As the coronavirus spread across the U.S., college campuses emptied out, company employees began working from home and schools closed, forcing foodservice operations to scale back and adopt new models. The scenario looked a little different in senior living and healthcare—two segments that continued on-site operations at fairly normal levels. But no matter the circumstances, every operator was challenged to find new ways to feed customers. And in many cases, that meant a quick pivot to takeout and delivery.
Engaging seniors at a distance
The majority of the 1,250 residents at Brethren Village Retirement Community in Lititz, Pa., typically socialize over meals in two full-service restaurants or a large dining room. But COVID-19 has made mealtime anything but typical. Service is limited to takeout and delivery, but chef Jim Carr and GM Rick Chambers are keeping guests engaged and spirits high with special events and innovative ideas.
Pop-up carryout dinners at Chives, one of the facility’s restaurants, have proven very popular. Carr and Chambers have organized a pig roast, steak night and rib fest. “We assign a pickup time to each guest to keep people separated; masks are required and we marked the floor with footprints and lines 6 feet apart to assure social distancing,” Chambers says.
Photograph courtesy of Brethren Village Retirement Community
Residents who want something else for dinner can order from another venue’s daily menu and grab a meal to go. The kitchen also provides meal delivery at no extra charge—a chef’s special for $8.99 that can be delivered to residents’ independent living units. Choices have included chicken piccata with roasted carrots, chicken pot pie and stuffed shells with garlic bread.
For those who want to do their own cooking, Brethren Village offers the Lifeline Grocery Program. Carr and a dietitian came up with a weekly grocery bag for two ($65) that includes components for seven meals and snacks using products the kitchen already has in inventory.
“Takeout and delivery are here to stay, and we’re trying to come up with ideas that keep guests engaged and safe.” —Rick Chambers
To provide a little eatertainment, Carr created step-by-step cooking videos featuring his recipes and those of other chefs taking part in Sodexo’s Love of Food Program. Residents can watch the demos on closed-circuit BVTV and then order the dish that was prepared. “Takeout and delivery are here to stay, and we’re trying to come up with ideas that keep guests engaged and safe,” Chambers says.
A micromarket with maximum reach
Foodservice staff at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, Calif., were looking for the best way to help their own overextended front-line workers when coronavirus cases started escalating in mid-March. “We came up with the idea to offer groceries for the healthcare staff,” says Wendy Mejia, GM for Sodexo’s foodservice operation at the hospital. “Within the first two days, 100 orders came in.”
To operate the new micromarket, Mejia provides grocery lists for participants, who check off their orders and submit them online. Included on the list are essentials such as milk, eggs, toilet paper, produce and basic toiletries. The culinary team then collects the online orders and fulfills, bundles and distributes the groceries.
“Our hospital cafe was really hard hit [financially] from COVID-19, so the micromarket is helping us retain employees,” Mejia says.
In April, the dining team expanded the micromarket’s offerings with $10 to-go meals for two. These are stocked in a reach-in refrigerator for employees to take and reheat at home. Ten meals are offered each week—two per day—with choices such as barbecued chicken with a starch and vegetable, pasta primavera with garlic bread and stir-fried tofu with veggies. These have also gone over well with the staff, Mejia reports, with 27 out of 30 sold each day and lots of positive feedback. She expects the market to stay in operation as long as needed for the hospital’s front-line workers.
Campus grub to go
College foodservice was also walloped when many universities transitioned to online classes in March. Most students left campus to return to their homes, but a portion remained due to travel restrictions and other factors.
At Michigan State University in East Lansing, dining operations adapted with a “gradual pivot,” says Kurt Kwiatkowski, corporate executive chef for culinary services. “We changed course at least five times, and by May, we were probably on Plan N. But we never really changed how we are doing service.”
The number of venues shrank—just four all-you-care to eat dining halls remained open instead of 10, and two retail outlets instead of 22—but MSU was still preparing 1,000 meals daily through the end of spring semester as well as attending to special dietary needs, with halal and allergen-free menus offered each day.
“We changed course at least five times, and by May, we were probably on Plan N." —Kurt Kwiatkowski
Since all the food is packed to go, the culinary team revamped some popular items to be more travel-friendly. “We stepped away from pizza because it doesn’t hold well, but turned it into calzone, using the same dough but enclosing the toppings inside,” Kwiatkowski says. Grain bowls combining grilled proteins and veggies have become a grab-and-go favorite, and instead of omelets for breakfast, diners can opt for similar ingredients in a burrito or bowl.
MSU foodservice employees are working, so long as they choose to. The need is there because student workers created a void once they left campus, and sanitizing the buildings has evolved into a big part of the job, along with food prep.
And no matter what happens come fall, takeout meals will most likely remain. “We’re in the planning stages of a lot of different scenarios,” Kwiatkowski says.