The Online Revolution

Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

It’s almost impossible to overestimate the ways the Internet has changed the way all industries do business. As foodservice directors strive to keep up with advances in technology, several Web-based tools have become popular ways for operators to market and connect to customers. Here, FSD takes a closer look at how operators are implementing and building their operations’ online presence.

Online RevolutionSocial Butterflies

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter help operators connect with customers.

Seemingly overnight, Facebook and Twitter have become necessities for any operation that doesn’t want to seem out of touch, especially with younger customers. At 20,000-student Illinois State University in Normal, Campus Dining Services recently launched a Facebook page dedicated to the renovation of its largest dining facility, Watterson Commons, says Tracy Widergren, marketing coordinator.

“Because this is an occupied, 18-month phased renovation, communication with the students we serve is essential,” Widergren says. “The Facebook page will allow us to post pictures of the renovation’s progress, provide updates on the renovation, and most importantly, receive feedback from the student population. We want to be sure students have an outlet to ask questions, express concerns and share excitement about what is happening in the dining facility. Facebook is just one of many tools in our communication arsenal that we hope will become a valuable and interactive experience for students.”

Widergren says the department is considering using Facebook beyond the renovation page, adding that they want to keep their presence on the site tied to niche topics.

“We’ve brainstormed some ideas such as a sustainability page or one dedicated to vegetarians,” Widergren says. “We want to make sure that anything we put on Facebook isn’t something you can already find on our Web site. So we’re trying to find niches in a place where students would be interacting with us and that’s what Facebook is so good for.”

Online Revolution, Twitter, Washington StateAt 18,200-student Washington State University in Pullman, Whitney Mueller, marketing graduate assistant for dining services, says the department is in the process of improving its Facebook and Twitter presence.

“Our goal is to use Facebook as a marketing tool to highlight limited-time offers, upcoming pace changers such as a strawberry shortcake bar and our ongoing monthly promotional series—A Culinary Adventure to Cuisine where each month we examine a different culture’s cuisine, people, culture and special events,” Mueller says. “We decided this avenue of communication was useful because it is no cost and it is the way students want to be connected. We also wanted to pre-empt their needs by making the information available to them ahead of time.”

Another social networking component Mueller implemented is Twitter. Twitter is a free site that allows users to send out updates (kind of like mass text messages known as tweets) that must be fewer than 140 characters. The messages are sent out to subscribers via the Twitter Web site, text messaging or external programs. Mueller says it’s a great way to get information out fast.

“You can only tweet like eight words and a link,” Mueller says. “So the real purpose is to get people to our Web site to get more information. We use it for almost every one of our programs because you can update it 100 times a day if you want. For example, we are hosting summer barbecues outside along with a concert series, so two days before we’ll tweet ‘summer barbecue, this Tuesday’ and then we’ll do it again the day of the event. Two months ago, Twitter was nothing and all of a sudden it blew up. It’s easy, fast and it works.”

Mueller says the department’s goal with social media is to reach customers where they are used to sending or receiving messages. She says it also helps support their sustainability mission by reducing signage and costs.

“We’ve tried to use these sites a little at a time,” Mueller says. “We started last spring  so we could learn all the ins and outs. Once we’re comfortable, we’ll promote it.”

At 14,600-student Boston College, Helen Wechsler, director of dining, says they have also used Twitter to reach out to customers when the department wants to connect quickly with them about special events such as free cookies when a student buys a coffee drink between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. at one location on campus.

“We have also experimented with ‘member only’ specials like ‘show this tweet at the register today and receive 10% off your purchase,’” Wechsler says. “Since there is no cost to using Twitter and it is easily implemented there is very little downside to using it.”

Not all colleges have jumped on the Twitter/Facebook bandwagon yet. For example, at 34,000-student University of California, Berkeley, Patrice Thomas, public relations manager for Cal Dining, says they launched a Facebook page in 2007, but admits they haven’t actively promoted it to customers.

“We hope to kick off a publicity plan to make better use of this resource,” Thomas says. “Our student customers are very active on Facebook and it would be nice to get them engaged with us on this medium.”

Thomas says the department is still researching how exactly to use Facebook in the future. She Online Revolution, Facebook, Illinois Statewants it to be a place where people can ask questions and start discussions about dining.

“Whether they have questions about where to eat or what to eat, I would love people to say, ‘did you try this, go to this location,’” Thomas says. “I think we’re increasingly going online to find answers. We just want that instant
gratification of having information always ready.”

Part of the plan includes a revamped Web site that will have an easy-to-navigate interface, student employee blogs and more. Thomas says to gauge how to build the new Web site, they sent out a short Web-user survey to see how the students use the current Web site, which also included a question about Twitter.

“We considered Twitter, but in the survey, only 9% of students used Twitter with less than 2% using it frequently,” Thomas says. “It may be something we pursue in the future if it catches on with our demographic. However, for us, at this time, it seems more of a post-college networking tool.”

At 2,800-student Concordia College, Sabrina Whiting, marketing supervisor, says her department has found Facebook to be an extremely important and influential tool when it comes to communicating with customers.

“We have a profile set up, which we call Cobber Dine that is our main communication tool with students on Facebook,” Whiting says. “Through Cobber Dine we ‘friend’ students and invite them to join groups we have set up. Through Facebook, students are able to easily and quickly express their thoughts about our services, and we are able to respond in a manner that reaches large numbers of people.”

Whiting says they’ve been able to find value in both positive and negative comments that appear on Facebook.

“When a student issues a positive comment it is great to know other students can see this praise,” Whiting says. “Negative comments work out in our favor as well because we are able to respond quickly to any negative comments and clear up any misconceptions right away for everyone to see.”

For some foodservice departments, social media sites can create a sticky legal problem. At 176,000-student Orange County Schools in Orlando, Fla., Javier Vazquez, senior manager, says they are currently not using these sites, although, they are looking into the possibility for next year.

“We’re looking to use these sites to promote food safety and the nutrition of our menus,” Vazquez says. “We heard some districts are afraid to move in that direction because of the bullying that goes on online.”

Vazquez says if the department does use Facebook, it hopes to simply raise awareness of what the department has to offer in a place where students are already spending a lot of time.

“We’re not planning on using it as a tool where they can leave public comments, because that gets into them posting inappropriate things,” Vazquez says. “We want to allow them to give us feedback, but it will be more like invisible feedback in that only we will be able to see the comments. Before we can set this up, we have to go through our legal team to see if there are any potential problems with us using these sites. Plus, internally we currently can’t use them because the district has them blocked. Although we know it’s a great concept, we have to protect the district.”

Web Sites that Wow

An operation’s Web site, be it on the Internet or intranet, is now key to success. 

Many operators are learning quickly what it means when customers say their Web sites aren’t up to snuff. These days it seems that if an operation doesn’t offer at least the full menu and nutritionals, Web ordering, blogs and more, then their Web presence can be found wanting. One way to spice up a Web site is by adding a blog component. At 745-student The Calhoun School in New York City, Robert Surles, executive chef and director of foodservices, better known as Chef Bobo, created a daily blog to update students and parents about the menu.

“The blog began as me sending the menu out every day to the faculty who read it in class,” Surles says. “I started the blog as a way to cut down on paper. The No. 1 reason I am doing the blog is for education. It’s education about food in general and the culture where the foods come from. I’m trying to get everyone to have fun and that includes our cooking staff.”

Surles has six chefs and each one takes a 10-day period during which they make the menu for the upcoming two weeks. Surles has final say about what is on the menu, but for the most part the other chefs come up with the menu on their own.

“We are a progressive school,” Surles says. “The chefs are very involved with the students.”

The blog isn’t just the menu; he puts other things on there as well. For example, when one of the chef’s menus included a family recipe, Surles posted the story about the dish and why it was memorable or important for the chef’s family. He also includes nutritional information as well as background about ingredients or dishes and their cultural significance. He puts pop quizzes on the blog as well; students give him their answers when going through the lunch line. Surles says he never thought the students would respond so well to the blog, but the school has a great sense of community and the blog helps maintain that.

“We’re trying to break kids from the fast food diet,” Surles says. “The more they get to know me the more they trust me to try the new things that we are cooking.”

Not content to limit its overhaul to only a blog, Washington State University’s Whitney Mueller says her department is in the process of a major Web site revamp that will include launching a separate site from the university’s housing site.

“Our site has always been lumped in with housing, so now we’re going to have our own site,” Mueller says. “We are going to have more pictures and make things easier to navigate. We are currently working on the structure and we hope to have it ready for fall. We’re working on a dining calendar of events that we will condense down into a monthly online newsletter that will tell customers what is coming up and what’s been done. We’ll post pictures of the events so students can see what’s been going on.”

Mueller says the department wants to make better use of its nutritional information as well. A big part of that component is to integrate the department’s Webfood, netNutrition and myNutrition sites. Since its introduction last year, the Webfood component has really taken off.

“We have expanded service to include online ordering and convenient pick up at our on-campus espresso bars,” Mueller says. “We added to the service by including a late-night pizza pick up and residence hall delivery option through the Stonewall Pizza Express. We have plans to add cheese sticks with marinara, chicken wings, pasta and foot-long sandwiches to the menu at Stonewall Pizza Express. We also hope to expand our espresso bar offerings to include a healthy option.”

Mueller says having these online tools has changed the way the department does business by making them more proactive.

“It’s come to a point where our customers are expecting us to have this information ahead of time,” Mueller says. “I think they appreciate that and it comes down to better customer service. It’s just one additional way we can make a difference for them.”

At 28,600-student University of Connecticut in Storrs, Gail Merrill, marketing and design coordinator, says like many universities, the department has posted nutritional information on its Web site for all foodservice areas: board plan,
retail coffee shops and food court.

“Providing instant access to that information allows customers to plan their meals and shows them the best places to dine for their particular way of eating, i.e., low calorie or organic,” Merrill says. “Our customers appreciate this information.”

Dennis Pierce, UConn dining services director, says since there has been such a significant increase in the desire for nutrition, posting the nutritional information online was a natural step.

“I have observed students spending a considerable amount of time looking at ingredients and nutrition info because of a plethora of health or dietary reasons,” Pierce says. “As a provider, we have an obligation to mirror the industry and provide readily accessible information for the discerning consumer. [My advice is] if you cannot provide accurate and timely information, do not even venture into this offering.”

Another important feature of Web sites is its ability to get direct feedback from customers. In Tulsa, Okla., St. Francis Health System’s Lisette Coston, director of nutrition and foodservices, says its intranet site gives employees the opportunity to post comments.

“On our intranet, we have a section that is for foodservices,” Coston says. “We get comments every day. It might be stuff like, ‘I’d like to see a certain flavor of yogurt, soft drink, etc.’ When someone sends a comment, it sends an automatic e-mail to our retail manager and then he will respond to those comments. If it’s something that’s valid we try to react quickly. You can also order an individual meal online through e-mail from our four retail locations. I think we are at the cusp as far as the technology involved is concerned. The site has other general hospital information, so ours fits in with the whole global access for the entire system.” 

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