College and university foodservice programs have been forced to pivot


When COVID-19 forced college and university students to evacuate campuses to curtail its spread, campus dining was left in the dust.

As part of its portfolio, Smoke’s Poutinerie, for example, has roughly 40 franchised campus locations in partnership with foodservice providers such as Compass Canada, Aramark and Sodexo. Unable to serve its core demographic, all campus locations were temporarily shut down at the onset of the pandemic and suffered severe revenue losses.

“A fraction of them re-opened in September 2021, but we’ve been hit hard again [with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant,] says Ryan Smolkin, founder and CEO of Smoke’s Poutinerie.

In response, operators kicked digital innovation into high gear to fuel economic recovery, meet safety standards and offer students and faculty convenient and flexible food options that align with their busy schedules.

“We’ve adapted our services throughout the pandemic to best meet the needs our students,” says Brandon Cebulak, Compass Canada’s general manager at George Brown College. “As we welcome students back, we know they’re looking for pre-packaged and contactless options.”

Re-Imagined Food Delivery
Although campuses have a number of fast-food and casual-dining options, Smolkin says some students will continue using third-party apps to get food delivered from a restaurant off campus. In turn, campus-based operators will struggle to boost their bottom line.

“Now, students can be sitting in a campus food court amongst all these different brands, but they’ll get something else delivered to campus,” says Smolkin. “Operators can’t just assume that because the customer is there, they’ll come to your restaurant.”

To compete with the heightened demand for third-party food delivery, post-secondary institutions are creating their own.

In spring 2021, the University of British Columbia (UBC) launched UBC Eats, a meal-delivery subscription service that’s proven to be a successful concept among upper-year students, staff and faculty.

“The demand for food delivery surged, with more than 1,000 individual meals delivered on campus daily through third-party services like Uber Eats, DoorDash and SkipTheDishes,” says Colin Moore, director of Foodservices at UBC Vancouver campus. “In response, we created a new revenue stream called UBC Eats. It’s a more sustainable answer to food delivery because it’s coming directly from our kitchens on campus and there’s no delivery charges or tips.”

Generally speaking, the Agri-Food Analytics Lab (AAL) at Dalhousie University estimates that more than $12 billion has been committed to online-interface services, from delivery apps to curb-side grocery pickup, in Canada’s food industry for the next five years.

Self-Service Technology
Self-service technology is critical to help campus operators recover from the pandemic. Kiosks, mobile apps and other technologies will improve order accuracy and speed while also promoting physical distancing and safe environments.

In March 2021, Humber College launched food lockers at its North Campus in collaboration with Chartwells Canada, the education division of Compass Canada, and Apex Order Pickup. Students can order from Grill & Co using Boost, a mobile-ordering app created by Compass Digital Labs, and have their meals delivered to a food locker for convenient and contactless pickup. Once an order is ready, students will receive a QR code to unlock and retrieve their meals from the lockers. This concept is the first of its kind at any post-secondary institution in Canada.

“With the increased role of digital technologies in foodservice, we recognize the need to meet students where they are, which is increasingly on their mobile devices,” says Brandon Cebulak, Compass Canada’s general manager at George Brown College. “Early on in the pandemic, we realized that ordering food with a mobile device was no longer a ‘perk’ but a requirement to prevent crowding and get food to students safely and efficiently. Last year alone, we processed 570,000 transactions from our mobile apps.”

Similarly, UBC partnered with Nutrislice, an online menu software, to offer safe and convenient mobile ordering from its residential dining halls.

“We’ll also be introducing online ordering, payment and pickup at three of our retail locations,” says Moore. “It allows students to order from our full-service restaurants like the Point and Mercante Pizza, as well as some of our national brands.”

In addition, UBC recently partnered with UpMeals to install fresh-food vending machines to provide students with healthier food options, such as salads, entrée bowls and cold-pressed juices, and further reduce traffic in dining halls and cafeterias.

Enhanced Digital Marketing
Campus operators must ramp up digital-marketing efforts to drive customer loyalty and provide incentives to encourage repeat ordering once pre-COVID-19 campus activity resumes.

“Campuses are the ultimate database,” says Smolkin. “If there’s 50,000 students, that’s a 50,000 person database, so [operators] have to step it up with loyalty apps and push-pull messaging. Accessing that data base allows for better targeting and student support, both on and off campus.”

“Social-media marketing will continue to be part of our digital toolkit to make sure we’re getting the right message to our students at the right time,” says Cebulak. “We know students rely heavily on online reviews and testimonials when considering food options, which is why we focus on quality and exceptional customer experience, along with advocacy from trusted on-site influencers, to support the decision-making process and help us stand out.”

Future Forecast
Currently, return-to-campus dates vary from province to province. Although the winter semester will be wrapping up shortly, campus operators are excited to welcome back students next fall.

“We’re hopeful that we’re nearing the end of this new wave and we’ll be able to welcome students back to campus soon with smiling eyes and a warm meal,” says Cebulak.

“[The] majority of our campus locations are just sitting and waiting,” says Smolkin. “I’m not expecting a lot of [activity] in the next two or three months. Realistically, it’s going to be a September gig.”

“We’ll continue to pivot along the way,” says Moore. “The good thing is we’ve already learned how to do that over the last two years, so whatever the next thing is, we’ll be more than ready to change and innovate. We’ve learned a lot throughout the pandemic, and we’re a lot stronger because of it.”

By Nicole Di Tomasso

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