New bits over the last couple weeks have sent my brain right back to college — specifically to the college dining hall, where myself and others (everyone) used to steal food to take back to our dorms to eat between meals.
OK, I’m not sure that actually classified as stealing, since we were all on prepaid meal plans. But you weren’t allowed to take food out of the dining room, so the act of sneaking, say, a couple oranges and a jumbo ziploc bag of cereal out the door was practically an art form among the student body population.
Gen Z will likely not have to jump through that particular hoop when it comes to getting fed in between regular mealtimes. I was recently reminded of this possibility when news dropped that foodservice provider Chartwells plans to launch a ghost kitchen program across the colleges and universities it supplies.
Chartwells has already piloted the program at a few schools, including the University of Utah and Seattle University. The idea is to find underutilized kitchen spaces on campus and turn them into ghost kitchens that serve students delivery and pickup meals ordered via the Chartwell’s mobile app.
While the long-term relevance of ghost kitchens is still a hotly debated topic in the the wider restaurant industry, the format seems to be a no-brainer for school campuses.
As my food-theft story above anecdotally illustrates, students eat at all hours of the day and night, and often those weird hours are out of necessity (e.g., studying late, extracurricular commitments, etc.) Campus dining halls rarely accommodate those hours. Nowadays that leaves students at the mercy of DoorDash or Uber Eats, which, particularly with the newly hiked fees, gets expensive quickly. There’s always, of course, the option to hop in the car and hit the drive-thru, but that takes time and, depending on the restaurant, costs a fair amount of money, too.
Instead of leaving students to the mercy of surrounding restaurants, schools have an opportunity to work with their foodservice providers and offer meals in a wider variety of formats at more times throughout the day and night. The kitchen infrastructure already exists, most notably at dining halls that only operate at specific hours. Those spaces could easily double as kitchens that fulfill pickup and/or delivery orders in the off hours. Schools might even make money off such an operation.
Meals, meanwhile, could count towards a student’s overall meal plan, and adding a mobile app component, as Chartwells has done, would simplify the entire process. Another approach would be for a school foodservice provider to partner with a third-party mobile app company, as Aramark did with Good Uncle in 2019. Via the Good Uncle app, students at participating schools can browse meals and order them for delivery. The app’s “Flexcash” system is a declining balance that can be re-upped by the student (or their parent) at any time. From there, it functions just as a meal card for the dining hall would.
Food robots, of the small, six-wheeled variety, could also prove themselves a valuable part of the campus ghost kitchen operation. Companies like Starship and Kiwibot can already be found roving about multiple university campuses. In fact, both companies have existing partnerships with yet-another foodservice provider, Sodexo. One can easily imagine one of these roving bots carrying food from an on-campus ghost kitchen to the student’s dormitory or to a centralized pickup point on campus.
A final point in favor of ghost kitchens on campus. We hear often that delivery and takeout can’t replace the restaurant experience, which is true, because eating soggy fries from a cardboard box is decidedly not an experience. But campus dining halls aren’t exactly known for five-star meals, and much of the food served up in these places is already well-suited to travel. There may even be room for improvements in menu offerings, something Chartwells appears to be looking at through its program.
Does all this potential for ghost kitchens, tech, and the like spell the death of the campus dining room? Not likely. In fact, this particular on-premises format is ripe for its own digital reinvention, from automat-style lockers to robot vending machines and even tools in the back of house that can better monitor food safety and food waste. All said and done, there’s arguably enough room for innovation within format as there is beyond it.
Food Tech ‘Round the Web
Meanwhile, over in the regular restaurant world, ghost kitchens are not the future, according to this thoughtful analysis from Grubstreet writer Rachel Sugar.
Also, forget Guy Fieri. White Castle is opening a delivery-only kitchen in downtown Orlando, Florida, which will be in operation next week.
And if you read nothing else in this newsletter, check Eater’s comprehensive coverage on how to help feed those impacted by the Texas winter storms.