try to compete with Uber Eats, Grubhub and the like for local delivery business, Mangan says. Expanded takeout and pickup are on the menu, however.

And at the University of Maryland, “we took a little different perspective because we had to,” says Colleen Wright-Riva, director of dining services at University of Maryland. On her campus, preordering wasn’t offered throughout the pandemic. The team instead focused on speed of service, with the goal of getting students in and out of campus eateries in just four to five minutes.

“We simply allowed students to come into the dining halls and take everything out,” she says.

On what’s ahead.

Two retail units at Indiana University became ghost kitchens during the pandemic. These locations offered pizzas and Mediterranean fare, and required no front-of-house staff. They were “extremely successful,” says Rahul Shrivastav, executive director of IU Dining, and are something the university may continue in the future.

At Michigan, a major renovation that included a new dining hall has been put on hold, but when those plans resume, Mangan says he would like to revisit the dining hall’s design. Walk-up windows and even a drive-thru for pickup orders are some possibilities he sees.

To gain access to future installments in this series, as well as other exclusive content for noncommercial operators, join the FSD Community today.



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