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How to expand late-night dining

Blame Amazon.

The online shopping giant has created a world where many customers can order an item online and have it delivered within hours. Or blame hotels, with their all-night room service; or supermarkets open 24/7. Whatever’s responsible, Americans are getting used to food on demand, and more noncommercial dining programs are figuring out how to make late-night options work in response.

With around-the-clock staffs, hospitals have been serving food at all hours for a long time. But now even they are looking at ways to expand service. Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack., N.J., has long served third-shift employees and visitors from 1-3 a.m., Director of Nutrition and Food Management Irma Newdorf says.

In the past few years, as they’ve brought on more hotel industry leaders to place a further emphasis on hospitality and to help develop more innovative menus, the 781-bed hospital has expanded its late-night menu options beyond standbys like burgers, now including items such as quinoa porridge and veggie cassoulets. “We always had comfort food,” Newdorf says. “But we’ve gone toward more plant-based foods, grain-based foods, and making sure any daytime specials were also available to our night shift workers, really helping them improve their health.”

Fresh sandwich and salad vending is also available anytime, and now Hackensack FSDs are hoping to start a late-night food cart as well. “We know there’s a demand,” Newdorf says. “If you can call Amazon and get whatever you ordered in two hours, it opens up a window for the service industry. It’s definitely an opportunity.”

Feeding the night owls

Among colleges, where students stay up late, Nashville’s Vanderbilt University was an early leader in late-night dining. The 6,700-undergraduate school introduced options such as late-night breakfast in 2000, following a year in which several students died in alcohol-related crashes while driving off campus for food. The university challenged each of its departments to help keep students safer—and dining has refined its model over the past few years as a result.

Vanderbilt started with scrambled-egg-and-fixings plates. From 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., the university’s Branscomb Market sold 1,200 meals—more than at any dining hall at any meal. “We didn’t expect it to be a moneymaker, but it was,” says Director of Operations Spiros Vergatos. Now the university has two facilities open 24/7 and three others open around the clock Monday through Thursday. The five facilities are retail operations, with best-sellers such as microwavable bagel bites (Vanderbilt buys so many bagel bites, it snags discounts). The late-night breakfasts are now rotated in, cooked in a catering kitchen. Partnerships with popular chains such as Chick-fil-A, Qdoba and Papa John’s bring fast-food items to the retail operations certain weekend nights, helping to mix up the offerings and fight menu fatigue.

With a supermarket background, Vergatos brought his retail mindset to the late-night sales model. Grocery stores already staffed stockers overnight, so adding cashiers helped them make additional sales with modest investment. Between his five locations, he staffs nine cashiers and one roving supervisor per shift. “It’s going to cost you a little labor, but not a lot, and everything else is already fixed in,” Vergatos says. “My philosophy, and the university’s, is that the food you want when you need it shouldn’t be a problem for you.”

Boston College thinks similarly. The 11,000-undergraduate school’s three main dining halls offer food until at least midnight seven nights a week. The location closest to the city train is also open on weekends until 2 a.m. The college makes full hot meals work with primarily comfort food items such as grilled chicken and mozzarella sticks, straightforward batch cooking and late-night staffs made up of mostly students, Associate Director of Restaurant Operations Megan O’Neill says.

Contracting late-night

Among smaller schools, Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., has been a pioneer. In 2013, as it requested new foodservice provider bids, the 1,700-student school realized there was demand for late-night dining. With 25% international students, plenty of student athletes and many students interning off campus, high numbers wanted to eat at extended hours. Sodexo folded 24/7 service at Lynn’s main cafeteria into the company’s successful bid.

Now there’s never an hour without diners, says Brian Bowser, area general manager for Sodexo. The key is flexible, efficient staffing, he says. Prep cooks work from 10 p.m.-6 a.m., a pastry chef comes in at 1 a.m. and the executive chef may leave a list of catering items to work on overnight. “There’s a platooning effect of staff coming in and out over that 24-hour period,” Bowser says. “We’re not so front-loaded in the morning.”

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