Foodservice Operation of the Month

Applying hard-won pandemic lessons in a post-COVID world

Some operators have found silver linings and new projects in this challenging time.
Chef making a meal kit
Photograph courtesy of Shasta College Food Services

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many industries, few more so than foodservice. Yet some operators have found silver linings in this challenging time—exploring new projects and making operational changes that may not have been possible before. And those transformations born of necessity can continue in a post-pandemic era.

At Shasta College in Redding, Calif., Director of Food Services Denise Axtell and her staff launched new initiatives and discovered solutions that they have no intention of stopping anytime soon.

Online ordering has officially become an expectation.

The proliferation of online ordering has slowly been crossing over from restaurants into noncommercial, and that accelerated significantly during the pandemic. With even upscale restaurants embracing takeout as a way to survive, customers now expect the option everywhere.

“Before, when we thought about online ordering, it was like, there are so many logistics involved—how to get [the sale] to the right revenue center, how to get the food to our side window to be picked up—and, in normal times, how can we possibly back up and think about this?” Axtell says.

The pandemic gave her not only the time and space to do so, but also a true need to try something new, as Shasta’s foodservice team was warned layoffs could be coming.

“When you’re faced with closing down, you think, I guess I can take my roller skates off for a while and make this happen,” Axtell says. “And online ordering has been fantastic for us. It is not going away.”

New revenue streams can be more than just ‘COVID experiments.’

Many operations have had to get creative with their menus, and while not all experiments are meant to stick around, some can continue to be revenue drivers even in a normal year.

Shasta’s students have loved the new meal kits that Axtell’s team has been offering during the pandemic, making it easy for them to whip together taco bowls, pulled pork and other meals in a snap. Axtell only wishes they’d done it sooner.

“The fact is, we could’ve developed that long ago for our dorm students because we aren’t open on weekends,” Axtell says. “Parents would often be like, ‘Oh no, my kid’s coming to college and doesn’t know how to cook!’ The meal kits would have been a great offering to share with them.”

Time spent analyzing the business can pay big dividends.

Like many other operations, Shasta’s staff has used some of the pandemic “downtime” to take hard look at the menu and sales data, says Nick Koenig, manager of the school’s food services and Starbucks location.

“It gave us time to step back and maybe do better at condensing our menu, because we offer quite a bit,” Koenig says. “We also played around with a program that let us plug in inventory and how [swaps] change the cost of recipes and subrecipes to see what’s most effective.”

In one example, the staff recognized that soft pretzels weren't selling well, and Koenig felt the quality was “just OK, which is not what we strive for at the end of the day.” Instead, they decided to play around with limited-time offers.

“We’re talking more about that, and we jumped into it unintentionally with the meal kits,” Koenig says. “Overall, this just gave us a minute to step back and really check everything out.”

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