21 Aug 2020

Dining Re-Entry: Q+A with HBS Food Service Management

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by Shona Simkin

Perhaps nowhere on campus are the changes required for limiting the spread of COVID-19 more obvious than in dining services. From signage to single tables, it’s different. Last spring, we spoke with Andrew Falzone, director of campus and food services; Todd Mulder, Restaurant Associates (RA) general manager; and David Fillippetti, RA executive chef as they shifted services amidst rapidly-changing state and local guidelines. We caught up with them to ask about new changes and regulations, what the community can expect in the dining facilities, and how everyone can assist in their efforts to provide delicious, thoughtful, and healthy food in a safe and efficient manner.

We last spoke in late April—what was the dining service like over the summer?
Falzone: The summer has been an opportunity to test some concepts and ideas. We added hot food service since the spring, and we’ve tested how to best deliver that within the safety guidelines, such as which vessels perform the best with hot foods. Just recently we added in omelets in the morning. It’s not made to order, but we do offer a few choices and you can see the person making and packaging them. We're figuring out how to operate efficiently and safely while still adding some comfort elements that people are accustomed to. It's also been a chance to observe and tweak service with different traffic flows. A lot of the learnings we've had will apply to how we open up other spaces on campus later this month.

Packaged food in Spangler
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

Did you deliver food to students in quarantine?
Falzone: Yes, RA has done an amazing job with the quarantine program. We developed it early on and fine-tuned it over the course of the summer. We provided quarantine meals throughout the University, after the main Harvard dining service shut down for the summer. That will wind down shortly, as their dining services are reopening. All ordering is online, with the same menu as in-person dining plus a few additional comfort items that are nice to have. Each meal is delivered directly to their room. There has been a lot of communication involved with this service—RA associates discuss the process with the students so that they know how we’ll help them. It’s been a nice opportunity to build a rapport with students and to have a communication touchpoint in what can be a really isolating and challenging time.

We’re now ramping quarantine service up in preparation for student move-in. Both state and Harvard guidance mandates that anyone outside of Massachusetts must quarantine upon arrival to campus for 14 days.

Directional and spacing decals on Spangler's floors
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

What are some of the new dining procedures that people will notice once they’re back on campus?
Mulder: Throughout Spangler—in the Food Court, Grille, and the Café—there are directional and spacing decals on the floor, and signage for flow. To eliminate extra touchpoints we added new registers for contactless payment—you can pay with Apple Pay or a tap and go credit card—and scanners to can scan your own items.

We’ve also extended dining hours for the Grille, which will now be open from 8:00am to 4:00pm, so that we can spread out people over more areas. Spangler Food Court will be open from 7:00am to 2:00pm, then again for dinner from 4:00pm to 8:00pm. The Café, which only accepts orders through Thrive, will be open from 7:00am to 6:00pm.

On September 1 we will be opening up Chao for dining as well—we’ve added registers so that it will function as a retail outlet like Spangler Center Food Court, with Bridge Coffee Bar also open. We’ve put a lot of effort into the new Thrive app, which allows you to pre-order a custom sandwich, sushi, or coffee. The production and pickup for Thrive will be in the finishing kitchen next to the Williams Room. We’ve also opened up the Williams Room for dining, so that once you pick up your Thrive order you can sit in a distanced dining area

Falzone: We will be supporting student organizations with a good, simplified version of our catering program that is very focused on health and safety. We will announce more details about that soon, but we’ve worked hard on providing options that foster student life and create a campus community.

What are some of the safety measures behind the scenes?
Fillippetti: We have temperature and wellness checks every morning, for everyone. In the kitchen everyone is spaced six feet apart, and everyone wears a mask. We have someone whose entire job is to sanitize the kitchen—she rotates through all the spaces and sanitizes all of the high-touchpoints and surfaces. All the associates are divided into teams that work one to two times a week, so that if someone does get sick we know exactly who they were working with for contact tracing.

Mulder: Those work clusters are really important for trust as well. Everyone in the team of 20 to 30 people knows that they all share responsibility for doing the right thing and keeping each other safe. We also have a quality assurance manager who is dedicated to making sure that everyone is following the correct protocols for food safety and health and safety. Another important part of the team is a registered dietitian, who will be available to help students with allergies or special dietary needs navigate this new system.

Has the food itself changed? Have there been any challenges in serving food in containers rather than buffet style?
Fillippetti: The food itself hasn’t changed as much as the presentation has; it’s been more about cooking in batches, watching temperature controls, and figuring out the right kind of vessels for hot food—what holds up and what keeps the quality high. We tried to keep compostable containers for hot food, but they melted. Now we’re using recyclable plastic, which is being processed in the back as it has been, so that food goes into the compost and the box goes into recycling.

Falzone: We're still about 90 percent compostable, it's really just the hot entrees that are only recyclable. There are stickers on the containers and signs about what is compostable and what is recyclable so that diners can dispose of their items correctly.

New seating arrangement in Spangler
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

You have put a lot of work into spacing people out throughout campus for dining. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Falzone: For the safety of the entire campus, we’re really focused on spreading out the population. It’s a true challenge to work within the 25-person limit. When there’s a lunch rush and students are between classes, we need to provide as many options as possible so that they can eat quickly and safely. Chao will be designated for the second-year Elective Curriculum students weekday meals, and Spangler Food Court for first-year Required Curriculum students.

Mulder: All of the seating arrangements have shifted to allow for safe dining as you have to remove your mask to eat. Dining tables are almost all individual. Spangler and Chao each have 50 spots for dining, and we’re looking into opening up the second floor lounge area of Chao for dining as well.

Thrive app signage
Photo: Hensley Carrasco

How does the new Thrive app help with those efforts?
Falzone: It’s a big part of de-densifying the dining service areas and creating more efficient service for the community. If you plan ahead, you can select your sandwich and sushi pick-up location (Spangler Center, Aldrich Cart, Bridge Café). For this service, you must order by 10:00am for pickup at 11:30am and order by 11:30am for pickup at 1:00pm. For on demand pickup at the Spangler Williams Room, you can order between 11:30am and 2:00pm for deli or sushi pickup by the Spangler Williams Room. Contactless coffee service will be available in the Spangle Center Café and Bridge Café.

The flexibility that it allows really helps with the spacing constraints we’re working with, and is a great way for community members to avoid those crowded spaces and spread out. For those interested in Thrive, you can get the app on Apple and Google or text “Thrive” to 99299.

Are there any tips for helping the community navigate through the dining spaces efficiently?
Falzone: Making dining decisions before you enter will be an enormous help. If you visit during a non-peak time, you might be able to make your decision based on what looks good, but for peak times it’s critical to get through that space as quickly as possible. We’ll have menus online and you can follow @hbs_eats on Instagram for daily updates and photos of menu options. You can also preorder and pick up through Thrive. There will be certain times of the day that students will have limited dining between classes. We know it won't always be possible, but if faculty and staff members could avoid those high-density times (11:45am to 1:15pm), we can ensure that everyone has a safe, efficient, and satisfying dining experience.

What else can the community do to help ensure everyone’s safety?
Mulder: It's important to recognize that many of our associates are being impacted by COVID-19. A number of our associates have lost family members. It's been a difficult time for a lot of people, but we've been really proud of how well the team has managed this time and their support to the School has been tremendous.

Falzone: It's really the community pledge we're making when we come back to campus. Our frontline workers have been coming to campus since the spring to provide this essential service. It’s an important service for the school, and our hope is that community members take it as seriously as these associates do with regards to their teammates' health and safety and its impact on the community. We hope that the community members coming back are doing the same, for the benefit of those who are here to provide service to them.

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