College dining is changing. Gone are the days when students living in dorms ate the vast majority of their meals from dining halls, and students living off-campus ate at restaurants and/or cooked for themselves. The divisions are coming down, with flexible options like “Campus Cash” and “Dining Dollars” systems making it possible for students to meet their food needs at dining halls, on-campus stores and participating restaurants.
In fact, in today’s connected economy, students expect frictionless integration between formerly disparate routines, dining and otherwise, and campus foodservice and technology providers are taking note. Now, students’ dining routines are being linked to other parts of campus life, integrated through payments systems and connected digital technologies.
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“I look at universities like a smart city, and to have one solution provider that can do your dining, your payments and tuition and dorm access — if you can do all of that within one seamless solution, that is really the push right now,” Erica Bass, vice president of product management at Transact Campus Inc. told PYMNTS in a recent interview. “Everyone’s looking to, ‘How do you streamline the number of vendors and other touchpoints?’”
Today, on many campuses, the dining hall is just one of a connected suite of options for students to get their daily food needs met.
The On-Demand Economy Comes to Campuses
In August, Transact partnered with major food delivery service Grubhub to allow students to pay for their meal deliveries through the campus payments company’s CampusCash program.
“COVID has absolutely increased [off-campus dining],” said Bass. “Now that we have mobile ordering, and we’re able to get food delivered everywhere at any time, it’s become the norm…[Students are] really asking for that flexibility. They want to be able to use their funds anywhere at any time on their stored value account.”
PYMNTS data from The Bring-It-to-Me Economy: How Online Marketplaces And Aggregators Drive Omnichannel Commerce, created in collaboration with Carat by Fiserv, finds that Gen Zers such as today’s college students over-index when it comes to online ordering, suggesting a huge amount of demand for solutions partnerships such as these.
Fifty-five percent of these young consumers order from restaurants using third-party aggregators more often now than before the start of the pandemic, compared to 46% of the general population. 51% of Gen Zers are using mobile order-ahead to order food from restaurants to eat at home more often now, compared to 41% of the general population.
Given the untapped demand for campus delivery, it makes sense that ghost kitchens, restaurants built exclusively for delivery with no consumer-facing presence, would take hold at universities. Take, for instance, campus food service company Chartwells Higher Education’s move to roll out its ghost kitchen program, which is integrated with the company’s mobile ordering program, to campuses nationwide. The program meets students’ desire to have a range of options to get their food needs met wherever they may be.
“We have found that the success of our ghost kitchen program is directly tied to its flexibility,” Chartwells CEO Lisa McEuen told PYMNTS in an interview. “Many of our campuses are already well-equipped to implement ghost kitchens at a low cost without having to replace any meal concepts or shut down a location … the most successful ghost kitchens are ones that can flex their menus and offerings quickly to adjust to student feedback and needs.”
Not all of these deliveries are being fulfilled by human drivers. Campuses present a unique opportunity for companies creating food delivery robotics. With the relatively low car traffic, these spaces are good testing grounds for vehicles that move at a pace that matches or only slightly exceeds that of walkers.
Earlier this summer, Grubhub announced a partnership with Yandex Self-Driving Group to bring Yandex’s rover robots, which transport delivery orders across pre-mapped areas, to campuses that wish to utilize the technology beginning this semester.
Meanwhile, Starship Technologies announced a partnership with food companies Sodexo and Compass Group back in 2019, even before the pandemic accelerated the digital ordering trend, to bring robotic food delivery to campus, integrated with students’ meal cards.
In fact, University of California Berkeley students were trying out robotic deliveries back in 2018, with Kiwibot’s sidewalk robots transporting meals.
“At the end of the day, what we can do is impact the cost of delivery,” Kiwibot’s co-founder and CTO Jason Oviedo told PYMNTS at the time. “So today, if you are paying $6 or $7 per order, and then we tell them that because of automation they can pay a fraction of that? People like that idea a lot.”
Even the food production itself is being automated, offering on-demand food options regardless of whether or not, say, a dining hall worker is on shift.
For instance, in the spring Kellogg’s revealed a partnership with Chowbotics, the DoorDash-owned food robotics company behind Sally the Salad Robot. Together, the companies have launched the Kellogg’s Bowl Bot, a robot that dispenses pre-programmed or custom cereal mixes into a bowl, served with customers’ choice of milk, to college campuses.
Additionally, Israeli startup news outlet CTech recently reported that food tech company SavorEat has partnered with Sodexo to bring its robot chef, which 3D prints plant-based burgers, to universities in 2022.
The connected ecosystem that campuses provide offers, as Bass pointed out, an indication of how these technologies will play out in the outside world, as cities become increasingly connected. If these robots are already coming to campuses, they’ll be in cities next.