BACK TO SCHOOL: COLLEGE FOODSERVICE LOOKS TO BALANCE NEW AND TRADITIONAL
Accommodating the tech-forward trends COVID accelerated threatens to undermine campus dining’s traditional community-building mission.
The newly renovated (and FM Best Concept Award-winning) Selleck Food Court on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) perfectly illustrates the balancing act many campus dining programs face in the post-COVID world. On the one hand, the pandemic accelerated the proliferation of online ordering and other impersonal technologies that delivered safety and convenience but also promoted isolation, to the point that when campuses began welcoming back students, they found that their customers had gotten too used to the convenience tech was offering to go back to pre-pandemic practices. In fact, some programs that had intended to eliminate the pre-ordered to-go option offered during the emergency from traditional dining halls found they had to backpedal and retain it in at least some form. That poses a dilemma, because one of the traditional roles of campus dining has been to promote campus community by providing communal socializing opportunities over food and drink, something hard to do when customers are remote ordering and only show up to grab their order and leave (or get it delivered by a robot, so they don’t even have to show up at the point of service or interact with any other human being). Which brings us back to UNL and Selleck Food Court, which has sought to balance modern tech convenience (and operational efficiency) with community building by making the venue a collection of ghost kitchens that take only remote orders and offer extreme customization, but then opening up the dining areas to all comers, whether they are there to eat or not. The intention is to make Selleck a community space where students can come any time just to hang out, study, meet friends or make new ones (which is also why it offers no automated pickup lockers, meaning customers have to engage in face-to-face interaction with staff to pick up their orders).
This tech vs. tradition dichotomy promises to challenge campus dining programs for the foreseeable future. The past year has also seen a number of major—and many minor—dining venues opening on campuses as schools position themselves to attract what is a shrinking college- age (and perhaps even faster shrinking college-bound) population, with a number of these being conversions of traditional residential dining halls into retail food courts or food halls complete with mobile order service. Proliferating even faster are high-tech service outlets ranging from smart fridges, robotic fresh-food kiosks and vending machines serving customized pizzas, burgers and salads to unmanned c-stores and even full-fledged campus grocery stores utilizing Amazon Just Walk Out or similar technologies. Driving all this is not only customer demand but economic necessity as campus dining programs continue to struggle with the cost and availability of labor. While colleges generally don’t face as dire a worker shortage as some other markets like K-12 and senior dining, the situation does threaten a market that has traditionally emphasized the personal touch with its customers, many of whom it sees multiple times a day for most of the year. Just how valuable a personable frontline staffer can be to a program can be seen from some of the stories related in FM’s recent Foodservice Heroes features (here, here and here, for example). What may be evolving is an approach in which human labor is allocated to high-impact customer-facing functions while rote back-of-the-house and routine operational roles (such as order taking) are automated. These are solutions in which big commercial operators are already sinking major investments, and which can be expected to eventually filter through the rest of the industry as vendors look to broaden markets and capture market share.
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