Autonomous driving. Demand forecasting. Delivery robots. QR-coded items. Skip-the-line apps.
If this list sounds to you like a pile of trends from the consumer technology space, you’d be right. But it’s also just a sampling of the tech in use at The Ohio State University, where inspiration from all sectors informs how the team approaches noncommercial foodservice.
“Some of the best ideas we bring to the foodservice industry come from outside of it: last-mile delivery, other service industries, technology and even the manufacturing industry." says Food Service Director Zia Ahmed. “We think it’s really important to find out what innovation is out there, no matter where it comes from, so we can apply some of those ideas here.”
The tech-heavy approach helps Ahmed and his team with the colossal task of feeding a massive state university—one with nearly 66,000 students and 50 locations (including mobile options like food trucks) across five campuses.
Perhaps the splashiest of these initiatives is the school’s fleet of 100 self-driving food delivery robots. The rovers, which are reminiscent of white beach coolers on wheels and festooned with OSU-red flags and trim, have become a fixture rolling around campus.
“When we first [piloted] rover delivery in 2021, we were coming off COVID—and one of the best compliments we received was a student telling us they really elevated the mood on campus,” Ahmed says. “It was something different and fun at a time when we all needed it.”
It’s also built into the process students were already using: they order through the same delivery app, Ahmed’s team packs the items inside and students can track the rover’s path as it winds its way around. Once the bot arrives, it can be unlocked only by using an authentication number sent to the student’s phone.
The robots use radar, cameras and other technologies to monitor their surroundings and brake for pedestrians or other objects in their path. They work in rain and snow. And the students have become protective of them, Ahmed says.
“I’ve overheard a student say, ‘Hey, 140!’” Ahmed says, referring to the numbers assigned to each robot. “And if there’s a visitor on campus who’s checking them out and accidentally blocking the path, they’ll explain that it’s for food delivery. The rovers are really a part of the campus community now.”
In turn, the campus community also helps inspire other tech initiatives at OSU. Ahmed and his team worked with the university’s academic Data Analytics program to develop a capstone project, in which students worked to identify innovation opportunities to leverage from commercial high-volume QSRs.
This project revealed that at some locations, three particular sandwiches comprised a significant number of orders. Ahmed and his team combined this finding with the philosophy of the Pareto Principle—which states that for many outcomes, about 80% of consequences are the result of 20% of causes—to dream up ways to optimize.
After more than a year of development, the team launched a “Skip the Line” program with its mobile app provider. It’s a win-win, Ahmed explains: His team can focus on preparing volumes of the items they know will be most popular, and students can see which items will be ready for them quickly.
And if students pick up an order to-go, at some locations they’ll receive an item that’s part of another tech initiative: reusable containers that are tagged with QR codes. No single-use containers are available at these locations; students instead have a “ReusePass” associated with their dining account, and the QR-coded containers are assigned to their account when scanned.
The user experience for students is like a library book system. Students who take out a reusable container are reminded to return it within three days to one of many bins around campus, and after a 48-hour grace period from that point, they’re charged $8 with 50% of that sum applied to OSU’s sustainability programs. A whopping 99% of containers are returned, Ahmed says.
QR codes are also a favorite tool of Corporate Executive Chef Lesa Holford, who this school year, began inviting vendors to connect directly with students and offer taste tests for potential fall menu placement. As part of that program, students are invited to scan a QR code at the vendor’s booth and complete a brief survey about which items they enjoyed.
“At our largest locations we’re serving 7,000 to 11,000 people daily—where else would a vendor get that volume of feedback from actual customers?” Holford says. “It’s incredibly valuable, especially to get that commentary in real time. I love doing a face-to-face small focus group, but the sheer quantity of data we get from these events is incredibly beneficial.”
That’s particularly true for an operation as large as OSU, adds Holford, who’s looking to “incorporate more diversity in our menu offerings without increasing the labor.” She also relies on forecasts, comparing expected sales with actual sales data to help make decisions—a somewhat similar concept to the forecasting that birthed the Skip the Line program.
With these and all other tech-based initiatives, Ahmed says, operators should keep in mind that optimization happens over time. For example, at the start of Skip the Line the program sometimes over- or under-forecasted sales of certain items—leading to food waste or a longer-than-expected wait for some diners.
A constant stream of data also helps improve the rovers, who face a difficult task when navigating the campus during busy times in between classes. A casual observer might wonder why a robot sometimes seems to be taking the long way or doubling back, but it’s because the algorithm learned over time that the robot must stop too often on main arteries on campus at certain times.
“It’s all based on learning that took place over time and is still taking place every day here,” Ahmed said. “You have to have the appetite for learning, and sometimes that means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. With innovation, when you’re ‘failing,’ it often means you’re actually being successful.”
Sidebar: Get to know The Ohio State University’s Zia Ahmed
See what’s in store for Ahmed’s operation, which was named FSD’s November Foodservice Operation of the Month.
Q: What is it that makes your operation excel?
Our relationship with our students. We are very forward focused, and we're constantly talking to our students to maintain that connection. We're very fortunate that we have approximately 1,800 students working directly with us [as employees], including a Student Employee Council that gives us direct feedback based on their experiences as an employee and a consumer of dining services.
That’s just one of many examples of our relationships with student organizations. We really depend on getting continuous feedback, and it’s an open, candid, fluid relationship. They can feel that we are a trusted partner on campus because we're willing to listen to them and make changes based on their feedback.
Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?
We don’t have the solutions quite yet, but we’re exploring into multiple different options that we’re excited about. It could really help students who are staying up late if we're able to provide nutritious meals 24 hours in certain hubs. But efficiency is, of course, a major factor. It's hard for us to open or maintain an operation when we may not get a lot of transactions during that time—plus, it’s not attractive for students and other staff to work very late in the evening.
But if we’re able to deliver food by using technology efficiently, then we can combat that labor issue while continuing to increase access to food for our students. I’m really excited about exploring these avenues and figuring something out.Nominate an FSO of the Month