Takeout and delivery dominated the foodservice industry last year, thanks to the pandemic.
Those represent the two ways most consumers felt safe using foodservice, and they represent the two most common forms of service restaurants were allowed to provide according to many state and local governments. Moving forward, consumers’ cravings for the convenience takeout and delivery provide will also impact the way they want to use foodservice in healthcare, college and corporate dining settings, too. In fact, these noncommercial segments were starting to realize the need to prepare for such a transition prior to the pandemic.
As noncommercial operators prepare to serve more customers via digital means, the biggest area of change will likely occur in the front of the house. Let’s start by acknowledging, once again, that we first eat with our eyes. With that in mind, in many healthcare and college foodservice operations, it was common for customers to take a lap through the servery to see what was on the menu that day and then decide what to eat. From there, a customer in a more traditional servery would either choose a self-service option like a salad bar or make selections from more traditional serving lines. In some instances, a guest could visit multiple stations to mix and match meal components.
In a digital world, this entire process changes. For example, instead of a leisurely stroll through the servery, guests would now scroll through menus either on a website, app or ordering kiosk outside of the foodservice operation. This has the potential to not only impact what meals guests select but also to shape the nutritional impact of their diets. With the distance between consumers and their food widening, will that affect their health? Getting people to eat healthier was a struggle before the proliferation of digital ordering. Everyone said they wanted healthy items, but those ended up being a small part of what consumers typically bought. To counter this trend, in recent years, servery design sought to position more healthful options front and center, celebrating their nutritional benefits. Will digital ordering negate some of this progress?
For many reasons, one of the first questions to address is how much of the menu will be available via digital ordering platforms? Also, will guests be able to choose menu items from multiple food platforms, or will their orders have to focus on the food prepared at a specific station? Runners going to various stations picking up food and bringing it to one place does not seem like an efficient solution for operations with limited staff.
Experience tells us not all foods hold up well when being delivered. And the pandemic has served to further drive home the importance of packaging to ensure food quality and safety. So just like their colleagues in the restaurant space, noncommercial operators will need to work with their culinary teams to discuss how meal pickup and delivery will affect quality. Poor-quality items due to holding times may decrease the perception of the department’s overall foodservice offering. We also need to tackle food safety and how long food may be in the danger zone prior to the customer picking it up either on-site or remotely.
Workflow and Digital Ordering
The transition to more digital ordering will also affect space allocation and flow through a foodservice operation for both staff and guests. As customers and operators drive an increase in digital transactions, the operation may not necessarily get smaller, but the way space gets used will likely need to adapt. One difference is that queue lines, which customers and administrators hate to see, become virtual. As technology apps begin to use proximity (cache) and order tracking, the customer shouldn’t have to queue at all for their pickup. If they order on-site at kiosks, customers generally wait for their orders in front of the station. While the queue still moves, it’s not the traditional school queue where people move one after another. Instead of a line of guests, a group of guests may form. This affects circulation space and how customers move through the space.
Operators will need to determine where customers who order digitally will pick up their food. Will there be one central pickup station for the entire operation? Or will guests who order digitally receive their food from the station from where it’s made?
Of course, the idea of delivery is not entirely new in a healthcare foodservice setting. Some operators in the healthcare space, for example, already use robots to deliver patient meals. And many healthcare operators use a room-service approach to patient feeding. This scenario calls for on-demand preparation of patient meals and delivery of the food to their rooms. Some employees may find this approach appealing, but extending a room service or even a delivery option to staff is easier said than done.
For starters, not every room-service cookline and makeline will have the capacity to meet the additional demand. Also, the labor component represents an important consideration. Not every operator will have enough staff to prepare food and run trays to both patients and staff. So, an alternative might be making a room-service-style offering to staff in specific functional areas, where getting away to grab something to eat could be tricky. COVID floors and surgical centers are two areas that come to mind. Another alternative might be having staff preorder food and designating a specific time and place to pick up their meals.
While consumer-based digital ordering may represent a somewhat new frontier for noncommercial operators, that’s not to say the off-premises trend skipped these operator segments entirely. It just took different forms as these operators extended their outreach deeper into the communities they serve.
The concept of food as medicine and how it can lead to healthy outcomes had momentum before and will become more pronounced. Taking care of the patient before and after the hospital visit will become more prominent as things eventually get back to normal. Demo kitchens, food trucks that are demo kitchens and other forms of community outreach will become more common to showcase how foodservice and culinary operations can affect community wellness.
Ghost kitchens continue to play a prominent role in restaurant delivery, and we could eventually see more of these types of operations in healthcare foodservice. If, for example, a healthcare foodservice operator starts to offer delivery on its campus, the food may not necessarily need to come from the serving area or main kitchen. The key to successfully implementing a ghost kitchen approach, though, is understanding what can come from a remote kitchen without compromising efficiency and food quality. If done right, this approach could alleviate some stress on the main operation, particularly during peak periods because these hub kitchens tend to be flexible enough to handle a variety of food choices.
In addition, we have observed more demand for more finishing kitchens in healthcare foodservice. As healthcare providers add more satellite locations, towers and other points of medical service, they still need to provide good, hot food to patients, guests and staff. In such a scenario, staff would still prepare standard items such as soups and sauces in a central kitchen. At the finishing kitchen, which is more like a kitchen in a small restaurant, staff would cook to order the à la minute protein and vegetables items and handle the cleanup.
The concept of a more digital noncommercial kitchen is an exciting one, but for it to come to fruition, operators in these segments will need to adopt various technologies that help them manage order queueing, timing and more. We are excited to watch the technology and culinary combinations that started pre-COVID but are gaining more momentum this past year.