When students began returning to in-person classes at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst in the fall of 2020, the leaders of the dining program knew they had challenges ahead of them.
Coronavirus-related issues of safety, hygiene and crowd control were added to a list that already included making appealing and nutritious food, keeping menus interesting, and operating efficiently.
While they could have switched to all cold, prepackaged foods to make serving fast and easy, school leaders wanted to find a way to hold true to their mission of creating a memorable dining experience.
“Food is something we cannot skimp on,” said Alex Ong, director of culinary excellence. “We can’t help students study for their exams, but we can say we’ve got good food here and it’s going to make you happy.”
Creativity and the right tools
Limitations on in-person dining, changes to dining hall procedures to prevent the spread of disease and the reality of staff reductions made it impossible for the school to continue operating as they had previously.
That’s where a little creativity and the right tools made all the difference. QuickSwitch from LTI was one of the solutions.
Ong said the team started simply with a more subdued menu to test how students would move through the line and what kind of procedure would work best under the new guidelines. Next, they quickly ramped up to offer wider food alternatives.
QuickSwitch wells were key to the efforts because they can hold hot, cold and frozen foods side-by-side — and can switch between temperatures in less than an hour. The flexibility meant the UMass team could easily experiment with new foods and food combinations without facing limitations from their equipment.
“Our focus was to keep the menu simple but good and then continually add variety by changing up the menu on a routine basis,” said Garett DiStefano, director of dining services. “If you do that, students feel like they’re getting a great experience.”
Amid all the changes came another — the opening of the new Worcester Commons, a multi-level dining and recreation facility.
Though the facility was designed and built to hold 12 different dining concepts, a much smaller portion of the space was used to accommodate both a reduced student population and operation by a smaller staff.
QuickSwitch was critical for this transition, as well. Because the wells could be hot or cold, the serving lines could operate far beyond what was originally envisioned. What may have once been a salad and cold sandwich bar could suddenly serve everything from tacos to sushi.
“We don’t have to worry about mixing and matching different equipment to make this work,” DiStefano said.
Thinking outside the box
That equipment flexibility is also what allowed the dining services team to continue to use food to cultivate a sense of comfort and community on campus with special events like an ice cream sundae bar. From frozen ice cream to cold fruits and hot fudge, everything was able to be served from one counter using QuickSwitch.
“We’re really testing the flexibility we can get out of our equipment, seeing how creatively we can use it,” DiStefano said. “We would have had to put two or three pieces of traditional equipment together to do that one ice cream event, but with the QuickSwitch, we can really think outside the box to offer students a great experience.
“We like working with LTI because we want a company that works hand in hand with us and understands what feeding thousands of people is like,” he added.
Learn more about the flexibility of QuickSwitch at www.lowtempind.com/quickswitch