Self-serve rules

Operators who aren’t embracing the idea of customers serving themselves are a dying breed.

Self-serve foodservice is taking on greater importance than ever, as more and more operators are discovering that self-serve options can lead to

less waste, environmentally friendly consequences and a happier customer base.

“We have a very vocal student body, but in a good way,” said Operations Manager at Colgate University Dining Facilities Pamela Rowe. “We try to respond to their requests and we have a very healthy campus.”

At Colgate, as in many foodservice operations, the salad bar remains the self-serve anchor. The university’s station offers a variety of lettuces and fresh vegetables including cucumber slices, tomato wedges, carrot shavings, chick peas, blanched broccoli and cauliflower florets, sunflower seeds, croutons, chopped hard-boiled eggs, various olives, cheeses and peppers, along with a choice of dressings. The more exotic offerings include organic arugula; red, orange and yellow cherry and globe tomatoes; bean sprouts; sundried tomatoes and fruits; mandarin oranges; walnut pieces, and tofu.

“We always tinker with it,” Rowe said.

Diners enjoy building their own theme salads, such as Asian with red cabbage and a sesame ginger dressing, Mexican with cheddar jack and salsa, Greek with kalamata olives and feta or Italian with pepperoncini and a balsamic vinaigrette.

Colgate also offers a lot of exhibition cooking—a chef prepares an entree batch of food as students watch and participate in choosing the ingredients. Specific vegetables and proteins can be added and sautéed with a choice of broths or sauces to complement foundations of pastas or rice. Students feel empowered when they can choose fresh ingredients and spontaneous service.

Old brand, new take: Pat Farris, director of school food and nutrition Services for the Archdiocese of New Orleans Schools, believes in improvising with the daily fare to continually capture the students’ imagination.

“In an effort to compete with Lunchables brought from home, we offer a “Kidable,” Farris says. “This is a reimbursable school lunch that is made fresh at school in a clear three-compartment container with lid. It has carrot and celery sticks with ranch dressing, fruit and a sandwich or crackers and deli meat with cheese. For Halloween we kicked off our new mashed potato bowls. It was the Monster Mashed Potato Line. The students self-served a variety of toppings— Oriental chicken, barbecued pork, mushrooms and gravy, chili, broccoli and cheese, etc.”

“We have our baked potato bar with toppings,” says Mark LoParco, director of dining services at the University of Montana. “We have choices of butter, sour cream, chopped onions, broccoli, beans, rice and cheeses.”

LoParco said the potato bar uses both white potatoes and yams. One thing students won’t find, however, is bacon bits, because the bar is part of their vegetarian line. In addition to the potato bar, there is a self-serve rice station with various rices and beans, and an assortment of toppings. He credits the Food Channel for this new breed of food-savvy and health-conscious diners.

“Our students are very appreciative of the quality of food that they can get on campus,” LoParco said. “They are much more savvy than they were in years past. They know osso bucco; they know about the different varieties of fish. And they know about nutritional value. They used to get together to watch soap operas; now they’re watching the Food channel. One of the most popular items we offer is sushi. They line up 12 deep to create their own sushi meals. They choose the ingredients and we roll it for them.”

Frozen yogurt is fast becoming a self-serve favorite. Along with different containers and flavors, a variety of toppings are available such as granola, cookie-crumb, butterscotch, marshmallow, Butterfingers, Reese’s Pieces and chocolate syrup. To complement the yogurt, another option is the fruit granita, an Italian fruit ice drink made of fine-grained frozen crystals of real fruit and fruit juice. Some popular flavors include raspberry, smashing wild berry, lemon and pina colada. To take it to the next step, the granita can be topped with the frozen yogurt to create a one-of-a-kind nutritional dessert.

Choose your own breakfast: At Mt. Carmel Saint Anne’s Hospital in Westerville Ohio, they offer an occassional breakfast line self-service with pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and toast.  Nutrition Services Director Janet Baker says there are plans in store for expanding the self-service.

“It allows me to free up staff,” Baker said. “The problem with it is portion control, but we have other labor needs and it equals out in the cafeteria.”

In dealing with a 3% to 5% increase in food cost, Baker is holding off on raising prices. “We are looking at all the issues,” she said.

Self-service systems are used to display food and to increase satisfaction by offering a variety of choices. Kiosks and self-service technology also serve as a hedge against increasing expenses during tough economic times, allowing managers to schedule their labor resources for high-volume periods without sacrificing service during non-peak times.

Self-service, from coffee and drinks, to entrees and sides, to dessert, not only addresses the individual taste issues but also the speed factor.

Sue Bettenhausen, foodservice director for the Scottsdale, Arizona, Unified School District said recently reconstructed food courts in some schools allow for more self-serve items and a quicker pass through the line, thus providing more eating time for the students. With U-shaped lines and a cutback to two cashiers, students are no longer rushed to eat lunch.

“We provide as much scope as we can,” Bettenhausen said. “We can accomadate 50 to 100 and we’ve discovered everything moves smoother if we let in about 25 to 30 students every 35 to 40 seconds.”

A salad bar or sandwich bar is a piece of equipment used for display but also a method to offer more choices to enhance customer satisfaction. A "bar" may be as basic as a table with a homemade portable sneeze guard or as complex as a mobile stainless steel serving line with hot tray slides. A variety of self-service systems are possible: salad bars, sandwich bars, potato bars, soup and sandwich bars, taco bars, pasta bars, fruit bars, dessert bars and condiment bars.

The first attempt at a self-service bar begins with the number of choices in the offering. For example, a salad bar could be started with a bowl of tossed greens and a variety of dressings. With a gradual increase of toppings and dressings, the bar expansion becomes a direct correlation of customer feedback and what choices are made. Addressing the positive and negative responses of customers is a key component in any successful self-serve operation.

Boomer’s Café, on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville, received extensive renovations this summer to improve functionality and speed of service. The renovations helped to create an environment that was more welcoming, and helped to eliminate long lines during peak meal times. A large counter area was removed and replaced with open space and a number of self-serve stations including a grill window, a new soup station, a hot lunch buffet, Pizza Express, a salad bar, a drink station and an Up For Grabs concept.

“One of the goals of this project was to increase the level of convenience for our students,” said John Baughman, Metz & Associates’ general manager at UPT. “Through our weekly food service committee meetings, we’ve determined that our goals were accomplished, as student comments are showing they are extremely pleased with both the speed of service and the convenience.”


Balancing self-serve

Students prefer some self-serve, but at restaurant quality.


Bruce Haskell, the associate director of university housing at Michigan State University, knows that students have become much more sophisticated and restaurant savvy. So, while Haskell prefers meals to be plated to give them that professional appeal, he also realizes that students like to see the actual preparation and have a hand in choosing the ingredients. So, Michigan State’s chefs cook to order and customize as much as possible, giving the students healthy and fresh options, the way they want it.



[Self-serve choices vary] depending on what makes sense to serve themselves. We prefer to put the plate in front of the guest. One of our goals here is to create an enhanced culinary presence in our operation and to do that the student has to perceive it as something they would get in the private sector.


What you usually see in a lot of universities around the country—you’ll see the plates on the counter in front, the kids grab the plate, fill the plate and take off. We prefer them to get the guest experience where we’re going to put it on the plate so it looks nice. We’re complimented a lot of times for certain types of sauces and we like to dress [food] up so what they get looks like something they would get in a restaurant even though they are in an institutional setting.


We do several of the station counters, cooked to order; we call them action stations. The students, though they are not serving themselves, are actually selecting what they get while we finish it and serve it so that they get it made fresh, made for them while they make several choices in the process.


Some examples of that would be something as complex as a stir-fry where we have certain protein and a variety of vegetables. They can select what they want and we put it in a sauté pan with a little sauce, plate it with a little garnish and sometimes add a side of their choosing. We have another line where the students collect their own ingredients and put it in a bowl, sort of like a Mongolian grill. They hand the bowl to the chef who puts it in the sauté pan with a sauce and whatever spices. For example, a noodle bowl, which is chicken broth and noodles, they add sautéed items of their choice to the noodle bowl. This is a hugely popular option.


It’s kind of a combination, more of a self-selection, but still personalized food. And that seems to be a great satisfier, being able to have a choice in what they get, having it prepared fresh in front of them and having it plated and served directly to them. When we get really busy, we can make a batch to serve 10 or 12 and put it in a crock. They still know it’s fresh because they see it being prepared. They can get the standard stir-fry of the day, but if they want, they can still get it with tofu or without snow peas; we can do that as well.


Then you take a classic, like turkey pot pie, which is something you would never think that you can self-serve, but one unit has done that very successfully to great student satisfaction. They have the hot turkey, the hot peas, the hot carrots, separated, and the students come up have the turkey and the carrots, but not the peas, add the mushrooms, put it all in a sauté pan with the gravy, put it in a hot shell and put the top on it. The kids go nuts. I never thought that would be as hugely popular as it is; but it works.


When we serve it, we can make it look nicer. We can control our portions and control our costs, and they can always come back for more. We let them do the baked potato bar, the nacho bar and the taco bar. Those are some of the things where it’s better that they serve themselves. Sometimes you have to make a judgment between plate presentation, culinary presence and serving it versus really satisfying them because there’s something that they really just want a certain way.


There’s a balance between the two. They will be far more tolerant waiting on each other than they will be waiting on us. If Suzie’s in front of Johnny making her nachos and cheese and she’s taking forever, he may roll his eyes a little bit, but he’ll be patient and wait ‘til he gets his turn. If we’re doing it and we’re slow, there could be problems. There’s a bonus with some self-serve options, but you’ve got to pick and choose carefully. You don’t want self-serve lasagna; they will tear it up.


What people really want is that personalized touch. We’ve come a long way from a lady in a hairnet schlocking it on the plate. Some things they want to touch. They want to grab that slice of pizza with the extra pepperoni; that works. But when we’re putting together Guinness lamb stew with spaetzle and some sort of fruit salsa on the side; we want to do that, with them watching. Then they look at it like they are looking at it in a restaurant. They eat with us for survival; they go to restaurants for experience. What we’re trying to do is give them that experience in this daily environment.


More from our partners