Technology & Equipment

An inside look at The Ohio State University's foodservice operations

With an annual budget of $80 million, the school serves 40,000 meals a day through 35 outlets.
Ohio State Dining Team
The Ohio State University dining team talked about tech enhancements, LTOs, reusable packaging and more during a spirited panel discussion at MenuDirections. | Photo by W. Scott Mitchell Photography.

With an annual budget of $80 million to feed a student population of nearly 67,000, The Ohio State University is known for doing things in a big way. But that awareness still doesn’t prepare a visitor for the scale of the foodservice operations, as attendees of the MenuDirections conference learned firsthand this week.  Consider, for instance, the school’s use of robots.

It's no longer a rarity today to spot one of the stubby autonomous delivery vehicles on a college campus. At OSU, there’s a veritable fleet. An experiment that began with just one of what looks like a rolling footrest has grown to 100 vehicles zipping around the sprawling campus. They are so numerous and routinely used that their presence doesn’t seem to register on students anymore.

This year alone, they’ll deliver 130,000 meals, according to the school.

The bots are just one more way of serving 40,000 meals a day from the foodservice department’s 35 outlets.

Attendees of this year’s MenuDirections event were treated to a detailed explanation of how that feat is accomplished while staying true to the university’s overriding mission of student development. Five members of the foodservice department’s management team took to the stage to explain what role they play in the process, from budgeting to menu development.

They depicted an operation that is increasingly using technology to deliver convenience, choice and better-for-you fare.

Nathan Darder, associate director of administration and planning, recounted the university’s Skip the Line initiative, a tech-based way to speed service. The team spent five semesters on its development.

Students are invited to scrutinize the complete list of what’s being sold that day in one of OSU’s 35 food and beverage outlets.

“You can tag every single item that you want,” explained Darder. The system lets the user know which of those items are ready immediately, enabling the student go to the outlet, skip the serving line to grab what they want, and then go.

The Skip the Line service generates 7.5% of sales at the outlet offering it, “and 28% of that money is from outside of the meal plan,” said Darder. “That compares to [an average of] 18%” outside in other facilities.  

Similarly, students have the ability via their phones to see how long they’d have to wait for a specific item to be prepared at an outlet of their choice. It’s like having “a virtual queue right inside their phones,” said Darder.

Despite the volume of meals that are served daily, the foodservice department frequently uses limited-time offers to combat menu fatigue, said Lesa Holford, OSU’s corporate executive chef.

“We also use it as an educational platform,” introducing students to foods they’ve never tried, said Holford. “We had a student once who’d never had a blueberry.”

Despite the university’s size and the scope of its foodservice operations, the department still thinks in miniature scale from time to time. OSU has an extensive, multi-faceted program to cut waste. An unusual component is providing students with bins they can use to compost in their dorm rooms.

The scale doesn’t spare OSU from the social ills afflicting far smaller institutions of higher learning. For instance, “15% of Ohio State students are food-insecure,” said Kathie Serif, associate director of the university’s coffee cafes, student union and catering operations.

The school responded with a facility called Food Alliance, a student-run food pantry specifically for their schoolmates.

To combat food security in the community, a group of volunteer students collect unused food six days a week for donation to local charities.

MenuDirections was presented by FoodService Director.                                        



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