By Rick Hynum | Photos by Blake Harris
Lunchtime in the cafeteria isn’t the dismal experience it used to be for college students. Gone are the days of creamed corn and mashed potatoes slopped onto a plate beside a brownish lump of some meat-like substance. Like pizzeria customers, today’s students want more and better options.
Take the University of Mississippi, for example, known far and wide as Ole Miss. Everywhere you go on its Oxford campus, there’s somewhere for hungry young scholars to eat. A Starbucks store in the library. A Steak ’N Shake in the basketball arena. A Panda Express, a Qdoba Mexican Grill and a Chick-fil-A in the Student Union.
But the Rebel Market, Ole Miss’ main dining hall—no one says “cafeteria” anymore—is where you’ll find the really good stuff: the pizza. And it’s made in part by a robot.
“Ole Miss continues to lead the college hospitality space in technology,” says Chip Burr, Ole Miss Dining Services’ resident district manager. “One of our tenets is to be innovative. We want to be one of the most innovative campuses in the Southeast and maybe in the United States. So we always look at emerging technologies as an opportunity.”
“We want to be one of the most innovative campuses in the Southeast and maybe in the United States. So we always look at emerging technologies as an opportunity.”
— Chip Burr, University of Mississippi Dining Services
At first glance, Ole Miss, honored by national publications nearly every year as one of the prettiest campuses in the country, doesn’t seem like a high-tech hot spot. A leisurely stroll around the grounds takes you through the shady and spacious Grove, past rows of fragrant magnolia trees and flower beds teeming with tulips and daffodils.
But you’ll have to share the sidewalks with a couple dozen delivery robots from Starship Technologies, ferrying coffee, sandwiches and bagels from building to building.
In early 2020, Ole Miss became the first SEC campus to offer robot delivery. At that time, the university had a Papa Johns location, too. It’s gone now, but college students’ love of pizza blooms eternal. Burr, his executive chef, Michael Brainard, and their team quickly recognized the opportunity. Now they’re developing a new pizza operation that could serve as a model for other colleges and universities—and maybe even pizzerias—around the nation.
The Picnic Solution
It all starts with that aforementioned robot. In January, Burr and his team brought in an automated Picnic Pizza Station, making Ole Miss one of six universities nationwide using the technology. By the end of that month, students in the Rebel Market were feasting on pies fired up in a flaming-hot brick oven, with toppings ranging from pepperoni, sausage, peppers and onions to pineapple, ham and diced chicken. In addition to the cheese and sauce, the machine can pile on up to five toppings per pizza, Brainard says.
Brainard, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, knows his pies, too. Earlier in his career, he worked at Farley’s Pub, which offers wood-fired pizzas in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and later served as kitchen manager at an Uno Pizzeria & Grill location. He was executive chef at Texas A&M for three years before taking on that same role at Ole Miss.
Pizza was already on the dining hall menu before the Picnic robot was installed. But now Brainard is happier with the pies he dishes out, slice by slice, to Ole Miss students, faculty and staff. “If you’d asked me five years ago, I’d have been just as wary [of pizza automation] as everyone else,” he says. “But having the technology to help us do this and speed the process up has been a great addition. The biggest thing, I will say, about it is the consistency of the product that we get. You can have 10 of the best cooks in the world and they’re each still gonna [make the food] slightly differently, whereas, with this machine, it is 100% the same every time. It has a scale that weighs how much cheese goes on, how much sauce goes on, and then it counts the pepperoni to our exact specs. Every pepperoni’s a penny or two, so it adds up quickly. Having that consistency helps with your food cost, and it helps with the quality of your product, because it’s always the same.”
The Bigger Plan
But the Picnic robot is just one facet of a bigger and more ambitious plan. For the Fall 2023 semester, Burr and Brainard plan to develop a ghost kitchen that will serve the entire campus. “We were part of a beta test this fall and spring for ghost kitchen products on campus,” Burr says. “So we learned quite a bit in terms of how to execute and some of the mechanisms that are required for ordering.”
That beta test focused on burgers and chicken tenders, but pizza, shareable and communal by nature, is the real go-to food for study buddies and late-night cramming sessions. Burr says Rebel Kitchen is the working title for the virtual pizzeria, which will operate out of the Rebel Market building and specialize in pizza delivery. “It’ll be interesting, because it’s a cross-utilization of two automations—Starship’s delivery robots and the Picnic Pizza Station—allowing us to deliver by robot the pizzas that are made by a pizza robot.”
“You can have 10 of the best cooks in the world and they’re each still gonna [make the food] slightly differently, whereas, with this machine, it is 100% the same every time.”
— Michael Brainard, University of Mississippi Dining Services
But what about those students who want instant satisfaction? Rather than sit around and wait for a Starship robot to roll up to the sorority house or dormitory, impatient types will have another high-tech pizza option: pizza vending machines.
In addition to the ghost kitchen, Burr’s team plans to introduce Pizza Forno vending machines to Stockard Hall and Martin Hall, a pair of towering residence halls that share a first floor. Each Pizza Forno machine can hold 70 premade 12” pizzas; the pies, which will be made by hand in the ghost kitchen, are stored in a refrigerated section, and when a customer places an order, a robotic arm moves it into a convection oven for a fast bake.
“We’re excited about that partnership as well and to be able to offer yet another way to feed our students,” Burr says. “Certainly we need all the ones we can get.”
Rebel Market is also working with local and regional growers to source ingredients for its entire menu. In fact, it became the first certified green restaurant in Mississippi, achieving level 1 certification from the Green Restaurant Association in June 2016.
Burr and Brainard want to keep Ole Miss Dining Services on the leading edge any way they can. “Part of my responsibility…is to focus on innovation and to concentrate on areas where we can find efficiency and consistency for our students, our faculty, and our staff,” Burr says. “When we find emerging technologies like pizza vending, Starship robot deliveries or Picnic, we’re going to try it.”
Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief.