Portability, or grab and go, is on the rise, with many customers choosing to take away nontraditional to-go items, like made-to-order dishes, according to FoodService Director's 2008 Portability Study. The study shows that almost nothing is off-limits these days when it comes to grab and go, but operators are still struggling with packaging issues.
At the University of Missouri in Columbia, Campus Dining offers take-out locations in six residential units, including a new facility called Baja Grill. Julaine Kiehn, director of Campus Dining at the 30,000-student university, says demand for takeout has been increasing steadily during the past seven or eight years, and the department has responded.
“There are seats for students to eat at the location, but everything is wrapped for takeout,” explains Kiehn. Operators like Kiehn, answering customer demand, pushed up the numbers in FSD’s 2008 Portability Study. Of the operators surveyed this year, 75% said they offer portable menu items, up markedly from 62% last year. B&I operators led the way again, with every operator polled saying portable foods were offered in their locations. Ninety-one percent of hospitals offer portable foods, as do 87% of colleges and universities and 66% of schools.
The numbers aren’t surprising in today’s fast-paced world, but they are paradoxical. Even though more customers than ever are looking for foods made-to-order, a significant number of them also want to be able to carry those foods away from the cafeteria. Kiehn, for example, notes that in addition to the dedicated takeout locations on campus, there is a portable component to each of the university’s all-you-care-to-eat dining halls.
Catherine Boucher, manager of food and nutrition services at Martha Jefferson Hospital, a 176-bed hospital in Charlottesville, Va., also notes the link between made-to-order and portability. At present, 20% to 25% of the hospital’s staff take food away from the cafeteria. Boucher says she expects that percentage to increase once a new hospital is completed in 2011, precisely because made-to-order will be a primary component of the new cafeteria.
However, she adds, employee customers won’t necessarily be looking to take foods back to their desks.
“A lot of employees have expressed an interest in take-home dinners,” she explains. “Whenever we menu chicken dumplings, for example, people will get extra servings to take home.”
Boucher believes a rotisserie station planned for the new servery will feed into the desire for portability, because customers will be buying whole roasted chickens to take home for dinner.
Portable foods are by no means the main driver for any institution or company’s foodservice program. On average, about 22% of a department’s total business is generated by portable menu items. The highest percentage, 25%, is found in hospitals, followed by 24% in schools and 22% in colleges. Interestingly, although every B&I operator surveyed offers portable foods, only 18% of their revenue on average comes from such items.
What people are buying: The basic rule as regards portability is this: If it can fit into a portable container, customers will take it out. According to our respondents, there is no single type of food that dominates as a portable item. Salad items from salad bars and entrées from the main or grill lines are most popular, with 16% of portable business on average coming from these stations.
Beverages, at 15%, are next, followed by deli sandwiches (14%), pre-packaged breakfast foods (9%) and other pre-packaged foods such as sandwiches and salads (8%).
Each market segment obviously has its preferences. For example, colleges are most likely to see entrées taken from the cafeteria, with 22% of take-away business from this category. By contrast, B&I operators report only 9% of portable business comes from entrées. For these operators, deli sandwiches are the hot ticket, making up nearly 19% of business. Hospitals tend to see a healthy focus, with the largest single percentage of portable business—20%—coming from salad bars.
Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., recognizes that portability can mean any type of food, so Dining Services designed a takeout unit that allows students to get a variety of items at one time. “On The Go!” is arranged so students can select up to five items quickly, bag and pay for them with one swipe of a meal card.
Half of respondents expect portable business to increase this year, and most of the rest expect business to remain steady. Among those who expect business to grow, the increase is projected to be 10%. Overall, about 75% of operators are actively looking to grow the business, either by setting up dedicated stations for grab-and-go foods (52%), purchasing new packaging that enhances portability (48%), improving merchandising of portable items (40%) and promoting portability more aggressively through coupons, discounts and e-marketing (19%).
Some operators say their portable business has plateaued after several years of steady increases. Sarah Johnson, director of dining services at Purdue, says when grab-and-go units were added, students flocked to them.
“In the last three years, the numbers have been trending downward a bit,” she says. “Our total meals for the system are up, so students are going [back] a little more to the dining halls, rather than takeout.”
Despite growing concerns about the role packaging plays in adding to the waste stream, plastic and foam still rule when it comes to portable foods. On average, 60% of respondents said they use plastic wrap or containers. Fifty-three percent offer foam containers, 49% use plastic clamshells, 48% use plastic salad bowls with clear lids and 42% use paper containers.
Only 28% offer biodegradable containers, with colleges and universities (47%) most likely to make such packaging available. Only 15% of schools make use of biodegradable packaging.
Pricing, of course, is one issue with biodegradable packaging. But some operators say it is becoming less expensive to buy such materials. Martha Jefferson’s Boucher noted her department was given administration’s blessing to purchase more environmentally-friendly packaging as prices began to inch closer to what it costs for other types of portable packaging.
Some operators and food management companies are looking to deal with the packaging issue by making reusable bags, which customers can then carry with them whenever they want food to go. Aramark, for example, rolled out its “Grab and Go Green” bags at B&I accounts on Earth Day.
But perhaps the most interesting approach to packaging can be found at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where Dining Services is using containers with aluminum bottoms.
“We partnered with an environmental residence academic program,” explains Amy Beckstrom, director of Dining Services. Every year they study a different component of dining services. Their recommendation, after looking at foam versus plastic versus paper, was that we should use aluminum-bottomed grab-and-go containers.”
Beckstrom likens the new containers to the old TV dinner-style packaging. She says the program studied the carbon footprint made by manufacturing and recycling the aluminumware and found that it was smaller than other types of packaging.
“We may have the ugliest containers out there, but we do market that fact, saying, ‘This is why you’re seeing these types of containers.’ We serve everything in them; we eliminated Styrofoam and clamshell containers.”
Beckstrom adds the department also offers customers reusable bags.