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NAU leverages delivery robots to support late-night dining

Andrew Hudson   ||   May 26, 2023  ||   ,

Northern Arizona is leveraging Starship delivery robots and the mobile ordering app in a clever way to prop up late night dining, and putting a twist on the ghost kitchen concept. The university has launched its Hole In The Wall dining window that now serves either pickup or robot delivery for students by offering a number of dining concepts all from a single, concession-style window.

As reported by Food Management, NAU's Hole In The Wall is open from 8:30 P.M. to 11:30 P.M. — after the main campus dining hall has closed. The idea behind the initiative was to provide an option for those students whose class schedules conflict with more conventional dining hours.

NAU's Hole In The Wall dining concept started this semester and was designed to serve the late night dining crowd. The Hole In The Wall is just that — a pickup window located outside of the entrance to the student union.

Hole In The Wall stores meals brought from nearby retail dining concepts, including Burger ConFusion, Cobrizo Mexican Grill, wings and sandwiches from The Coupe, The Wedge Pizza, as well as pre-made salads. Pickup orders are brought to Hole In The Wall, while delivery orders are sent direct from dining locations to a desired destination by a Starship delivery robot.

Students can place orders via the Starship app and select either pickup or robot delivery. The initiative is designed to provide additional late night dining options for NAU students without having to keep the entire union — and its dining locations — open and running at full capacity.

"All of the retail locations have a number of bots always waiting to send out deliveries," says William Brandt, NAU Campus Dining Marketing Manager. "Employees prep the order, load it into the bot, and send it out immediately."

Robot delivery orders tack on a small fee, but students can elect to use student dining dollars or a standard credit card for payment.

NAU was one of the very first to implement Starship delivery robots, shortly before the pandemic. "They became prolific during Covid, when nobody wanted to sit next to other people at a restaurant," says Brandt. "Our fleet grew rapidly from there, and this concept became almost an organic next step."

NAU's late night dining solution also puts a spin on the ghost kitchen concept, first made popular when campuses shut down during the pandemic. Some of the retail dining locations that service Hole In The Wall remain open for walk-in customers during the 8:30-11:30 ordering window. But others are closed for walk-ins, and instead staff only the kitchen after hours to prep Hole In The Wall orders.

This solves the problem of offering more convenient dining options for students in a way that doesn't cause financial hardship for student dining, explains Brandt.

Since the start of the initiative last semester, NAU reports that roughly 75% of orders placed are for delivery, while the remaining quarter are pickups. The majority of after-hours orders are placed between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m., with the most popular items being cheeseburgers, mozzarella sticks, buffalo wings, chicken strips, and fried zucchini.

Order counts are still relatively low at around 60 per day, but Brandt expects that number to rise over time as students become aware of the Hole In The Wall concept. NAU is plotting a "major marketing campaign" this coming fall to boost awareness of the late night dining location. The marketing push will publicize Hole In The Wall on campus TV screens, send push notifications through NAU's mobile app, and post across the university's numerous social media accounts.

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