Embracing flexibility helps university focus on serving good food, even during the pandemic

Photograph courtesy of LTI, Inc.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the culinary team at University of Massachusetts Amherst was committed to their mission—providing appealing, nutritious food to students. When their everyday practices were turned upside down by the restrictions and protocols necessary to maintain safety, creativity and flexibility became the rule of the day.

And having the right tools to make it happen was critical.

“We didn’t want to go to meals-ready-to-eat or serving only cold food items,” said Garett DiStefano, director of dining services for the university. “We’ve been able to keep serving hot foods, customized meals, meals that meet dietary restrictions. We’ve even put together dining specials. Just because we’re in this pandemic doesn’t mean we can’t serve good food.”

A key to providing that good food was flexibility from every corner—from the students who had to adjust to the new protocols to the staff and the very equipment they used.

QuickSwitch from LTI was one of the keys to success.

Alex Ong, the school’s director of culinary excellence, said the team started the semester simply, with a more subdued menu to determine what kind of procedures would work best under the new guidelines. Then they gradually ramped up, offering increasingly broader dining alternatives.

“Food is something we cannot skimp on,” Ong said. “Food is comfort. “We can’t help students study for their exams, but we can say we’ve got good food here and it’s going to make you happy.”

QuickSwitch temperature-switching wells were an important tool to help Ong and his team develop and execute a successful plan. Because they can hold hot, cold and frozen foods side-by-side—and can switch between temperatures in an hour or less—QuickSwitch provided the flexibility to experiment with new foods and food combinations without battling equipment limitations.

“Our focus was to keep the menu simple but good and then continually add variety by changing up the menu on a routine basis,” DiStefano said. “If you do that, students feel like they’re getting a great experience.”

The pandemic coincided with another significant change for the UMass dining team—the opening of Worcester Commons, a new multi-level dining and recreation facility.

Built to house 12 different dining concepts, Worcester Commons used a much smaller portion of the space at its opening, accommodating both a reduced student population as well as  a smaller staff.

QuickSwitch was critical for this transition, as well. Food stations could be repurposed well beyond the original design, thanks to the flexibility of QuickSwitch. What may have once been a salad and cold sandwich bar could suddenly serve everything from tacos to poke.

“We don’t have to worry about mixing and matching different equipment to make this work,” DiStefano said.

Equipment flexibility is also what allowed the dining services team to continue to use food to cultivate a sense of community on campus with special events like an ice cream sundae bar. From frozen ice cream to cold fruits and hot fudge, everything was able to be served from one counter using QuickSwitch.

“We’re really testing the flexibility we can get out of our equipment, seeing how creatively we can use it,” DiStefano said. “We would have had to put two or three pieces of traditional equipment together to do that one ice cream event, but with the QuickSwitch, we can really think outside the box to offer students a memorable experience.

“We like working with LTI because we want a company that works hand in hand with us and understands what feeding thousands of people is like,” he added.

Learn more about the flexibility of QuickSwitch at www.lowtempind.com/quickswitch.

This post is sponsored by LTI, Inc.