College dining will look completely different this fall

So far, about 350 four-year colleges in the United States have decided to operate primarily online, according to data from the Chronicle of Higher Education and Davidson College's College Crisis Initiative. Roughly 500 plan to function in-person, for the most part. Many remain undecided.
Students who do return to college for the fall semester will still be able to eat on campus. But their dining experience will vastly different than it used to be.

Many of the hallmarks of the university dining experience — self-serve options, lingering meals with friends, and dining hall rushes after classes let out — will be gone.

Instead of crowding around a buffet surrounded by other students, diners will pick up to-go meals at designated times. If they eat at their dining halls, many will have to sit six feet away from their friends. If they want something to drink, someone will serve it to them at a beverage station. They'll be expected to wrap up quickly so staffers can clean the space between dining sessions, and welcome more students for a speedy, efficient meal. Hand sanitizer stations and reminders to take precautions against the spread of Covid-19 will be plentiful.

Like restaurants, on-campus dining halls are making changes and using tech to reduce capacity, increase efficiencies and keep diners apart from each other to promote social distancing.

It's a challenge for campus cafeterias, which are designed to accommodate hundreds of students at a time.

"College dining halls are set up to feed the maximum amount of students in a minimum amount of time," said Melissa DaPra, associate director of dining services at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. "Historically, we could accommodate up to 500 students in 15 minutes. Obviously, that won't work now," she said. "We have to completely reverse that thinking."

From all you can eat to pre-packaged takeout

Many college dining halls let students come back for seconds or thirds of any food at any meal. Not this fall, said Matt Mundok, principal and managing director at Innovative Hospitality Solutions, a consulting firm that works with universities on their dining services.

Mundok said that schools will be replacing all-you-can-eat dining experiences with takeout options, grab-and-go foods, and a more retail-like experience. Many may adjust their meal plans to a "declining balance" model, he said, where students pay for individual items with their meal points. Others may give students the option to use those meal points to get food delivered from nearby restaurants or for grocery deliveries.

Like restaurants, dining halls are also reducing capacity for indoor dining.

At the University of North Dakota, for example, one facility went from 500 to 100 seats, said Orlynn Rosaasen, the school's director of dining services and the president of the National Association of College & University Food Services. At St. Norbert, seating in the main dining hall has been halved, from 600 to 300 people.

At Cornell and St. Norbert, students are instructed to socially distance from each other when dining on campus, regardless of whether they maintain that social distance elsewhere. Mundok noted that some universities are more concerned with making sure capacity levels adhere to local laws than with keeping individuals apart necessarily.

Unlike restaurants, where business ebbs and flows, dining halls regularly accommodate a fixed number of diners. To meet the demand while ensuring that diners are properly spread out, some halls are expanding their hours.

Menus will be shorter to cut down on deliberation time and move students through the dining hall more quickly, Rosaasen said. "Self-service is a thing of the past."

Universities are also expanding alternative seating. Some schools are setting up tents for outdoor dining. St. Norbert College transformed its conference center into a dining area for students, DaPra said. At its regular dining hall, seating has been reduced by half.

At Cornell, "we're opening multiple satellite locations where guests can pick up prepared meals they can eat as-is or reheat in their residence halls," Dustin Cutler, executive director of Cornell Dining, told CNN Business in an emailed response. "We're also using one of our food-court-style eateries as expanded seating space for the adjacent residential dining room."

Another major change for school cafeterias? Serving meals to students who have to self isolate. "We're delivering meals to the room where they're being quarantined," said Rosaasen.

Reservations for one

To streamline meal services, many dining halls are beefing up their use of technology.

Cornell already had a system for students to order food and pick it up at some of its on-campus eateries, but it's expanding that system for the fall.

Both Cornell and St. Norbert have partnered with OpenTable, an online platform traditionally used to make restaurant reservations. Cornell is using OpenTable to help manage pickup times for takeout orders, among other things.

The Wisconsin Union, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, is using OpenTable for reservations at the Terrace, an outdoor restaurant on campus. The Terrace is operating at 25 percent capacity and has made other adjustments to keep patrons apart and the space hygienic.

At St. Norbert, students can use the app to find out which dining venue has seating available and at what time, DaPra explained, rather than use it to make reservations.

"It'll help them develop a pattern to their day, something that will work with their class schedule," DaPra said. "We felt this way was more accommodating instead of assigning them a meal time and hoping that that works."

Some colleges are using OpenTable for more traditional reservations — but students can save a spot only for themselves.

"To support social distancing on campus, the service is not currently supporting group dining at schools," Andrea Johnston, chief operating officer of OpenTable, told CNN Business in an email. "If a student wants to dine with a friend, they can use the OpenTable app to make reservations for one at the same time."

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