Working smarter to manage inflation and shortages in foodservice

David, the director of dining services, experienced the impact of the supply chain shortages firsthand this morning. His primary vendor notified him that the standing order for tomatoes is backlogged. Half the order could be filled, but at a highly inflated price. He wasn’t looking forward to telling the head chef at the university’s highest-volume cafeteria that tomatoes were off the menu next week. So, David spent some time in the university’s foodservice operations platform exploring options. He found that red bell peppers were nutritionally equivalent to tomatoes, easily procured, and a student favorite. He was able to discuss this with the chef and modify the vendor order before lunchtime. Easy as pie. 

In higher education, supply chain disruptions have created shortages of important supplies in operations across campus. But the problem is especially evident in dining facilities, where shortages can have a direct and immediate impact on the student experience.

For institutions, supply chain shortages mean constantly shifting markets in which an item that’s available today becomes unavailable tomorrow. This makes planning challenging. For students, this can mean limited menu options. In-demand menu items also increase costs, as does inflation in general—which is especially challenging since students typically pay a fixed upfront price for their meal plans. In a recent CBORD survey, 67% of higher education respondents said that they have found some supplies to be unavailable and 52% said they have seen food prices spike recently.

“Colleges and universities can’t do anything about the causes of supply chain disruptions, but they can certainly minimize the impact of those disruptions on operations and the student experience,” says Heather Whitehouse, director of product management at CBORD. And this is very much a situation where “knowledge is power” — data-driven knowledge, that is.

The increasing use of automation in higher education foodservice operations means that organizations can capture, share, and leverage a growing amount of data. “You can automate not only tasks, but also the flow of data, which creates new possibilities,” says Whitehouse. For example, pulling together data from modern POS, food management, and ordering systems makes it possible to keep close track of costs and more easily identify cost drivers. “That insight into the menu mix and how prices are changing over time allows you to do something about costs proactively,” says Whitehouse.

In addition, data can lead to better visibility into demand and inventory, which can help institutions order proactively and just-in-time to reduce the need to keep large, costly inventories on hand. Even better, tighter controls mean less waste.

Insights from data also let institutions dynamically adjust menus with substitutions or alternative suppliers. When an item suddenly becomes unavailable, operations can quickly search data for an appropriate replacement or rethink menus while ensuring that they have met varied dietary requirements. Such tasks can take a great deal of manual effort in less data-driven organizations.

Analytics can be used to bring integrated data together into concise dashboards to help institutions keep tabs on key performance indicators, meet regulatory requirements, and continue to fine-tune operations to meet increasing student expectations. Integrating vendor data can also be a valuable way to manage supply chain disruptions. When an item is out of stock, foodservice managers can search a vendor’s inventory to find suitable substitutes and nutritional equivalents. “They may even be able to work ahead to identify several ingredients that meet specific requirements, such as gluten free or vegan items, to set up a kind of safety net,” says Whitehouse. “If an item goes out of stock, the system will then automatically recommend the next item that you’ve identified.” At the same time, real-time purchase order tracking helps managers factor price into substitution decisions.

Overall, streamlined interactions with vendors have become so important that many food suppliers now use CBORD’s food management solutions internally to help make the flow of data — and collaboration — seamless and easy. Students get nutritious meals they like and never know that just-in-time meal planning was in action.

Data can be a vital asset in managing supply chain disruptions and rising costs — and, indeed, through the range of changes that will undoubtedly face higher education in the coming years. As a result, institutions have an opportunity to tap into more data and put it to work to inform and guide higher education foodservice decision-making in response to change. As Whitehouse puts it, “The more that we can have the right data in the right hands at the right times, the better.”

CBORD Insights proprietary research, Customer Priorities Survey, Sept 2022, n=276.

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