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Acai bowls breathe life into revamped station at Penn State

A concept that replaced a labor-intensive sushi option has been a runaway success.
Photograph courtesy of Penn State Universe

After a staffing crunch prevented Penn State University from continuing to operate a sushi concept in its East Food District, the dining team tried something new in the vacant second-floor space: bowls.

And they were quickly surprised by the demand for the new option, says Paulette Wilkinson, East Food District manager at the State College, Pa., school.

When brainstorming a bowl concept that could offer something fresh, healthy and exciting, Noel Kelly, assistant manager of East Food District, spotted acai bowls at a downtown eatery and thought that might be a good fit.

Though the team had never worked with acai before, they began experimenting. During a pilot last spring, students were lined up even before the concept opened, Kelly says. To better inform what the station should offer down the road, employees provided samples of the bowls throughout the dining hall to get feedback on what students liked.

What’s available

Currently, there are three preset bowl varieties–Berry, Blue and White; Nutella My Berry; and Tropic Like It’s Hot—but students can also create their own. The customizable options are “by far the most popular,” Wilkinson says.

Toppings include raspberries, strawberries, mango, kiwi, toasted coconut and mini chocolate chips as well as granola made on campus.

Between the start of fall semester and the end of November, the concept sold just shy of 15,000 acai bowls during lunch, and an additional 13,927 at breakfast. The acai bowls are served from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., which is “all we are able to manage now with our labor,” Wilkinson says, noting that the team hopes to eventually offer acai in the evening as well if staffing allows.

“It’s crazy,” Kelly says of the bowls’ popularity. “We have snow out and it’s 20 degrees outside, and we’re still selling 300 acai bowls a day at least.”

Feeding demand

In addition to acai, the concept serves poke bowls during lunch and dinner, as well as hot oatmeal, Greek yogurt and overnight oats made with gluten-free oats, almond milk, chia seeds and vanilla.

Kiosk ordering helps out at the concept, reducing the number of staff members needed and increasing throughput because students are able to narrow down exactly what they want on their bowls before ordering.

While staff expected the numbers to eventually shift in favor of poke bowls, “that never happened,” Wilkinson says, noting that acai’s been outselling poke “by double.”

In addition, the team was surprised by how well the overnight oats were received. “Within the first month,” she says, “overnight oats were 40% of our sales.”

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