Building Friendly, Fluid Experiences on Campus

by | Apr 12, 2023 | Outside The Box, Campus Dining

Featuring Ben Anderson, VP of Digital Strategy at Chartwell’s Higher Education, formerly Director of Strategic Sales at Grubhub Campus

We spoke with Ben Anderson, who’s worked in the foodservice tech industry for more than a decade. Watch to hear him discuss how he’s seen that technology evolve, and where he believes the most significant enhancements are now taking place.

Rochelle Hi, everyone. I’m Rochelle Berry, and I’m here today with Ben Anderson, Director of Strategic Sales at Grubhub. Thanks, Ben, for joining us today.

Ben Absolutely. It’s great to be here.

Rochelle I’m really excited to interview you because I think I’ve known you for oh, I don’t know, it feels like a decade. And we’ve kind of grown up in this industry together. And I want to congratulate you first and foremost, so that I don’t forget, on your recent award from NACUFS, I guess it’s been almost a year since you received it, the Daryl Van Hook Industry Award. So congratulations.

Ben I thank you so much for that. It’s been a great group and it had been a decade. I figured I would have to wait another one before I got the award, but was very honored to receive it.

Rochelle I think the you’re so well-deserving. I mean, I’ve seen you, like I said, grow up in this industry. You have earned that. You show up, you step up in every single way in the industry, not just with NACUFS, but I’m sure you carry that out throughout your journey. So you very, very much deserved.

Ben That means a lot. I really, really appreciate that. And you know, it’s been a pleasure to work with the industry. You know, food people, campus people are really good folks.

Rochelle Yeah, absolutely. And I know you’ve broadened your reach. So I think let’s just dive in and talk about how you started. When I first met you, you were with Tapingo, which has joined Grubhub. So talk a little bit about that and where you started.

Ben Well, it’s been a little over ten years. Originally the company was called Tapingo, acquired by Grubhub, and now it’s a division within Grubhub called Grubhub Campus or Grubhub Onsite. And the DNA goes back to the decade. So it really feels like a group really, you know, focused on the nontraditional food service space, partnered with colleges. So in a lot of ways it’s been a very similar job and role for about a decade. But clearly having a big company behind us, supporting us, continue to evolve the mission is really, you know, helpful, refreshing, cool to be a part of.

Rochelle Very cool. So having started in the campus environment, what are you seeing now and what other growing industries within that are you working with?

Ben Yeah, we’ve done work in healthcare and corporate dining stadiums, professional and at the collegiate level. Also hospitality, hotels, resorts, casinos have become big opportunities. And, you know, if you think about evolution in foodservice, you tend to see that higher ed tends to be an early mover, and these other sectors tend to move a little bit after that. But, you know, it’s been a really cool evolution of the product and the same challenges a dining venue has on the college can be similar to that of the stadium or these other environments. So we’ve always tried to keep a big lens on it. You know, how do we solve the problems of foodservice today? How do we partner uniquely with each of these sectors and really most importantly, think ahead. You know, how we continue to be at the forefront of innovation in college dining. And dining bigger picture, too.

Rochelle Right. And, you know, when I first met you, I was on the collegiate dining side and now on the industry side myself with Apex Order Pickup. With robots and other things that you’re integrating. So can you talk a little bit about what you’re seeing and from the customer service side and what the operators are requiring?

Ben Sure. You know, a lot of it’s driven by, you know, what customers want. You know, nowadays a student going into college has experienced mobile ordering, experienced delivery, may have experienced lockers or robotic delivery before going into the environment. So the landscape has changed a bit. But, you know, when you think about the consumer process, there is the you know, the consumer interface. So you know, where they’re ordering from and that’s all, you know, historically you’ve had to walk up and be physically present to order, and now with kiosks and mobile ordering, the point of purchase has changed.

And then you think about how that then impacts the operations. You know, now that you have different orders going into the back of house in different ways. And then the third part of that puzzle, which has evolved over 20, 30, 40, 50 years, is how the student gets their food or the consumer gets it. And that’s really where we’ve seen a ton of evolution, you know, lockers, robots. And, you know, it goes back to the old adage of kind of meeting the consumer where they are. I think that’s so, you know, these products have been out in the market. But to your point, we’re now working with companies, robot delivery companies, you know, considered and looked at, you know, drone companies in the past. And it’s really all about, you know, merging that, making sure that the campuses and the partners we work with are representing themselves to the to the students as being at the forefront of technology, you know, being innovative. That’s very important to these universities.

But more important than that, this isn’t technology for technology’s sake, it’s really about restructuring how consumers want to get food, especially in an evolving labor environment, how operators want to produce and deliver the food, whether it’s pick up or whatever the mechanism is. And so, you know, the world kind of keeps changing. I think we see it as our job to be making sure that we have the product that works for the customer today and then in doing that, the value to the customer is they don’t have to worry about what the next new thing is. You know, when you’re partnering with us, we integrate with the next thing for you. So how do you kind of create both consistency from the consumer experience, but create a platform that allows both the operator and the consumer to evolve with the technology without having to do the heavy lifting? And you know I’m sure we’ll dive into it, but that’s really where a lot of the evolution of technology has come, how easy it is for these systems to communicate and work with each other. So, you know, in this evolving technology landscape, how do you create seamless, efficient experiences for the customer and the operator.

Rochelle So when you’re working and looking for a strategic partner like Apex, what are you looking to solve? What problem are you solving or what characteristics are you looking for in those strategic partners?

Ben Great question. You know, I think it goes back to what the customer wants. And, you know, it’s a two-fold customer. It’s what the student wants at a college and it’s what the operations team or the administration wants. And lockers and Apex do an awesome job of meeting in the middle there, right? You know, as I mentioned, in the labor environment, it was bad pre-COVID, it’s worse now, more challenging to staff. So thinking about how you can create unmanned pickup becomes a really neat solution. You know, there can be these labor savings there.

So I think first and foremost, you want to find partners that see the vision, right? No campus wants to do technology just for the sake of it. They want to do it because they’re solving a problem. And that’s, you know, first and foremost, make sure that we’re aligned in what is it that we’re solving. And for lockers in dining we’re solving for, you know, how we conveniently allow options for students in a way that doesn’t need added labor or additional labor for the customer, or for the operator. And again, that can look different in different environments. But you really need to be aligned at that mission level too, because this isn’t just about making changes or implementations today. You know, a campus that brings a locker system in, you know, hopefully that’s something they have forever and continue to evolve with.

So I think you got to, you know, in some ways start with that big picture alignment. And then at the individual campus level, you know, all these factors, kind of whirl-winding together, labor, contactless, convenience for customers, lockers and this idea of remote pickup or unattended pickup become really cool both short-term solutions for universities, but also critically long-term as they think about redesigning the physical space, redesigning unions, redesigning their dining environment.

Rochelle Outside of the collegiate world, what else are you seeing? Like you mentioned, healthcare, other restaurants, you know, what else is happening out there that you’re having to react to or hearing about that they’re solving?

Ben Great question. You know, the data side is a little different depending on the sector. So in healthcare, you know, there may be concerns about HIPPA or maybe concerns about obviously allergens and being able to denote those in an app. So I think if you think about the healthcare sector and other sectors, sometimes there’s these unique challenges there. But bigger picture, all nontraditional dining environments tend to run into those same challenges of congestion, opening hours, you know, this goal of how do you make service available. You know, it’s sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place. How do you expand hours and provide more sets of service, broader service, more consistent service, yet do it in a way that isn’t messing with the labor model?

So I think what I found is the same conversations I was having in higher ed 10 years ago are conversations we’ve had with pro stadiums and large, you know, B&I corporate and health care facilities now. And not that the needs are different, but you know, I think the truth of higher ed is nowhere besides higher ed, with the exception of correction, do you have that type of a kind of a pivot point between the consumer and the diner? You know, how many orders need to be done in a lunch rush? You know, a college student relies on foodservice on the campus 3 times, 3 to 5 times a day. So, you know, I think the challenges that we find in higher ed are similar to the challenges we see elsewhere. But the needs are greater because of that unique relationship between the college student and the foodservice arm of the dining operation.

Rochelle That’s really good feedback. So when you’re thinking about some of the biggest successes you seen across any of these foodservice industries, what stands out in your mind of like, wow, we really hit it out of the park with that, with that client?

Ben You know, the example that comes to mind first is actually an Apex example. It’s a Rider University location. And it was the first location, we started talking about this about five years ago, but to my knowledge it was one of the first locations doing a kind of ghost kitchen concept. And, you know, just to take a little bit a step back, you know, there’s all these kind of, you know, ghost kitchens, sort of virtual kitchen, all these ideas sort of floating through. And really what it’s about is how you create an efficient operational setup to be able to provide food service in a way where it isn’t a direct, walk-up consumer experience. And this example of Jersey Mike’s was a great example. Due to a renovation, they were able to remodel a location so it was effectively a production kitchen presenting out to a set of locker windows. I think it was a really cool use case to show how you can redesign a physical facility and location and still do a lot of throughput, but in a way that is a completely different labor model.

And the reason I was so excited about that is, this is not a solution for every retail environment. I mean, clearly a college still wants to have students sit down and interact, but in some environments, and especially ones where they’re really feeling the pinch of labor, you know, maybe a café in the engineering building on the other side of campus, those environments can see so much value in rethinking how they are modeled. So I think proving out that you can have a very successful retail operation without having the same front-of-house labor model and having a pass-through to a locker system was really cool. Because that’s where I get excited is as you start to see the physical world evolve because of the technology. And when you see that marriage, that’s where you really start to see these huge labor savings benefits on the dining side. When you can kind of build for the technology, not build in spite of the technology.

Rochelle Yeah, and I’m thinking too, about the consistent branding. You know, I know that your technology can be branded, the lockers can be branded, so you’re cutting labor, so saving costs, you’re increasing throughput and then inputting your profit margin, of course. And then you’ve got this consistent branding which you’re adding the experience. Which to me, the branding is not just how something looks, right, it’s the experience, it’s what the customer feels. So I’m hoping that these fun technologies and innovations are helping with that experience. Have you received any feedback on that? Like the fun factor, the experiential factor?

Ben Yeah, absolutely. The fun factor, I think, is kind of the obvious point one. And, you know, I skip it sometimes because, you know, I’m sort of in the trenches with the operations where, you know, kind of the rubber meets the road with a lot of these products. But absolutely, I think that’s, you know, even if there was a net neutral benefit to operations. You know, you were able to make some labor savings, you’re seeing some increase in throughput. The fact that, you know, you’re introducing these new, exciting things. You know, we hear that feedback all the time, both from staff and administration, but also the students as well. You know, having this fluid, consumer-friendly, innovative experience. You know, it isn’t just, like you said, a physical, single experience. But that connects to the overall brand of the university, to the dining team. So absolutely. I think whenever that that becomes the kind of the easy win with these technologies, is in addition to these operation and sales benefits, there is this immediate kind of puff in how the consumer, the student, views the campus dining team. Absolutely.

Rochelle So what, what do you see is happening next for Grubhub? What’s the new innovation that you’re working on if you can share, or other things, other problems that you’re hearing down the pike that you’re trying to solve for?

Ben I love that question. You know, I think the problems have always been the same. I always remember, you know, the biggest challenge people had pre-Covid was labor, it’s still the biggest challenge. So I think there are always going to be these commonalities there. So I think when I think about what’s next, it’s often about not even necessarily the tech, but how the tech is supported in the real world.

So a great example is, if you’re doing a kind of a hub-and-spoke model with lockers. You know, you have orders coming into the back of house, and those orders need to be prepped and staged, and they need to be run to a locker system. So, you know, we’ve built a kind of a runner tool so that if you have someone running these orders between a back of house and a locker, how do you make their job easier? How you make it easier, like when you walk up to a locker, not even necessarily needing to scan a QR code, but using prox space technology to be able to pop up the locker near it without having to scan a code.

So I think that there’s all these little micro-interactions and as these technology companies and, you know, as we continue to partner more closely, I think that’s where you see a lot of these benefits. It’s less about the next cool thing. And don’t get me wrong, that’s there, too, but it’s just how fluidly and well these disparate systems work together, both on the front end for the consumer experience, but also how we share data, how data gets to the right place.

So I think that’s where you kind of see a lot of the improvements is how fluidly the systems work together to create these little micro-improvements, again, that on the surface level you may not see, but as you experience the product, oh wow, that’s an improvement. And that’s I think what’s fun about the tech. You kind of keep making these micro improvements.

Bigger picture, you know, you know, attendless ordering, being able to do self-serve using robotics. And I think when I kind of think about the evolution from a campus perspective, you know, these products have been out there. I mean, Apex has been using lockers for must be five, six years now. Campuses have been using robot delivery for five, six years. But where we’re really seeing the evolution is how these products work together to the point now where we have a campus where, you know, you think of the campus as this one sort of radius, but the campus has different zones and there’s parts of campus that are served by lockers. There is sort of this inside circle of the campus that is served by delivery robots. There’s this outer kind of donut layer of the campus that is served by delivery drivers. So I think that’s where we see the kind of the cool evolution. It’s less about any single product, but how some of these innovative operations are using them together to create the sort of big picture, innovative experience for the campus and the students.

Rochelle That’s so insightful. And I like I feel like you’ve covered like, that’s a great way to close because it really is neat to see and not just neat, neat to see how all the technology works together. But practically, like you said, a lot of what I hear like boots on the ground is, Hey, how is all my data going to talk to me as an operator? I don’t want to have to go to 12 different places to figure out what my bottom line number is. And as the technology starts to mesh more, I think you used the word fluid, the more fluid and reactive people can be to the customer’s side. So it’s fascinating to see what Grubhub is doing with technology, and I’m definitely following it closely. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we end the call?

Ben I appreciate that. You know, I think to your last point about the fluidity, I think that’s where you have seen a lot of technical evolution in the last few years. You know, it used to be this idea of I want one app for everything and I want one system for everything. And I understand that. But a lot of that is built on process. You know, we have one way that we have reconciled financially over the years. And I think the ability for systems to communicate with each other absolutely is an evolution.

But, you know, the other side of that, too, is if I were to credit our success as a technology company to anything, it would not be the technology. It would be how we provide the kind of marketing and support and consultancy to make the technology work. Because, you know, we have examples of campuses that are leveraging our tech. It’s transformational. I mean, it’s literally saving labor, it’s massively increasing sales and throughput. But that’s because it’s bought in, it’s a cultural part of what they do. Their local managers, their teams understand the tech and they see it as being part of their DNA. Whereas that same tech could be used by another operation and it was sort of slapped on after the fact, but there’s no human connection there and no sort of human value there.

And that’s where, I usually start when I’m talking to campuses is, you know, the technology’s out there and there isn’t one solution for everything. It’s really about understanding what resources you can dedicate to this. What impact are you having? Is this something that you want to do just test out, or is this something you want to build your DNA as a dining operation around? And that may be a different answer today than a year from now, but making sure you align the tech with what the campus can actually accomplish and wants to accomplish. And a lot of that is human, not innovation.

Rochelle Yeah, I see that point about the culture and some people are like early adopters of innovation. But really what we’re seeing are these are the standards now. This is not, some of these things are not options because the customers require these order pickup solutions. It just has to be, like you said, part of the DNA and the cultural part of the team as that team dynamic shifts, too, with the labor, right, job descriptions are changing, the way people do sales, you know, where they’re seeing the profit margins shifting on their balance sheet, their profit and loss. So just interesting to see how even those hard assets are changing on their balance sheet to bring profit to their P&L.

So anyway, I just really appreciate having you here Ben, and you’re always so full of dynamic information and charismatic personality, and I’ve always enjoyed speaking to you. So we look forward to following your personal journey. And congrats again on all the success that you’ve had with Tapingo/Grubhub all throughout the years, and I’ll probably see you at a conference in the near future.

Ben Absolutely. Well, I really appreciate the opportunity and you know, it’s a great time to be in the college dining world, in the dining world. You know, these technologies are out there, they’re proven, and now we get to leverage them. And I think it’s kind of fun to see where we’ve come, where we are. But most importantly, sort of the easy, achievable things that we can do as a dining community.

Rochelle Very true. Well, thanks, Ben. I really appreciate you joining us today.

Ben My pleasure, thanks so much.