Where the foodservice industry’s labor shortages and students’ calls for convenience meet, operators are about to find delivery—including by robot. For the college and university sector, it’s already arrived. George Mason University launched a fleet of autonomous delivery vehicles in January, followed by Northern Arizona University (NAU) in March. The six-wheeled boxes scoot around both campuses, and can be unlocked by phone app.
The robots’ wow factor went international. TV crews made the haul up from Phoenix stations—and even from the BBC—to film in Flagstaff, Ariz. People stopped to pet the robots like kittens in Fairfax, Va. And customers reported paying the $1.99 delivery fee just for the kick of having a robot deliver them a cup of coffee.
“It was amazing to me the stir it caused,” says Ben Hartley, Sodexo’s director of campus dining at NAU.
Vendor Starship Technologies supplied the vehicles in both cases. The fleets are now up to 40 machines at George Mason and 32 at NAU. Surprisingly, no vandalism has been reported on either campus beyond students wanting to put stickers on the vehicles—leaders say humans tend to protect the robots like little siblings.
Photograph courtesy of Sodexo
The vehicles operate on a combination of artificial intelligence, ultrasonic sensors and cameras. (Humans can monitor the machines and take them over at any moment.) The robots map campus and get better at navigating it, but mishaps can occur. When one machine went rogue off campus in Flagstaff, Hartley found it and put it in his back seat—and endured an ear-splitting alarm. “It was screaming until I got him back to campus,” he says. “It set off a panic—they thought I was picking him up to pirate their technology.”
The number of deliveries has averaged 400 per day at NAU, jumping to 600 during finals week. There was no upfront cost, Hartley reports—the company provides the robots and keeps the delivery fees, and the universities pay them some revenue.
“It was amazing to me the stir [the robots] caused.” —Ben Hartley
At George Mason, the foodservice department has actually added 20 student workers, called “robot runners,” to fill the delivery vehicles. Even with that additional labor cost, the operation’s net revenue has grown by 5% since introducing the option, according to Jeff McKinley, a Sodexo district manager who oversees the university’s foodservice.
NAU had hoped to encourage breakfast participation and saw a “noticeable uptick” when the robots were added, Hartley reports. Still, he calls overall growth “modest.” He advises fellow FSDs to avoid multiyear contracts and to moderate any wild expectations. “If you think you’re going to put robots in and grow your sales by 25%, that’s probably not accurate,” Hartley says. “It’s a component. We’re going to pilot, and if it’s a situation of moving money from our left to our right pocket, we’re going to have to reevaluate.”
Other universities, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are poised to launch robotic delivery this year. Ongoing labor shortages make it a priority, says Peter Testory, director of dining and culinary services for the university’s Division of University Housing. It’s not just full-time positions that are being left vacant, he says—even the number of student employees has declined year over year on campus.
Autonomous delivery will also free up space in some crowded lunch venues, leaders hope. “Between the students wanting it and expecting it … [and our] hoping it’ll open up some seats in our facilities, it’s kind of a perfect storm of opportunity,” Testory says. (UW-Madison has selected a vendor and plans to start robot delivery within the next few months.)
Photograph courtesy of Sodexo
“Society has changed, not just students,” he adds. “They are used to services being readily available to them, not having to drive, not having to own a car, not having to shop, ordering premeasured, ready-to-cook dinners from Amazon or Blue Apron. As a provider, we have to react to what they’re used to, what their needs and wants are—good, bad or indifferent.”
Major foodservice players are getting into the game as well. Chartwells Higher Education has expanded a campus delivery pilot it started earlier this year at the University of Houston, adding more retail concepts for on-demand delivery and increasing its number of delivery locations. And Aramark recently acquired Good Uncle, a meal delivery service tailored to college students that launched in 2016.
The human touch
Autonomous vehicles aren’t the only doable delivery option if you’re willing to hammer out the logistics, as Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., has proven. It launched a late-night delivery program, Food2You, in fall 2015 under the direction of Kerry Paterson, director of residential dining and catering for University Housing and Dining Services. The offering was dreamed up on three weeks’ notice after a summer brainstorming session that underscored students’ desire for more late-night offerings.
Food2You started by delivering pizza between 9 p.m. and midnight. It soon hit max oven capacity of about 120 pies per night—“It’s like Super Bowl Sunday every night,” Paterson says—and added items such as salads to spread out the demand. Fresh-baked cookies and milk are now top sellers. Ice cream also proved popular, but it wasn’t a good delivery combination with warm pizzas.
A key advantage: Unlike pizza delivery from off-campus vendors, or even robots on other campuses, Food2You comes all the way to individual dorm rooms. (Couriers don’t report what they see behind the door unless a serious health or safety concern presents itself.) Logistically, three drivers collect a set of orders for each of the three residential sections of campus. Eight couriers stationed in those areas meet the drivers and take it from there.
“Society has changed, not just students. They are used to services being readily available to them, not having to drive, not having to own a car, not having to shop, ordering premeasured, ready-to-cook dinners from Amazon or Blue Apron.” —Peter Testory
All in all, Food2You requires about 15 student employees per night. Leaders report it has increased revenues—39% of students living on campus participated in the two highest meal plans in 2018-19, up from 31% in 2015-16.
The program has given Oregon State a competitive advantage among prospective students, says Jennifer Vina, the division’s director of marketing and communications. “When we highlight this, we get a lot of gasps and oohs and ahs,” she says. “Parents can’t believe you can get a pizza delivered right to your room, and students haven’t encountered it on other campuses. It becomes a unique selling tool.”
The Ohio State University (OSU) has expressed strong interest in autonomous delivery but is holding out for a system that provides accessibility for people with disabilities, including those whose hearing or vision is impaired, says Zia Ahmed, director of dining services at the Columbus, Ohio, school. “We truly believe that having that bigger vision is going to solve for many other people,” Ahmed says. “If we can find a way to help the industry get there sooner, that will benefit society as a whole.”
In the meantime, OSU has joined universities such as Xavier and Case Western Reserve in piloting an attention-getting “pizza ATM.” Rather than microwaving a precooked pizza, it takes a 10-inch raw pie (previously topped with pepperoni, cheese or a breakfast combo by a human worker) and puts it through an oven in under 4 minutes.
The goal is for the special machine to run 24/7, but it’s not currently running more than eight hours a day, as it’s not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act outside of business hours. Braille lettering is available to help the visually impaired call a staff member for assistance, but such lettering isn’t extensive enough to let such customers operate the machine on their own.
Until that happens, Ahmed is starting to conceptualize pickup hubs for his campus. These kinds of stations, where diners can use lockers to efficiently pick up preordered meals, have been tested at many high-traffic locations, including Great American Ball Park, where the Cincinnati Reds play. He’s also dreaming about delivery by drone. “This is the future, absolutely,” he says. “I don’t think it’s too far off.”