About the author : Kevin Rettle

Global Vice President of Digital and Innovation

By Kevin Rettle, Global Vice President of Digital and Innovation

The campus environment has certainly changed over the last 18 months. However, dining options have also advanced at a rapid pace to meet the evolving needs of today’s students, faculty and staff. New features, creative dining models, operational adjustments and evolving trends on campus have helped colleges navigate through the many challenges of the pandemic. Now, these innovative developments are propelling campus dining into a new era marked by more options, seamless technology integration, optimized experiences, subscription models and affiliate partnerships with national and local brands.

According to Sodexo’s research, several key trends had emerged in college students’ expectations before the pandemic: 81% of consumers wanted 24/7 access to healthy, convenient snacks. This trend only continued to grow throughout the pandemic, creating opportunities to leverage automation, delivery and app-based ordering to better serve students who seek meals and snacks anywhere and at any time.

Digital tools that were once considered a novelty have become an essential element of successful campus dining programs. In addition, new service models make it possible to provide the options students want, while minimizing risk and safeguarding the health and well-being of the entire campus community.

Although the pandemic continues, prolonging concerns about health and requiring dining programs to maintain strict safety protocols, there is reason to be optimistic about the future. Students returning to campus this fall will find innovative new options that make it easier than ever to dine in a safe, convenient way. From dining apps that enable contactless ordering and payment to delivery robots that bring food straight to consumers, there are plenty of options for students who want to dine safely while still enjoying the quality, variety, customization and convenience they expect.

Mobile Ordering, Delivery and Contactless Payment Improve Safety

Sodexo has been a leader in the digital space for decades, developing robust e-commerce capabilities and other web-based tools. More recently, the company evolved its digital strategy by launching the Bite mobile dining app. The pandemic rapidly escalated the demand for mobile solutions and consumer adoption of new technologies, enabling Sodexo to quickly scale and deploy these solutions to thousands of sites around the world. Early in the pandemic, Sodexo introduced Bite for Universities, an enhanced dining app specifically tailored to colleges and universities.

Bite for Universities brings an unparalleled level of flexibility and convenience to dining on campus. An intuitive user interface makes it easy to find everything students need. Through Bite for Universities, students can view menus, place fully customized orders, schedule orders for pick-up or delivery, pay using their dining plan or credit/debit card, earn and redeem loyalty rewards and access special promotions. At select campuses, students can also use the app to order groceries for delivery and sign up for meal kit subscriptions via Sodexo’s partnership with HelloFresh.

Perhaps most importantly, Bite for Universities provides contactless payment options and eliminates physical queuing, thereby limiting exposure and infection risks.

The app also facilitates the implementation of ghost kitchens, also referred to as cloud kitchens, which allow guests to order from their favorite retail venues and pick their food up from one centralized location. This model extends availability and operating hours, providing more variety in dining choices and improving student satisfaction. Campuses have gone from offering pick-up and delivery from five restaurant concepts on campus to 10 just by implementing a ghost kitchen model.  For example, Bentley University in Massachusetts doubled the number of menu concepts available after the retail dining location implemented a ghost kitchen model after transitioning to take-out only in late 2020. Without the constraints of limited station space, the dining team was free to expand menu concepts via mobile ordering. Ghost kitchens are only possible with a robust mobile ordering and payment app, such as Bite for Universities. 

Delivery Robots: Rolling onto a Campus Near You

Like mobile ordering, contactless delivery enhances convenience and improves safety by minimizing in-person interactions. Sodexo partnered with two leading companies, Starship Technologies and KiwiBot, to develop a unique self-driving delivery robot program that offers high-tech contactless delivery. A fleet of small, autonomous robotic pods deliver food all over campus. Originally launched at George Mason University, these robots have since expanded to nearly 20 campuses around the country, including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, New Mexico State University and Gonzaga University. 

Students place orders via an app and specify a delivery location on campus. An interactive map allows users to watch as the robot makes its journey to them. The delivery usually takes only a few minutes, depending on the items ordered and the distance the robot must travel. 

The zero-emission robots use a combination of sophisticated machine learning, artificial intelligence, and sensors to navigate, mapping their environments to the nearest inch. They can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night, and operate in both rain and snow.

Autonomous Retail Options Limit Physical Contact

The retail experience is also changing, and it’s vital to understand shifting consumer expectations as we explore new ideas. Although today’s students are extremely comfortable using digital technology in every facet of their daily lives, there is still considerable demand for in-person shopping experiences. A recent survey found that 58% of Gen Z students prefer shopping in a brick-and-mortar location. However, these young consumers seek unique retail options, with 56% of Gen Z stating they want fun store experiences that keep them from getting bored.

Sodexo is pioneering the field of autonomous retail with new ideas that improve safety and convenience on campus. One example is Lounge Twelve, a modern retail venue featuring a fully self-checkout experience. Guests scan their items, pay and go. There are no queues, no waiting and no close contact with staff members. Lounge Twelve offers premium coffee and tea, prepackaged foods and ready-to-eat meals in a modern, relaxing space.

Sodexo’s Eat> Now concept takes the idea of autonomous retail one step further, offering guests a seamless and contact-free experience. Guests start by scanning a QR code within the Bite for Universities app to enter Eat> Now. As guests shop at this upscale retail/groceraunt hybrid, cameras placed throughout the location track the items they choose and add them to a virtual cart. When the guest exits Eat> Now, the items are charged to the payment method on file within the Bite app. Guests receive a detailed receipt on their smartphone within moments of exiting. 

Autonomous restaurants. from vending-type machines to full-sized carts, are another advancement popping up on college campuses and offering high-quality, fresh, delicious meals and snacks with a high-tech twist. These advanced vending machines provide 24/7 access and serve as another contactless option. Sodexo is currently working to bring these concepts to partner campuses as soon as the spring 2022 semester. 

As we continue working with campuses to adapt to the shifting demands of the ongoing pandemic, Sodexo is meeting students, faculty and staff where they are to feel safe and engaged on campus.



September 28, 2021