The 2022 February College and University Foodservice Leadership Council (FLC) conversation took a more optimistic look at the past two years by reflecting on the silver linings of the pandemic.
The panelists from the College and University FLC included: Pat Bando, Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services at Boston College; Peter Testory, Director of Dining and Culinary Services at University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Ted Faulkner, Assistant Vice President for Dining, Housing, and Student Services at Virginia Tech.
A look back on 2020 and 2021: What are the Silver Linings?
The panelists began the conversation by reflecting on lessons learned and silver linings from their operations during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. These reflections fell into two main categories: collaboration and resilience.
Bando shared that even during the pandemic, Boston College collaborated in early-stage product development with some of its partner manufacturers. The partnership focused on ongoing product review and a cross-ecosystem collaboration with other operator councils.
Testory also cited collaboration and partnership as a highlight of the past two years. “We thrived during that time; we were resilient.” He noted that C&U operators provided unforeseen value on their campuses by thinking through the logistics of testing sites very quickly and providing capabilities that had not been recognized before. He shared that distributor and manufacturer partners were helpful in learning the challenges C&U operators were facing and that both sides adapted to one another’s constraints and supported one another.
Faulkner reflected positively on Virginia Tech’s experience, saying that “Uncertainty generates creativity, and what we’ve learned is that not only are we a resilient bunch…but really creative.” As a result of the pandemic, Virginia Tech’s team switched to innovative service delivery models and did so more quickly than C&U operators tend to move.
Historically, C&U has used an “all you care to eat” model, but that does not work when students need portability, mobility, and social distance. Restaurant trends, for example, have seen approximately 48% of food consumed away from the restaurant, via pickup or delivery. Faulkner noted a similar trend on his campus.
While the pandemic accelerated these trends on campus, they had already been in motion. This required Virginia Tech to develop several capabilities:
- Remote ordering and order receipt
- Menu and order accuracy
- Delivery and portability
These adjustments not only helped Virginia Tech re-open safely to in-person learning, they also represent a sea change in how VT (and other C&U operators) does business. Faulkner notes that some of these changes are “takeaways that will be permanently embedded in our services moving forward.”
Looking Forward to 2022 and Beyond
When panelists were asked about what trends they see moving forward, they focused on “doing more with less” and enhancing value to their customers.
Doing More with Less: Packaging Changes, Staffing Shortages, and Budget Constraints
Faulkner noted that Virginia Tech was well positioned for the pandemic transition because they had already focused on retail. In the fall 2019 semester, Virginia Tech fulfilled roughly 220,000 mobile orders; in fall 2021, it was 1.1M. This has driven demand for compostable and recyclable packaging, which puts strain not only on the packaging supply side but also on recovery logistics.
Bando agreed that supply chain shortages have required Boston College to be innovative with packaging. In addition, they opened a facility during the pandemic that functions solely on pre-orders, either by mobile phone or kiosk. This facility has allowed them to move large volumes of product with only 2-3 staff members and has proven to be popular with customers. Boston College is also exploring a ghost kitchen model, which would allow them to be flexible with staffing shortages.
Both Faulkner and Bando estimated a 7% increase in costs during a time when customers are more budget conscious. Faulkner shared that budgets are also complicated by supply chain issues, as they cannot rely on historical projection formulae when estimating purchasing needs. An assembly line model (similar to a ghost kitchen) would allow C&U operators to provide the diversity, affordability, and value that their customers demand while operating in an environment that is constrained by supply chain and labor issues. In addition, while Virginia Tech prefers to do on-site assembly, they do see post-scratch convenience products as a growing segment.
Enhancing Value to C&U Customers
Testory spoke about his work on the committee on Enhancing the Value of College & University Operators. This committee seeks to demonstrate the value of its operations and programs. Testory noted that this is more important and complicated than ever, saying, “Value is a perception. It is different to every individual.”
The committee engages three stakeholder groups:
- Students, who want food quality and availability, as well as social justice
- Parents, who want quality and availability, but who are price conscious
- Campus Administration, who want quality and availability, but are budget conscious
The committee brings manufacturers and distributors in to talk with students about social justice and the environmental, social, and governance implications of their business. With parents, the committee focuses on ingredient quality.
Faulkner noted that because 17% of students now identify as having food allergies or sensitivities, parent and student engagement is key not only for C&U operator success, but for the college or university’s overall success in selling themselves to prospective students.
Regarding value to food manufacturers and distributors, the panelists noted that the C&U operators’ customers are the retail customers of the future. In addition to building potential lifetime brand loyalties, manufacturers and distributors also have the opportunity to understand the next generation’s behaviors and preferences. Thus, manufacturers and distributors should not look at the value of C&U operators through the lens of year-on-year return on investment, but a lifetime ROI.
The next round of committee webinars will be held in April 2022 with updates on opportunities, challenges and committee initiatives.
For operators interested in learning more about the ongoing council work and access to upcoming resources, visit IFMAworld.com/council, or contact Jim Green at firstname.lastname@example.org. You will receive updates on council activities and have complimentary access to whitepapers, webinars and conferences.