College and university foodservice shifts to off-premise offerings

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College and university foodservice is among the foodservice segments most severely impacted by the pandemic, as on-campus attendance and meal-plan purchases have declined sharply.

Operators are rethinking their menus and their service strategies to survive in the current environment. Many have closed or reduced operating hours at their facilities, and eliminated self-serve stations with shared equipment such as buffets and salad bars. 

To make up for these changes, and to better serve consumers, operators are offering more grab-and-go prepared foods for takeout, and many have begun offering delivery. Some operators have had to adjust on the fly as students are either quarantined or sent home after outbreaks. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, for example, students in several residence halls were asked to quarantine in place, and the school’s foodservice program shifted to a takeout-only model, with offerings from the student union available for curbside pickup, creating an opportunity for branded, pre-packaged products in high demand.  

This has presented a prime opportunity for the use of mobile app-based ordering, whether for pickup or delivery, to reduce interpersonal contact and time spent in foodservice facilities. Aramark, for example, said it would leverage its Good Uncle subsidiary, an app-based service specializing in meal delivery at colleges and universities, which it acquired last year.

A recent survey by the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS, which also recently released this free guidebook about college and university dining) found that consumers believe grab-and-go kiosks and delivery to be the safest options for obtaining food on campus.

The NACUFS research also found that students are looking for more off-premise consumption opportunities this fall. More than two-thirds—67%—of students surveyed said they would like to see more hot grab-and-go options, 66% said they wanted more take-and-bake meals, and 62% said they wanted more cold grab-and-go offerings. 

Operators need to carefully design their menus specifically for off-premise consumption. They should consider narrowing the scope of their to-go offerings to items that are easy to prepare in order to minimize labor, and creating menu items that can withstand the demands of travel. Items that don’t travel well may need to be eliminated or re-engineered. 

Packaging that maintains the temperature and integrity of the items is another consideration that may be new to many operators. Items should be tested rigorously to ensure that they will arrive at their destination intact.

 Many refrigerated grab-and-go offerings can easily be displayed in reach-in coolers, but operators need to consider how hot items will be stored. Items that won’t hold for long periods under heat lamps, such as French fries, might need to be made to order, and the same goes for hot beverages.

To-go menus and other pertinent information, such as hours of operation by location, should be posted and promoted online and via mobile apps, and updated frequently so that students, faculty and staff aren’t making unnecessary trips. 

Flexibility and innovation will be key as college and university foodservice operators seek to navigate this new environment. Johnsonville offers a range of foodservice solutions that operators can leverage to get the most out of their off-premise menus during these challenging times.

This post is sponsored by Johnsonville

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