Equipping Foodservice Operations for the Clockless Life

While at first it may seem daunting from a labor perspective, it is possible to cater to consumers' needs around the clock through careful plan development and equipment selection, as these non-commercial operators have shown.

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It's back to school for most students and that means back to a daily meal schedule that often includes late-night eating and daytime snacking. Increasingly. college and university foodservice directors are expanding their operations to stay open later and provide healthy, satisfying options for snacks as their clienteles continue to demonstrate a "clockless" way of eating and living. On the hospital/healthcare front, foodservice operators are also finding they need to feed workers and visitors in a more round-the-clock format.

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Even outside of the school and hospital setting, this lifestyle has become more commonplace. That's evident by chain restaurants introducing a "fourth meal" option and expanding their hours well into the night, in addition to offering smaller portions to serve as satisfying "snacks" as consumers break down the three-square-meal-a-day barriers to enjoy more frequent, lighter meals throughout the day. As a result, typical dayparts, in terms of both time slots and menu options, are becoming increasingly blurred: breakfast hours are starting earlier and lasting longer for mid-morning munching, afternoons are seeing extra traffic and "dinnertime" no longer has the same meaning.

From a foodservice equipment and operational standpoint, that can bring about certain considerations and requirements. And transcending all those considerations is one biggie: labor.

"Students want to eat what they want, when they want," says Sheryl Klobasa, director of the Kramer Dining Center at Kansas State University, and an instructor in the hospitality management/dietetics program. Just this month, the university introduced a new "late-night" dining program aimed at providing students with more meal options. "As we looked at times when students had classes we found we needed to offer something that was going to stay open past the dinner close at 6:30. We've had at least 100 students per day take advantage of these later hours, and that's a high percentage considering we feed between 11,000 and 12,000 in this dining hall alone."

The school now keeps two dining halls open until 8 p.m. and runs a convenience store until midnight for grab-and-go items. Klobasa noted that it's important to really zero in on the hours you want to maintain. "We thought about running the dining hall until 9 p.m., but found that most students were coming in before 8 p.m. anyway."

Leveraging Labor

Staffing is a major consideration when moving to late-night and/or between-meal service. Many find that moving to a more staggered schedule helps maintain the proper amount of staff for peak highs and lows. That might mean a dinner service staffer will remain through part of the late-night hours, or a late-night staffer will come in earlier to help with prep during the dinner hour, staying on to fulfill the final shift. Kansas State, for example, only added an additional two to four people to staff the later shift because of their use of staggered shift start times.

Kansas State and also Montana State University use student staffers for these late-night hours as well, provided their hours don't exceed the part-time/university-set limits. One manager will remain on duty to oversee the shift as well as final nighttime closing.

But at University Hospital East on The Ohio State University Medical Center's campus, no staff is needed at all for its after-hours dining service. The service, Chris Basmagy, assistant director of nutrition services, explains, is more of a secured dining room for third-shift staff that's a completely labor-free, grab-and-go option.

"Basically it is a small room off the cafeteria that has a double-door, reach-in cooler stocked with salads, sandwiches, wraps, desserts, yogurt, pudding parfaits, drinks, fruit, some hot, microwaveable convenience items and more. This is all in addition to dry storage items like cereals, granola and other pre-packaged options," Basmagy says. "All staff members have to do is badge into the room using their hospital ID, fill out a menu form marking what they took, and then they are charged via a payroll deduction the next day."

Though the operation runs on the honor system, the room is equipped with surveillance cameras just in case of theft. Management also has access to the "badge-in" list to see who and how many times a person entered the room.

In just a year, the program has already been wildly successful. "Without increasing any labor, we added $50,000 in annual retail sales and over 13,000 units of service per year."

Flexing Equipment

Closing off parts of the dining room to pair down to one or two stations helps manage late-night shifts, according to both Klobasa at Kansas State and Michael Kosevich, general manager, University Food Services at Montana State. In addition, making sure those stations include flexible cooking equipment, such as griddles, and then training staff to cook multiple items off that piece of equipment helps with labor shortages. Also, investing in equipment with better controls and pre-programming options (e.g., combi ovens) can help cut down on the need for extra cook training during these hours. Rhode Island School of Design has taken an even more scaled-down approach by running a food truck for late-night bites.

At Kansas State's Kramer Dining Hall, narrowing the menu helped too. "We needed to offer something that would minimize labor time but allow students to come in for a hot, fuller meal and sit down with their friends," Klobasa says. "That happened to be pizza." The largest of the school's three dining halls stays open late, but also includes a menu with hamburgers and eggs because the griddle sits next to the pizza oven.

Equipped with a conveyor oven, the Kramer Dining Hall pizza station alone pumps out 50 to 70 pizzas a meal for lunch and dinner each, and it can also toast sandwiches for another fast, hot meal option. The school also found it could maintain enough variety to prevent boredom by constantly rotating a variety of toppings as part of a revolving menu that also features healthier pizza options, including a whole wheat crust pizza, vegetarian options and others loaded with veggies and lean proteins like chicken and shrimp. In addition, the late-night station includes a full salad bar as well as self-serve frozen yogurt and cereal bars to again reduce labor while offering a fuller line of healthier items for students dining later.

"We found that it was very difficult to keep classic hot entrees like roast beef and vegetables at a high level of quality beyond the dinner hour," Klobasa says. "So we looked to offer more quick-fix items cooked a la minute."

Past 8 p.m. the convenience store also offers mini pizzas and toaster sandwiches using a mini conveyor oven that's space-saving, but also powerful.

At Montana State University, the late-night dining hall, which runs from 7p.m.-10 p.m. in a new program introduced just this year, feeds about 500 students per night. "This is something students have really been asking for many years so this year we decided to give it a shot," Kosevich says.

Like Kansas State, Montana State closes down all but one station in its dining hall to cater to the late-night crowd on a limited staff. "The dining hall right now is set up like an H, and we're keeping only one side open, which seats 300 people," Kosevich says. This helps cut down the amount of dining hall "policing" that has to happen outside of traditional hours as well.

Impinger toaster ovens and a countertop hot dog warmer saves space while allowing for a lineup of hot sandwiches and hot dogs. In addition, staff can cook multiple items using the open station's flattop grill, including bacon and eggs, hamburgers and more.

"We're looking into adding a fryer because we've been getting a lot of requests for French fries," Kosevich says. However, he noted, the school offers a slew of healthier items for these late-night meals, including salads, fresh fruits, yogurt, cereals and other lighter fare, including vegetarian options and gluten-free meals, which are prepared separately from regular items, wrapped and clearly marked with the student's name.

Snacking Up

Late-night or even later dinners is one thing, but Montana State in particular found many students are looking for meal options outside of the standard breakfast, lunch and dinner hours.

The school has moved to an unlimited meal plan system between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. daily, including structured "snack" times from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to4 p.m. (but skipping Fridays and Saturdays when most students eat out).

"Our snack time customers have really gone up," Kosevich says. "We've noticed that kids are eating smaller meals throughout the day, and that our international students, in particular, come in at different times, typically later in the morning and later in the afternoon, around 2 p.m. or 3 p.m.

"During the snack time, we may not have the entire line open, but in the morning, we'll keep the griddle station open for eggs and omelets, and in the afternoon for burgers and tacos," Kosevich continues. "Our salad bar station will always stay open and we also offer pizza in the afternoon."

In fact, the school has expanded the salad bar and toppings not only to broaden offerings during this time without too much extra effort, but also as a way to cater to growing demands for healthier options, according to Kosevich.

Cleaning Up

Dishwashing and dish room staffing considerations are also important when transitioning to between-meal and late-night hours.

Kansas State staffs a dishwasher during the late-night dining shift, but has switched to using some disposables to help offset that load.

At Montana State, a switch to trayless dining a few years ago has helped with cleanup during these new hours, even though the trayless initiative was started by students as way to cut down on water and energy in the kitchen (which it has, significantly, Kosevich says).

But going trayless has cut down the need to wash three, four or five glasses per student down to just one or two glasses, for example. And students are taking less plates and food upfront, cutting down on the need to dispose of extra food and clean extra dishes.

Expanding hours in this way can seem like a daunting task, particularly due to labor concerns. But these operations have shown that it's not so difficult to do: it just requires some extra thought in terms of scheduling, equipment selection, station layout, prep work, management and cleanup.

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