Indiana University's dining team has long been focused on the core pillars of customer service, responsibility, sustainability and caring for those in need. And the coronavirus crisis put the importance of those pillars into even sharper focus—leading the team to launch an emergency meal program for students in need, virtual dining spaces for an all-takeout fall semester and more.
“That care is a core value, so when COVID really started ramping up back in March, my staff was very transparent with me: ‘This is what needs to happen, this is how we need to take care of our students right now,” says Rahul Shrivastav, executive director of IU Dining in Bloomington, Ind. Read on to see how the team sought to help.
A collaborative effort
“This” included what became the Emergency Meals Project, a program that over the summer supplied about 6,000 free meals to students who remained in Bloomington and were facing food insecurity. The idea for the program began when Executive Chef David Tallent was mulling over what to do with his food inventory after IU in March announced that classes would be going virtual.
“I was all over Rahul that we needed to do something—we’ve got all this food, and we won’t be able to use it all up,” Tallent says. “Then Carl Ipsen came along and said, ‘Hey, we want to do something for students,’ and it started to come together.”
Ipsen is a history professor and head of the IU Food Institute, which supports research as well as collaborative food-related efforts across the university. Other IU organizations, including Campus Kitchen, Food Working Group and Crimson Cupboard, joined in—and the Emergency Meals Project officially launched on April 13.
Students ordered online to receive meals Mondays through Fridays, either to be picked up safely on campus or delivered by a Campus Kitchen volunteer. The menu, which ran through July, included meals like Thai curries, African legume-based dishes, miso salmon with wild rice and Philippine adobo with chicken or cauliflower.
“We were able to build on what we had in stock for our catering inventory and campus inventory,” Tallent says. “When [the shutdown] happened, the impetus was on us to do something with it, and my frame of mind was to pickle things, make sauces, do whatever we can before everything goes bad. And then we were able to leverage that.”
The Project continued to be possible over the months thanks to fundraising—money came in even from people who had no link to IU but loved the idea, Shrivastav says. Donated labor from IU Dining, produce harvested and donated by the campus farm and a supplier’s gift of 100 pounds of chicken were also a big help. “It reflects everything this community is about,” Shrivastav says. “So many departments came together to work on this, from academic to student union to suppliers and even people outside of Indiana.”
These efforts were all in service of the student—which Emergency Meal Project recipients recognized and greatly appreciated, Tallent says: “People have brought in cards and boxes of chocolates to thank the staff. Some were grad students with kids. We’d see multiple meals going to the same address, and we’d think, this is a good thing we’re doing, even in a bad circumstance.”
Addressing the unknowns
That difficult circumstance seems likely to continue throughout the fall semester, during which IU’s dining locations are offering no seating and serving only takeout or prepackaged meals. (Students can still order in person, safely at a distance across Plexiglass.) “Operationally, it’s changing a lot,” Shrivastav says. “Menu items used to be finished in front of [students], and now we need to make really sure the items are craveable, clickable. No one wants a soggy burger and lettuce.”
In what came to be a prescient move, Shrivastav had already brought a popular mobile-ordering app to campus earlier this year—now quite handy for a takeout-heavy operation. “Grubhub is making a lot of this possible,” Tallent says. “I wasn’t a big fan of it to start with in January—I thought, we’re going to take any kind of face-to-face interaction—but now Rahul and everyone who was pushing [the app] now look like geniuses. I see other campuses struggling to ramp up.”
Staying (somewhat) social
To maintain that personal connection, IU Dining is planning virtual events like chef demos, trivia nights and movie events with themed food. It all looks quite different than the fall 2019 semester, and Shrivastav recommends other operators acknowledge the difficulty in order to power through: “Take it one step at a time,” he says. “It’s a long journey and you can’t get burned out. Focus on what we can do right, and do it well. Keeping the staff calm is so important right now.”
Tallent agrees, noting that “none of this has been easy. It’s been hours and hours of meetings and painstaking work. The plans you and your colleagues put in place—if it changes every single day, [take] the new information and reset that plan and keep going.”
In short, recognize that you and your operation are not alone. And in the meantime, the silver lining is an opportunity to grow. “We always say that we keep learning through our challenges,” Shrivastav says. “And this is a big one.”
Ask the FSD: Rahul Shrivastav
Q: What are your goals for the coming year?
The next 12 months is all about making sure our customers’ safety remains paramount. It’s always been important, but it’s our key focus right now.
Q: What is it that makes your operation excel?
The focus on not just excellent food but also customer service. It’s as simple as that. Everyone is committed to it, from the kitchen to the cashiers. In fact, one of our cashiers is so popular that people tell us if she leaves, they’re never coming back! Alumni return to campus to see her. That’s Hoosier hospitality.