Wiring the Dining Experience

Wiring the Dining Experience

IHEs fuse food and technology to keep students happy and entice new ones through their doors.

These days, young adults are instant messaging their friends as fast as they're calling each other on cellphones about something someone just downloaded to a video iPod-all while eating takeout food that was ordered online.

They elevate the walking-and-chewing-gum thing to a whole new stratosphere.

As Millennials go through college, their techie ways are changing how institutions of higher education interact with them-and feed them. Dining services departments across the country are putting the internet and related technologies to use in ways that would've made Buck Rogers proud, and full.

Today's web kiosks, podcasts, websites, and digital signs aren't themes for some sci-fi television show-they're reality.

To see where food services is going, take a quick glance back in time to when things were simple: when operating hours were posted on a cafeteria's exterior doors, when a deep inhale revealed what food was being served, and when, if a class ended after the kitchen shut down, students were basically out of luck.

Were students simpler in those days? Probably. Satisfying Millennials means giving them what they want, when they want it. And technology can play a crucial role in making that happen. "My generation goes online; our students live online," says Charles Maimone, associate vice president for Administration at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Today's students have a greater need for constant information and access. Their desire to know not only what's in their food but also from where it comes rules many of their daily dining decisions. "In my opinion, students are much more astute regarding food and food options these days," says Dean Lowden, vice president of support services for Chartwells Higher Education Division, a food services provider to some 235 campuses across the country. "They're very familiar with brands, and quality," says Lowden.

Colleges and universities are turning to technology to make students' dining experiences as streamlined and fulfilling as possible. Bolstered by start-to-finish programs from companies such as Aramark, Sodexho, and Chartwells, as well as software tools developed by colleges themselves, IHEs have many options for coupling tasty treats with useful technologies.

Of course, higher education is not the only realm ripe for pairing food services and technology. Many private-sector restaurants are employing high-tech tools to improve their customer experience.

Look no further than Legal Sea Food's newest baby, LTK Bar and Kitchen in Boston, for proof. "LTK" stands for "Legal Test Kitchen," and in this case the kitchen's not testing food but innovative technologies.

"Video menuing" screens provide a refreshing change from the paper-clad bulletin boards of old.

A glance around LTK's swank dining room shows several faces alit with the glow of Sony LCD touch screens no bigger than sheets of paper. Folks watch baseball and surf the internet. A server gives a tech tutorial to a diner, and soon she's fiddling with the kids' website "Club Penguin" while someone else logs into a Netflix account.

The restaurant's servers scuttle around with personal devices that they use to transmit orders to the kitchen. Some diners hook up their own iPods to docking stations provided by LTK.

It's all very technical, yet completely comfortable and-at 10:30 p.m.-completely full.

With such private-sector efforts aiming to entice students, "universities have to be competitive and utilize dining halls to [do] that," says Michael Paulus, a resident district manager for Chartwells. Dining services, says Paulus, "is the biggest bang-for-buck, reaching every student."

Forcing healthy eating onto an 18-year-old is like whipping a chronic procrastinator into shape by handing him a planner and an organizing system, right? Not always.

Chartwells has actually had the opposite issue on its hands: Students today demand tons of nutritional knowledge. The company and its client schools have faced "a constant request for nutritional information," says Lowden.

That's why providing nutritional information has been a driving motivator behind Chartwells' Pulse On Dining platform, designed by the company through a partnership with LifeCourse Associates, the consulting company of authors Neil Howe and William Strauss. The platform incorporates technology through a system of web-based kiosks that display menu options, dining hall hours, and nutritional information, typically at points of entry to an institution's dining facilities. Marywood University (Pa.) was Chartwells' first school to implement Pulse On Dining in September 2005; today the platform can be found at 60 IHEs, from Purdue University (Ind.) to Berkeley College (N.Y. and N.J.) and Canisius College (N.Y.), with some 170 more planned for the next few years.

Here's how it all works: At the kiosks, students can use a touch screen and check their meal plan balances, see the day's menus, or even send a special dietary request or feedback to the dining director. A password and log-in system lets them create nutritional charts for themselves and track nutritional intake throughout the day, including calories, fat, and protein.

As part of the Pulse On Dining platform, Chartwells' DineOnCampus.com website mirrors what students see at the kiosks. By visiting the dining link on their school's site or by going to DineOnCampus.com and choosing their school from a pull-down menu, students can access information from the privacy of their dorm rooms at any hour of the day.

Chartwells' technological tools provide an opportunity for point-of-sale purchases, too: The company partnered with Dancing Deer Baking Company (founded by Wheaton College, Mass., graduate Trish Karter), to develop SendMunchies.com, a website that lets students buy gift items such as all-natural, handmade brownies, cookies, and cakes. The items are promoted as gift possibilities that could be sent to loved ones, friends, or colleagues.

Of course, tech tools can be put to different uses, depending on the needs of a campus and its students. At the University of Utah, one of Chartwells' first client schools to go online with DineOnCampus.com about a year and a half ago, kiosk and website use are king-but so are visual graphics and individual iPod docking stations that promote campus-specific podcasts announcing daily menus and campus activities.

"With this demographic, we really have no choice," says Paulus, who works with colleges and universities in Utah and Colorado. He has implemented LCD "video menuing" screens and video welcome boards that greet students at points of entry to dining halls, displaying real-time menu options, similar to the information boards found in airports.

With such techie tools in play, the University of Utah has been able to cut its printing costs by about $4,500 (those printed materials also inundated students with so much information that they would just ignore it, Paulus says).

Now, Paulus gives an image file to the Utah marketing department. Soon after, the image goes up on screens. That's a refreshing change from the paper-clad bulletin boards of yore. "We're just bringing about the tools and technology our students are using every day," Paulus says.

Eighty-five percent of the College of William & Mary's 5,000 undergrads live on campus. As a result, says Maimone, the school's associate VP for Administration, dining services have to keep up with what is an increasingly sophisticated clientele, a group that responds best to having lots of healthful, ethnic food choices that are prepared at open cooking stations (rather than carted out in aluminum warming trays from some secret room out back).

With sophisticated palates comes a need for sophisticated ways to satisfy them. Enter CampusDish, a program launched by Aramark Higher Education in 2006. CampusDish includes an internet portal that offers nutrition and dining information; the program can be accessed from students' personal computers or through well-placed web kiosks in dining facilities.

"We're particularly proud of William & Mary because the idea of CampusDish came out of a graduate student project two years ago," says Dominic L. Boffa, CIO of Aramark. "They actually gave us the suggestion, and how it should be used."

At William & Mary, wireless dining halls give students access to the CampusDish website from their personal computers; at dining sites, students can respond to surveys (created by the school) about dining services, and add money to or change their meal plan accounts.

By using a student ID card online and at the school's first kiosk, which in August was placed in front of the University Center Court (one of two dining facilities), a student can also purchase food items-even order a Domino's pizza-with the cost being automatically deducted from a meal plan account.

CampusDish is now operating at more than 140 IHEs across the country, and more than 80 web kiosks will debut at Aramark schools this fall. One growth area for many of these schools: food-related podcasting. At the close of the academic year this past May, there were some 53 podcasts about menu options, dining services hours, and everything in between being broadcast at Aramark client schools.

The University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Furman University (S.C.), and East Carolina University have all launched podcasts filled with dining information. At East Carolina, a range of 34-second to two-and-a-half-minute podcasts have covered topics such as "Transfat 101" and "Commuter Meal Plan at East Carolina." Each podcast has been accessible via Apple's iTunes.

At a brainstorming session of a student board of directors for the food and facility management company Sodexho USA, students admitted that after waking each day, they often have about 20 minutes to get to class. That means choosing between showering and eating.

Their ideal? An LCD touch screen in the bathroom that would let them order their breakfast, which would then be delivered to the seat of their first class. "But it would have to be something with a not-too-strong aroma as not to intrude on their classmates," says Jeff Pente, senior director of culinary development and systems for Sodexho.

Daffy desire? Maybe. But Pente says anything is possible with the right imagination and technology.

Click on the home page of Sodexho's Balance Mind, Body, and Soul program and you'll find a laundry list of health-related links that today's mindful student wants, from food facts, recipes, and a nutrition calendar to a Body Mass Index calculator, information about special diets, and an opportunity to talk online with a dietician.

Food-related podcasting is one growth area for many schools. Topics range from meal plan overviews to lessons on transfats.

Created to provide information promoting balance through healthy living, Balance Mind, Body, and Soul can be accessed online from any computer or at a web kiosk in a dining hall.

The program is in 800 of Sodexho's schools and has been at Lehigh University (Pa.) for two years. There, the mind and soul parts of the program force a strong push toward organic foods: Student surveys helped Lehigh include on its site and at kiosks information on sustainable farming and other details about the process of growing and making healthy foods. "Balance Mind, Body, and Soul, is more of a way of life and living, and helps us all with busy day-to-day conflicts," says Bruce Christine, general manager of Dining Services at Lehigh.

Students can walk up to a flat LCD screen and be tempted by beautiful graphics of food. The graphics entice students to click on links and learn more information about things like dark chocolate, stone fruits, and pomegranates-tasty things that make them feel great.

But the program also allows students to access information on staying fit, both mentally and physically. Reading about the benefits of pickup basketball or relaxation exercises to calm the mind are just a couple of possibilities. Students need to de-stress, and that "can be as simple as a 15-minute [break] at the end of the day," says Jodie Stancato, unit marketing specialist for Dining Services at Lehigh.

Students at Ouachita Baptist University (Ark.) can also tap into Balance Mind, Body, and Soul information through a new web kiosk on campus. Some students have seemed a little wary of using the tool in high-traffic areas, notes Ron Cooksey, general manager of Dining Services.

As a result, the kiosk is located in a cozy spot. "We made it into a den area, near the kiosk, with chairs that made it more comfortable," Cooksey says. Students are able to access sensitive information about caloric intake and other topics with a sense of privacy and comfort.

At Cornell University, a homegrown program called Webfood, developed by Cornell alum Peter Krebs and four business partners in 2002, encourages students to order food ahead of time from their computers. Webfood allows Cornell Dining to control the number of online orders it accepts at any given time, so that excellent service to students in dining lines is not jeopardized by long waits-which back in Kreb's day could be up to an hour long.

According to Colleen Wright-Riva, director of Dining and Retail Services, Cornell launched Webfood at Bear Necessities & Caf? on the first floor of the Robert Purcell Community Center. Student response was so strong that in 2003, Webfood was bought by Ithaca-based CBORD Group, a company that provides food service software, nutrition service software, campuswide ID card programs, cashless dining, and housing management systems. Nine other IHEs purchased the Webfood program this past summer alone.

Also at Cornell is the six-year-old in-house web-based program called E-Dining. Geared toward staff and faculty but available to all, the program allows users to place orders, schedule food pickups or deliveries, and pay for food on the internet from Ciabatta's or Martha's Caf?, two campus eateries.

The goal of Cornell's programs is to streamline life on campus. "Our intent with both Webfood and E-Dining is to provide ease of ordering and convenience to our customers," says Wright-Riva.

So, technology is here to stay in the food services realm. Dining directors and staff should still keep up face-to-face contact with students to balance out tech tools (and make sure students don't become obsessed with eating or nutritional information, which could be a sign of possible eating disorders).

Cooksey at Ouachita Baptist says keeping a watchful eye on students is something he and his chef do daily, largely by engaging in conversations in the dining facilities. "We know who's eating, and not," he says.

Paulus of Chartwells notes that dining builds community and invites students to come together. Lowden agrees. "There's a place for technology, but it's certainly not going to take the place of socializing."

Technology implemented in the dining realm is like that used in any other area of campus life-it can give students a sense of knowledge, empowerment, and efficiency, but it also requires a human touch. That, and some delicious food to back it up.

Jennifer Chase Esposito is a Boston-based freelance writer who frequently covers food-related topics.


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