How onsite dining met the coronavirus challenge with innovation

Coronavirus-imposed restrictions may have hit different onsite dining segments in somewhat different ways—stadiums and arenas completely closed while senior living facilities continued to operate basically at full capacity, for example—but every segment was challenged to come up with solutions more or less on the fly.

It is a tribute to the talent, dedication and improvisational skills of the people in the onsite dining markets that they were able in fairly short order to change—often radically—their operating models and continue to serve whatever customers remained, while keeping their own employees as safe as possible.

Here’s how innovators in the different markets approached their individual challenges.

School’s out for…spring?

Alice Cooper may have celebrated the end of the school year at the start of summer, but almost no one (well, maybe some kids) were celebrating school being out while there was still snow on the ground in many parts of the country. While the academic teams in the nation’s K-12 school districts scrambled to put together online learning models, their school meal programs sought to develop a way to continue to feed those homebound kids.

The solution that emerged almost instantly was the curbside packaged meal distribution program that appeared almost literally overnight in districts such as Elk Grove USD in California that had just shut the doors to their schools. Initially utilizing stock already on hand and enlisting employees willing to come in to assemble and pass out the meals, numerous districts around the country were soon in the meal distribution business, abetted by regulatory waivers loosening restrictions on how, where and to whom school meals could be served.

It wasn’t long before that show went on the road as packaged meal distribution migrated from school sites to bus stops, community centers and even individual student homes, with district meal programs either using their own vehicles to make the deliveries or allying with idled district transportation departments to use school buses.

From standard breakfasts and lunches, K-12 off-site meal distribution also soon moved into more elaborate programs involving suppers and weekend meals, and even meals for families. Some such as Houston ISD worked with other public and private social service agencies to feed communities using school meal program resources and expertise.

As fall approached and schools began preparing for 2020-2021 classes, their meal programs faced the challenge of preparing for providing dual meal service depending on how each district decided to approach instruction—onsite, offsite or a combination of the two. With traditional in-school feeding models hampered by COVID-necessitated restrictions on self-serve and social distancing, schools have had to develop alternate models that expanded on the breakfast in the classroom model and multiple service points. Some extended dining to more areas around—and in some cases even outside—school buildings.

To serve remote-learning students, school districts are developing multiday meal packs that can be picked up once or twice a week rather than daily, easing burdens on both providers and parents while boosting the number of meals served.

The campus food flight

While universities across the country shut down in-person classes last spring and sent students home, most retained some sort of onsite foodservice because some small portion of the student population with no other place to go—plus some necessary onsite staff—were still around. To serve these skeleton populations, dining services at these schools generally pivoted to all-takeout models, and some such as Virginia Tech even experimented with campuswide meal delivery services. Meanwhile, mobile and preorder platforms spread to provide a customization component to the new expanded takeout culture.

The experience with such a limited population through the bulk of the spring and summer has helped prepare the campus dining community for fall, when many schools planned to either fully or partly reopen for in-person learning—and even those that opted for fully remote classes to begin the year in many cases were still welcoming students back to campus.

To serve them, campus dining services are still heavily focused on take-away and mobile ordering, even in traditional eat-in, all-you-care-to-eat dining halls. While some schools have gone to universal takeout to maximize safety, other have allowed limited in-house dining to provide students some socializing space while keeping tables and chairs sufficiently separated.

Retail dining on many campuses, however, remains largely if not exclusively takeout—and often mobile-order oriented. In addition, dining departments have tried to provide additional communal dining spaces, especially outdoors and in unused areas like conference facilities, ballrooms and gyms.

Here are a few recent innovations being rolled out by campus dining programs:

  • Auburn University and Aramark are using automated food lockers that customers access with a personal code to receive mobile-ordered meals from campus dining outlets. The strategy keeps students away from service counters while allowing quick service response as the food is usually delivered fresh and hot to the lockers within minutes of ordering.
  • After being forced to limit its highly popular meal plans to resident students only as a COVID-necessitated response, Virginia Tech is augmenting dining service to commuter and off-campus students—and helping the local economy in the process—by partnering with local restaurants in a program called Blacksburg Delivers that lets students order dishes from participating establishments and have them delivered to designated pickup points on the campus.  
  • Maryville University and management company Fresh Ideas Foodservice have converted the school’s residential dining hall into a six-station ghost kitchen from which students can mobile order meals for either pickup or delivery.
  • Stanford University has instituted perhaps the country’s most stringent customer safety program by requiring students entering dining venues to wash their hands at mobile hand washing sinks outside the doors and to undergo a quick temperature check. Students whose temperature remains elevated after several checks are not allowed into the facility but can get what they want packaged and brought out. They are also sent to the campus health center for further evaluation.

More in store at hospitals

Hospitals have been in the eye of the COVID storm from the start, and their in-house dining departments have had to cope with reduced retail business resulting from the barring of most visitors from the premises, the closure of associated medical office buildings and out-patient clinics and the relegation of administrative staff to working from home, plus lower in-patient census numbers as discretionary and elective procedures were curtailed to keep capacity available for a potential COVID surge. To cap it all off on an ironic note, the flow of free and donated meals to hospitals from external restaurants, businesses and individuals looking to thank first responders only served to further reduce in-house retail food sales.

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