Students living in Alumni Quad residence hall at the University at Albany in Albany, N.Y., enjoy the benefit of eating in the university’s most recently renovated dining hall. “We had an all-you-care-to-eat dining program with a service line, but it wasn’t working,” says Stephen Pearse, executive director, University Auxiliary Services. “Students who live at this downtown campus location are transient, attending classes uptown, and their traffic patterns were inconsistent. We couldn’t keep them satisfied.”
Technology and a reconfiguration of the physical space became a key part of the solution to drive participation and improve customer satisfaction. “We eliminated the institutional feel of the dining facility and replaced it with a retail a la carte dining experience,” Pearse says.
“The project involved renovating a storage area that was adjacent to a kitchen used for batch cooking to a space in which we can cook on demand,” says Kevin D’Onofrio, resident district manager for Sodexo, the university’s foodservice management supplier.
Students eating at Alumni Quad’s dining facility place orders at one of three kiosks. They then receive number stands to display on their dining tables in Alumni Dining Room so staff know where to deliver completed food orders.
Sodexo developed this ordering and preparation concept, Food on Demand (FöD). Sodexo prepares the menu and communication for the tools and screens shown on the kiosks where customers order. A third-party vendor handles the ordering technology.
The ease of ordering through the kiosk, along with the cooking-on-demand system, have helped drive participation up by 40 percent because students can order quickly and receive delivery within 10 minutes. “Because we are no longer batch cooking and the meals are prepared to order, the food quality is significantly better,” D’Onofrio says.
The renovation also replaced a stainless steel serving line that offered batch-cooked food with the new Waterbury Café. This operation, a separate, branded, custom espresso bar/bakery, sits along one wall of the university’s Alumni Dining Room. “When we eliminated the serving line, we were able to add 30 more seats to the dining room,” D’Onofrio says.
Food Deliveries, Storage and Preparation
After food arrives at a loading dock, staff store it in a walk-in cooler, walk-in freezer and dry storage area that sits in a kitchen that once supported the old bulk prep operation. In addition to storage, staff now use this kitchen to prepare a few bulk items for the new cooking-on-demand program. They use two combi ovens, a 40-gallon tilt kettle and two energy-efficient fryers to prepare menu items such as chili, rice, potatoes, vegetables and soup. Staff bring these menu items to a 494-square-foot cooking-on-demand area and place them in refrigerators, and hot and cold wells, including sandwich prep refrigerators, for other staff to use when filling menu orders.
The cooking-on-demand area also contains six rapid-cook ovens, as well as a toaster, fryer and ventless flattop griddle with a fire suppression system and air purifier. Staff use the equipment to prepare menu orders that appear on a video monitor. The menu items include rotisserie chicken, barbecue pork ribs, mac and cheese, jerk chicken, Bolognese lasagna rolls, burgers, chicken tenders and grilled chicken sandwiches. This menu is similar to the previous one, but staff now heat or cook each item to order to maintain freshness.
“Orders are placed under a heat lamp for a few seconds before the staff takes them to the table,” says Ben Markie, operations manager.
“This system works because of the rapid-cook ovens and the placement of the equipment and prep spaces,” says the project’s foodservice consultant, Kevin Cromwell, principal, Cromwell Consulting Inc., Stoughton, Mass. “Custom metalwork frames the chef’s tables that incorporate prep, plating and heat lamps at three individual side-by-side workstations. The stations are scalable so they can operate with two or five cooks depending on the time of day and meal volume.”
Students help themselves to beverages such as water and carbonated beverages in the dining area. They also purchase espresso, cappuccino and desserts at Waterbury Café. This operation contains an espresso machine, a coffee machine and hot water dispenser for tea. Resin panels below the espresso counter contain coffee beans. A countertop case displays baked goods that staff prepare in the uptown campus bakery kitchen. Cafe managers can also serve as baristas in the espresso bar.
All dishwashing takes place in the back-of-the-house kitchen, which contains a flight dishwasher. “The machine’s full width is used only when it is filled to capacity, which allows the department to conserve energy and water in non-peak-use periods,” Cromwell says.
In looking back over the transition period, D’Onofrio notes the challenge of developing cooking-on-demand skills among staff accustomed to batch cooking. “But the new system has increased the skill set of these workers,” he says.
“The transformation of the serving style at Alumni Dining Room and the addition of Waterbury Café in that space have resulted in very favorable response from students. “We focused on delivering what they want, when they want it and how they want it,” says D’Onofrio. “Mission accomplished.”
The University at Albany measures the return on investment by student feedback on forms and during on-campus meetings, sales and transactions. Pearse explains, “Students today expect a retail dining experience, and these concepts deliver this.” He adds, “The system allows us to reduce food waste by 18 percent, drives meal plan sales by a projected 24 percent and enhances the overall student living experience.”
Facts of Note
- Opened: Kitchen at Alumni Quad opened in 2016; Food on Demand (FöD) and Waterbury Café, October 2017
- Scope of Project: Renovation and reconfiguration of an unused space, which created a short-order preparation and cooking area to support a new menu ordering system; renovation of a serving line area to create an espresso/bakery cafe
Size: Food on Demand area, 494 sq. ft.; Waterbury Café, an espresso bar/bakery, 325 sq. ft. Not renovated, but part of the operation: the dining room, 4,950 sq. ft.; the kitchen, including refrigeration, storage and warewashing, 2,840 sq. ft.
- Seats: 175
- Average Check: Prices for those without a meal plan at Alumni Dining Room are $8.50 for breakfast; $12.30 for lunch and dinner. One popular meal plan option, the myFlex meal plan, offers students living on Alumni Quad discounts in residence dining or retail dining when they are on another side of campus for classes.
- Total Annual Sales: $1.4 million
- Daily Transactions: 541
- Hours: Monday through Thursday: 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., hot breakfast; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., lunch; 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., dinner; 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., late dinner. Friday: 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., hot breakfast; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., lunch; 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., dinner. Saturday: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., brunch; 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., dinner. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., brunch; 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., dinner; 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., late dinner.
- Menu Specialties: Breakfast omelets, rotisserie chicken, barbecue pork ribs, jerk chicken, mac and cheese, Bolognese lasagna roll, burgers, chicken tenders, grilled chicken sandwiches
- Staff: 42 employees; 85 percent full-time and 15 percent part-time, including student workers
- Total Cost: $393,148
- Equipment Investment: $216,021
- Website: ualbanydining.com
- Owner: University at Albany
- Executive Director, University Auxiliary Services: Stephen Pearse
- Associate Executive Director for University Auxiliary Services: Michael Ramella
- Resident District Manager, Sodexo: Kevin D’Onofrio
- Executive Chef, Sodexo: Gerald Oriol
- Alumni Dining Room Manager, Sodexo: Ben Markie
- Architect: SMRT, Latham, N.Y.: Russ Bailey, PE, LEED AP, principal
- Interior Design: SMRT, Latham, N.Y.: Nicole Maurer
- Foodservice Design Consultants: Cromwell Consulting Inc., Stoughton, Mass.; Kevin Cromwell, owner; Michael Batte, senior designer
- Equipment Dealer: Johnson-Lancaster and Associates, Florida; Noel Moreira, rep for the Northeast
- Construction: VMJR, Glens Falls, N.Y.