It’s still true that diners want it their way. But the straightforward, choose-your-toppings Chipotle model is, as the kids say, so basic. The noncommercial diners of 2018 are coming to the table with expectations for meals that fit their personalized needs, from portion size to protein type, calories and more. Operators are responding by pushing beyond the basics with spice-your-own-soup bars, specialty condiment stations and serving size tweaks cooked a la minute.
For some operations, the next phase truly revs up the personal part of personalization, turning diners into chefs rather than having to dictate their selections to another person.
Anthony Dedek, foodservice director at Pine Manor College, managed by Aladdin, a member of the Elior North America family of companies, says an interactive Asian noodle bar at the Chestnut Hill, Mass., school lets students control not only every ingredient choice, but also the portion size, spice and seasoning. An attendant is also standing by with suggestions.
“They get to pick and choose, from a nice, crisp, fresh vegetable to what type of broth they want to add, choices of protein,” Dedek says. “They build it themselves; instead of just pointing at something and picking it, they’re actually creating it.”
Careful planning and frequent deliveries help Dedek make sure this custom option doesn’t bust the budget. “With proper menu planning and cross-utilization of products, we can keep our costs in line,” Dedek says. “This helps us keep our inventory and food waste to a minimum. Also, we work with our purveyors on being able to get anywhere from three to seven deliveries a week if need be.”
At Edison Township Public Schools in Middlesex County, N.J., giving students the freedom to personalize their meals with specialty condiments has been a boon. Thanks to a Chartwells K12 partnership with Bal Arneson, a chef, TV personality and former teacher, Edison has piloted a new station called Bal’s Fresh Flavors. Menu options might include proteins such as kebabs or falafel; veggies such as curried chickpeas, caramelized Brussels sprouts or cauliflower; and grains such as quinoa, pita or naan.
Many students as young as elementary level have experience experimenting with trendy toppings beyond ketchup and mustard at commercial burger concepts such as Smashburger, says Sean Walsh, resident district manager for Chartwells at Edison. Giving students access to numerous condiments—rather than just the one designed to “go with” a certain recipe—has resulted in some innovative pairings. For example, the tzatziki sauce Arneson created for falafel has become a student favorite to accompany chicken wings.
“They’re taking the peach chutney that we really originally developed to pair with the pork kebab and the pork rice bowl, and they’re using it on different items,” Walsh says. “They’re putting it on a burger, using it as a dipping sauce for their chicken. They’re experimenting with their own taste and likes.”