Last spring, Boston University administrators got a lesson from an entrepreneurial student. The college didn’t deliver meals to dorm rooms, so sophomore Aaron Halford stepped in to launch Stoovy Snacks, a company that employed students to make food deliveries.
Halford told The Boston Globe that administrators had sanctioned his startup, but they hadn’t. The incident served as a wake-up call, says Joseph LaChance, resident district manager for BU Dining Services. “We needed to be more responsive to the fact that delivery is a requirement.”
Of course, students have been calling for pizza deliveries to their rooms for eons.
Today, companies such as JoyRun, DoorDash, goPuff, Grubhub, Uber Eats and SkipTheDishes promote apps that allow customers to order—and couriers to deliver—food from restaurants that normally wouldn’t even bring it to students’ doors. Campus dining programs are getting in on the game, too.
Dining administrators know that students will pay for the convenience of delivery, says Robert Holden, board president of the National Association of College & University Food Services. “The opportunity is there,” says Holden, who is also associate vice president of auxiliary services at the University of Georgia.
Several key actions are involved in offering new meal ordering and food delivery services.
Decide on DIY versus outside providers
Security concerns come into play with both managing outside delivery services and providing such services directly. “We have to look at how we’re protecting our students to make sure what is being delivered to them is safe,” says Holden.
BU expects to allow outside app services to begin making deliveries to campus this spring, LaChance says. Operated by Aramark, the university’s dining program is working through the internal approval process. For security, couriers will have to stay at a building’s front desk. Advantages to allowing third-party deliveries include fewer logistical considerations, from staffing to parking.
“Those finite points and things to consider don’t have to be part of our own headache because there’s someone out there filling that niche,” says LaChance.
The upsides of taking on deliveries in-house include increased revenues—for campus venues and from delivery fees—and the security of controlling who delivers.
Related: Dining providers on meal delivery challenges
Start with mobile ordering
One way to boost convenience is through a mobile ordering option. BU has had a pre-order program, Rhetty to Go, for 15 years. About 40 students per day use a website—set up internally by dining services—to order meals at least seven hours ahead (often for the next day’s lunch).
The scale is bigger and turnaround time is faster at The Ohio State University. The university’s self-operated dining program partnered with Tapingo (now owned by Grubhub) in fall 2015 to offer the company’s mobile ordering app. Since last August, the app has been downloaded 36,000 times on campus, says Senior Director of Dining Services Zia Ahmed. Now, 8,000 mobile orders for pickup are placed on peak days.
The app manages expectations by telling diners how long their wait will be.
Make sure meal delivery is priced right
For three years, Ohio State has also offered mobile orders for $3.99 per delivery (tip optional) from 12 campus dining locations. The dining program now averages 400 such orders per day, with an average delivery time of 30 minutes. “We did it to increase service,” Ahmed says. “But sales increased, too.”
Minimum order requirements are another pricing option. Administrators at Niagara University in New York are launching a pilot delivery service this fall. Dining provider Metz Culinary Management is polling students about how much they’d pay for delivery, says General Manager Andrew Shaner.
His team is leaning toward a combination pricing model. A delivery fee would be charged only if the order amount didn’t surpass a certain minimum. “I think it works for everyone,” Shaner says. “We don’t have to raise delivery costs.”
Emerging tech trends in campus dining
Self-service kiosks: Already in use on some campuses, food-ordering kiosks can prevent order mistakes. Students are more likely to mark whether they want to, say, hold the onions. A worker may not hear or convey the special request.
Robotic delivery: San Francisco-based Starship Technologies and Sodexo recently launched robot couriers—suitcase-size boxes that can use GPS, cameras and mapping to help transport food orders—at George Mason University in Virginia. A code is used to open the box.
Be smart about managing staff
Dining staffers must understand how mobile ordering or delivery changes workflow. They’ll need to pay attention to a new order stream and answer questions from customers on-site or not.
“Really make sure that you’re educating the staff, helping them understand how it’s going to help students,” Ahmed says. “If you’re not doing a good job keeping them informed, the transition can be difficult.
Figure out when delivery will be most popular so you can staff accordingly, Shaner advises. Niagara anticipates late Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights to be the busiest delivery times, but campus dining leaders will rely on polling data to help make more precise staffing decisions.
Think through delivery logistics
Food can be delivered by car, bike, moped or motorcycle, or on foot. The best method can vary by school, depending on a school’s size, how pedestrian-friendly it is and parking capacity.
The University of Georgia’s self-operated dining service piloted delivery via the Tapingo app last year. Administrators found they needed to ensure that bicycle couriers had access and delivery vehicles had parking, so that food could be delivered within about 30 minutes. “We’ve had some challenges with people parking in places where they shouldn’t and even getting citations for that,” Holden says. “Walking is easiest, but then there are issues with time and distance.”
And remember, the fundamentals still apply: Regardless of delivery method, Georgia’s dining service insists that couriers properly insulate food so it arrives the way it should.
Lynn Freehill-Maye is a New York-based writer.