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The state of C&U foodservice: Upping innovation

Social distancing brought a whole new meaning to student engagement.
Illustration: Shutterstock

Tech has become a key component of C&U teams' efforts to boost safety and convenience for diners and staff.

Though delivery robots were implemented at campuses across the country before the pandemic, schools have been relying on them even more to provide contactless foodservice during it. At Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, the dining team even expanded its robot deliveries to include members of the greater community, such as first responders.

Ghost kitchens and food lockers are another way operators are keeping things contactless. Earlier this year, the University of Mary Washington jumped on the ghost kitchen trend, serving up gluten-free fried chicken and fresh donuts from concept 1301 Hen House.

“It was a good way for us to add some variety for students,” Peter Stine, executive chef for Sodexo on the Virginia campus, told FSD last month. “It gave us some flexibility with the menu [and] we weren’t stuck with a particular location, so it freed up a lot of different opportunities for us.”

Schools have also added tech amenities to their retail units. The University of Houston, for example, debuted a contactless c-store called Market Next last year.

The completely automated market uses a camera-based system that allows students to pick up and pay for items simply by checking in on the school’s mobile app during their shopping trip. After students have selected what they want, they’re able to walk out of the store without physically checking out.

Finding new ways to engage

COVID also led dining programs to get creative with how they interact and engage with students, whether on campus or off.

At New York University, Executive Chef Tatiana Ortiz started a new Instagram TV series, “Tuesdays with Tati,” which teaches students how to prepare simple meals using ingredients from the dining halls. The series was originally supposed to air only during Women’s History Month in March, but it was such a hit with students that Chef Tati plans to shoot more episodes this school year.

Cooking videos have also been popular at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where earlier in the pandemic, the dining team took its popular “Dining on a Budget,” series to the web to teach students how to make healthy meals for cheap. The team posts the videos on social media and has also released a cookbook filled with healthy, budget-friendly recipes students can make at home.

Schools have also made an effort to engage students outside of the screen. Foodservice staff at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, partnered with other departments on campus to send incoming freshman a welcome package summer since they weren’t able to be on campus for their orientation. The boxes contained Miami swag, a small bag of the school’s own coffee blend that’s served on campus, a cookie cutter with a cookie recipe and other items.

And Chartwells Higher Ed this fall debuted its new Joy-Ful program, a series of events held across 300 campuses where the company operates dining. The first of four events was held in September, and it incorporated a street festival with food, games and, in the case of Louisiana State University, a jambalaya competition.


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