What does the future of foodservice look like?

Panelists at the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers' 2023 conference provided some insights.
fry robot
A robotic arm cooks fries on the show floor at the NAFEM conference. / Photo by Kelsey Nash

Between a robotic arm that flips fry baskets, an abundance of Cloud-based systems and sensors that monitor nearly every aspect of food prep, it’s clear that the back of house is getting a major makeover as operations push into the next phase of post-pandemic recovery.

This futuristic spin was on display throughout the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers’ 2023 conference, held this week in Orlando, Fla. Here’s some of what we gleaned from the show.

Embracing change is a must.

In school foodservice, it used to be that “what you get is what you get,” says Shannon Solomon, director of nutrition services at Aurora Public Schools in Aurora, Colo. That’s certainly not the case anymore, says Solomon, whose district serves around 27,000 lunches each day.

Menu flexibility and offering lots of options, including three to four choices for elementary students, are part of their strategy. Kids want choices and they want to trust us, she says, noting that if there’s a special or a limited-time item, they’ll try it if it’s appealing to them, but they also know they can get the classic items that they’ve had before.

In addition, student palates are changing, she says, and it’s up to nutrition teams to meet them where they are. “We’re keeping our ears to the ground and getting a sense of what they want,” she says. Now that Colorado has permanently adopted universal free meals, meaning all K-12 students will be offered free meals after this school year, her team is looking at how to handle that higher volume while offering sufficient choices and increasing efficiency.

Speed of service is No. 1.

At Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., Director of Dining Services William Walker says the biggest request he hears from students is that they want food faster. They want their food to be ready when they arrive, he says, adding that “they don’t care if it sits on a shelf.”

Speed and convenience are also the top demands among corporate staff at GuideWell, says Damian Monticello, director of enterprise hospitality and event services at the Jacksonville, Fla., insurance provider. However, customers want that convenience in an environmentally responsible way. Monticello says his team took advantage of guests being away during the pandemic to “rip the Band-Aid off” around a lot of sustainability initiatives, including eliminating single-use packaging and Styrofroam cups.

In addition, his team has had to really embrace technology—adding a lot of mobile ordering, new back-of-house systems and minimizing what they have on hand in terms of food products and staff.

On the other hand, it’s also about an experience.

At Auburn, a recent study found that higher student GPAs were correlated with more time—and therefore, more money—spent on campus. That research highlighted the importance of making campus spaces welcoming and engaging so they encourage students to linger, Walker says.

For GuideWell, creating experiences that foster togetherness on campus is an area of focus, too. In addition to dining, Monticello oversees fitness at the company, and intramural sports, which were paused during the pandemic, are relaunching soon. “What are those key points that make it exciting for people to be back in the workplace?” he says. “Once they come back in and feel the energy of in-person events, it’s more likely that they’re going to come back in on a more consistent basis.”

When it comes to foodservice, it’s important to look beyond the food, Monticello says. GuideWell has done studies comparing people who dined exclusively on campus or exclusively off, and found that, on average, those who ate on campus spent less money, got back to work around 15 minutes faster and were happier with the overall experience.

Old-school designs aren’t meeting modern needs.

“When we talk to high-schoolers, they don’t want the fishbowl,” says Solomon, referencing the traditional style of cafeteria where all students are gathered in one space. Students prefer hanging out in hallways and little nooks around campus, she says, noting that having a majority of students in one room also generates some safety concerns. To that end, her district is thinking about implementing ghost kitchens with multiple concepts and switching to different sorts of tables, such as a 15-top where students could charge their devices.

Another item on the docket? Drive-thrus. Solomon aims to open them at two high schools, which have open campus policies, in the next couple of months.



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