Three college and university FSDs shared thoughts on the future of their foodservice segment amid the pandemic during a recent webinar hosted by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association (IFMA). Here's a look at some of the major themes they discussed, and the challenges and opportunities therein.
Feeling the squeeze
“The roots of the tree of college and university in general were shook pretty hard by [COVID],” says Van Sullivan, executive director of the Faculty Student Association at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y., which had 5,000 students on campus last fall.
“We lost a lot of capital,” Sullivan says, noting that it will take colleges and universities “a long period of time to readjust.” In addition, he says, “it’s going to require a lot of hard work because we’re not going to be building new dining halls or really investing in new facilities or doing things for a few years like we used to.”
Anticipated declines in college enrollment in the coming years due to lower birth rates could add to the unique challenges, Sullivan says.
From the beginning of the crisis, staffing has been a big concern, says Jill Horst, executive director of campus dining at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which started bringing students back to campus this month. One of her main areas of focus has been finding efficiencies with fewer staff, she says: “It’s really about working smarter, not harder.”
Flexibility has been key at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Executive Director of Auxiliary Enterprises Ken Toong says, noting that his team is letting students take more food out of the dining halls than normal. Sullivan says his operation has done the same, as students may wish to leave their dorm rooms less often.
In addition, dining preferences on campus have changed a bit during COVID-19, Toong says, with students tending to eat healthier and choosing more fruits and vegetables to help shore up their own health.
Much ado about packaging
The UMass dining team spent a good deal of time and research on to-go containers, Toong says, and was determined to make takeout appealing to diners. To add a personal touch, staff members package meals in front of students and add a “made by” sticker with the employee’s name.
At UC Santa Barbara, “a lot of R&D testing” went into figuring how menu items could be prepared to travel well. While delicate dishes and those with flaky crusts were out, the team figured out how to make menu favorites to go—whether that meant changing up the cooking method, preparing foods more al dente than usual or adding extra sauce knowing that some would be absorbed during transit, Horst says.
Sustainability has also been a challenge amid the switch to strictly or mostly to-go meals. When it comes to eco-friendliness, “we might have had a pass for the last 10 months,” Horst says, noting that “there will be expectations from our institutions and our communities that we put that [sustainability] hat back on.”
‘To-go is here to stay’
A question that remains is how to create something new for students while also providing a type of experience that they’re familiar with, Horst says: “I think our dining rooms will continue to shrink, but our participation is going to expand,” adding that ghost kitchens and similar innovations could be solutions with staying power. Moving ahead, she says, “this is an opportunity for us to really reinvent ourselves.”