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Cash and Carry

30 June 2006

Colleges augment meal plans with on-the-go options.

This article first appeared in the 15 May 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.

By Jamie Popp, Senior Editor

New York University has put meal plans on the honor system, allowing students to carry out as much food as they want. Students are exhorted to take only what they'll eat for a meal and not to pack extra pizza or burgers to feed study groups, friends or classmates. It's a chance the school is willing to take to increase its appeal with on-the-go diners at the New York City campus.

"The residential facilities are being enhanced by meals-to-go as an alternative to retail-only grab-and-go," says George Hellen, resident district manager.

On a monthly basis, 20,000 meals leave NYU from five cafeterias supported by Aramark. NYU 2 Go was created by the university independent of the Philadelphia-based contractor's foodservice options to satisfy a need. Hellen believes offering service flexibility and portable fresh food from early morning until late night has increased the number of students on NYU's meal plan by 5% since NYU 2 Go launched last fall.

Operators find that besides providing more options for customers, to-go programs yield greater portion control and allow redistribution of staff, both of which can trim costs. Challenges include finding the right takeout packaging and implementing strict food-safety measures such as labels with proper reheating information.

Hellen says to-go meals selected from a buffet are cost-effective since they result in less waste. Other campuses concur.

"There is a 50% reduction in food cost with takeout," says Ron Pantier, associate director of residential dining services at Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins. "There is more packaging involved, but the expense is offset by controlled food portions."

Marketplace in CSU's Corbett Dining Center is the school's latest grab-and-go outlet where students can choose among 11 all-you-care-to-eat dining stations, according to Pantier. Marketplace is part of CSU's plan to build more convenience into meal plans.

Durell Express is the next phase in CSU's plan. At this quick-service unit, which shares space with traditional meal service in Durell Center, students select a sandwich, slice of pizza and three sides (such as cookie or salad) and pack their meal in a plastic takeout bag. Four more to-go-only units will open this fall.

"Express units are more controlled, and students have the option to take more food and pay cash or use Convenience Dollars," the campus scrip usable at all food locations, Pantier says. Most CSU meal plans include 100 Convenience Dollars per semester.

Micro Management

Adding a retail cafe-where students pay cash or use campus debit cards-gives Landmark College students more dining options, says Rich Perna, director of dining services for the Putney, Vt., school. Outtakes Food To Go is a spin-off of Rye Brook, N.Y.-based Chartwells' retail program. Although based on the Compass Group contractor's concept, factoring retail food costs into traditional meal-plan budgets posed some difficulty.

"Before we came up with the retail option, we looked at the cost of almost 70 items and priced them so that if a student were to bag them into a to-go meal they would be relatively close to meal-plan-item costs," Perna says. "Some retail items are 30% food cost, some are 50%." Based on the assessment, some items-such as high-end juices-are not available for grab-and-go dining.

Sandwiches and salads make up almost 70% of the 100 meals taken out on an average day, Perna says. But microwavable items are the third most popular.

In 12 universities across the country, contractor Sodexho USA is testing Smart Market, a retail concept offering sandwiches, soups and salads as well as 40 packaged takeout meals ready to be heated in a microwave. Options range from breakfast sandwiches with biscuits and eggs to Buffalo wings.

"Vegetarian and vegan items are extremely popular. Other favorite packaged meals are three-cheese penne and macaroni and cheese," says Rob Morasco, senior director of product specifications for campus services at Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho. "Those items are easy and inexpensive to produce. When you get into turkey dinner or roasted pork loin, it's more costly."

But he adds that packaged prepared meals still are more cost-effective than staffing a buffet carving station, for example.

Labor productivity rises in a to-go program, according to Morasco. Forecasting what students are going to eat allows workers to plan the number of sandwiches or entrées to make for the following day, he explains.

Packaging Practices

Allowing, even encouraging students to take food in bags or backpacks for later consumption brings responsibility for maintaining food safety. Employees at Sodexho-managed accounts are trained to tell diners about safe food handling, including reminding them to read labels on ready-to-cook entrées.

"All meals are completely cooked and packaged cold, with labeling to tell students how long to store it and how many minutes to cook it," Morasco says. "We include portion sizes, ingredients and sell-by dates. We looked at grocery-store trends when we were researching microwavable meals."

Containers must be affordable, especially when 12% of meals served leave the building, according to CSU's Pantier. That's why his students have a choice. Reusable 8-inch circular storage containers, disposable 8-inch square clamshells or four plastic sandwich bags are provided to students who decide to take meals with them. An 8-ounce cup for salad or soup is given by request only. When students check out, they get a paper sack.

Meal-plan participants also get 32-ounce polycarbonate bottles with twist caps and heavy-duty holes in the top that can be clasped to a backpack with metal clips.

Reusable packaging is an added benefit for students who are environmentally conscious. It also saves money. CSU replaced foam cups with 22-ounce reusable mugs for the same cost, Pantier says.

"A meal used to be an entrée and two sides in resident dining," Sodexho's Morasco says. "Now resident dining halls have become food emporiums that are more cost-effective in off hours."

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