To Feed Today's 'On-Demand' Students, Colleges Turn to Robots and Mobile Apps

  • 2019-11-14
  • Education Dive

Taking cues from students' approach to dining off campus, colleges are adding convenience and variety to their own dining offerings.

"Ten years ago, students were digital natives," Ryan Tuohy, senior vice president of business development at Starship Technologies, told Education Dive in an interview. "The students in college today are on-demand natives." The San Francisco-based company makes the delivery robots, and it is deploying them at George Mason in partnership with the university's foodservice provider, Sodexo.

Given the popularity of same-day package delivery, food-ordering apps and other on-demand services, college students are becoming accustomed to getting what they want, when they want it and on their terms. It's a trend evident across the foodservice sector, with general use of digital and mobile ordering continuing to grow.

Sixty-percent of the roughly 6,200 on-campus students at George Mason have ordered food from off-campus restaurants, said Mark Kraner, the university's executive director of campus retail operations. "There's a strong demand for delivery," he said, adding that students typically spend between $250 and $350 a semester on food bought outside their meal plans.

Colleges and foodservice providers are responding to that behavior. Beyond food-delivery bots, they are adding online and mobile ordering at campus dining locations, bringing food trucks to school events, providing 24/7 food service and even offering meal kits as part of their dining plans.

Still, a recent implementation at the University of Pittsburgh has run into problems over concerns about the bots' impact on accessibility. And at George Mason, construction activity and bad weather have at times hampered service.