- As colleges prepare to reopen, one aspect of campus life is being reconfigured: dining halls.
- Dining halls, long a place to gather and feast upon all-you-can-eat options, are shifting to takeout or reservation services.
- Some schools are turning to platforms like OpenTable and Grubhub to help manage takeout and dining hall capacity.
- Others are turning to robots.
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For college students, the days of filling your plate from all-you-can-eat buffets and crowding around a dining hall table are gone — or at least paused.
Instead, students returning to campus this year may find unlimited soft-serve machines and impromptu dinner catch-ups replaced with reservations ahead of time, prepackaged or preordered meals, and ordering kiosks.
Restaurant-reservation software company OpenTable is one vendor that's seen increased demand, according to COO Andrea Johnston. Schools like Cornell University and University of Wisconsin-Madison have already signed on to use the service to handle dining hall capacity.
"We actually received a lot of inbound from a lot of different places, but notably from colleges," Johnston said. "They were trying to think through this."
Students at schools using the software can either go through the app or their college's website to make a reservation at a dining hall; they'll also be able to join a virtual waitlist if the dining hall is all booked up. Johnston also said that colleges will set aside some tables for walk-ins.
But, as of right now, the software doesn't have a group dining function — unlike the usual OpenTable functionality, where restaurant-goers can book for a group.
So if you wanted to dine with a friend, Johnston said, you would have to book a reservation at the same time. How close you can get depends on how the college is handling social distancing measures.
Another service is cutting out the in-person dining altogether. Grubhub, a food ordering and delivery service, already had an on-campus service pre-pandemic. But schools like Indiana University Bloomington (IU) will now rely more heavily on its takeout functionality.
IU, for instance, will be carryout only in the fall; students will use Grubhub to get food from dining halls for pickup or delivery.
Brian Madigan, VP and GM for corporate and campus clients at Grubhub, said the service has created new "features and functionality" to help schools create a safe return to dining. He said there's one main question that the platform is tackling: "How do we alleviate contact?"
Robots may also provide relief for dining workers
And some students may have robots deliver food to them, as Jane Black reports for The New York Times. Students at George Mason University already had a fleet of 25 robots that would deliver food from campus eateries to them. Now, as campus prepares to reopen, 43 robots are ready to bring food straight to students.
And, as Black reports, robots will also be deployed in the kitchens of schools like the University of Chicago and MIT — which could help reduce the workload on employees.
Natasha Warikoo, a professor of sociology at Tufts University and the author of "The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities," previously told Business Insider that campus workers — like those who work in dining halls — are the most vulnerable population on campuses. Many of them also come from local communities, which can put those communities at risk.
Dining halls are yet another aspect of college social life contending with a virus that spreads easily in crowded indoor spaces
Students at Harvard College won't even go to dining halls once they arrive on campus.
Instead, Harvard is taking a different approach: for the first couple of weeks that students are on campus, they'll receive prepackaged meals that are "chilled for take-away and reheating later;" every student will receive a "micro fridge."
Once the school has reached a "manageable rate of community transmission" dining services will begin to serve hot food — but it has said that dining rooms may not reopen.
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