How to change dining without alienating customers

Considering guests and staff when closing a cafeteria.

Katie Fanuko, Associate Editor

retail students

As classes resumed at the University of Texas at Dallas this fall, the campus’ newly constructed food court, located in the Student Union, quickly became a gathering place where students—especially commuters—could congregate with friends and get a quick bite to eat between classes.

Building out a convenient dining option that catered to off-campus students—a group that comprises 70 percent of the student body—paid off. With the addition of chains including Chick-fil-A, Panda Express and Moe’s Southwestern Grill, the transitioned facility’s weekly foot traffic skyrocketed from 2,000 to 10,000, says Shannon Mariani, a resident district manager for Chartwells, which operates foodservice
for UT Dallas.

In the transition, the university was careful not to alienate its resident student body. Previously, the space housed a cafeteria-style dining hall geared toward students on a meal plan. To accommodate those diners, UT altered its meal plan so residents could swipe their meal card and receive one daily meal equivalent at a retail location if they didn’t want to return to the residential dining halls across campus for lunch or dinner. “If they get some value, discount or exchange program in retail, that makes it work,” says Bob Fishbein, assistant vice president for auxiliary services. “That way you are not alienating the two groups.” 

When making the switch from a cafeteria to retail, operators also must consider how the transition will affect staff, especially if job changes are eminent.

An administrative-led effort at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital to replace its cafeteria with a collection of fast casual and quick-service restaurants in 2014, required Josh Hasson, Northwestern’s director of food and nutrition services, to implement a plan to help transition staff to new roles, a process that took much of a year.

As staff were notified of the cafeteria’s closure, administrators had to make other foodservice or patient-service positions available to about 35 cafeteria employees, as per their union contract.

Hasson met individually with staff to address concerns, review available positions and discuss roles that they felt qualified to fill. To help employees onboard quickly, he paired them up with experienced staff within a department to help them learn new tasks or become familiar with software systems. “It worked out for the majority of employees, but it was still a difficult time because the hospital had never done anything like this,” he says. “It was a learning experience for everyone.”

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