Even in a bumpy semester for JMU, Starship delivery robots have been on a roll.
Since landing at JMU last semester, Starship Technologies' self-driving robots have grown in popularity as students opt to order on-campus food from the comfort of their dorms.
A fleet of 40 bots has made over 19,000 deliveries since August, Brent Beringer, director for dining at JMU, said via email. That’s just under 300 per day, a sign of the robots’ popularity that JMU Dining anticipated, Beringer added.
The bots become a convenient necessity for many students, as Beringer said that 78% of purchases are made with Dining Dollars while the rest are made with Flex and credit or debit.
“Students started out using them because they were something so different and odd, and now that they have proven their worth and accessibility, students continue to use them and have made it a regular part of their dining experience,” Beringer said via email.
Conversations around bringing the bots to campus surfaced shortly before the pandemic shut down the spring semester. George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, successfully launched Starship robots in January 2019, and JMU decided to follow suit with a one-year deal.
The timing likely couldn’t have been better. Starship’s robots provide convenience and even ease of mind for students who’d rather skip lines and stay inside while COVID-19 is still a threat, while fewer students in dining halls makes social distancing easier for JMU Dining’s staff.
“Starship was a great add on to [our] meal plan program, something we felt pre-COVID[-19] would make a lot of sense and do well on campus,” Beringer said via email. “And we were right.”
A half-dozen on-campus locations have embraced the robots, including Freshens Food Studio and Market 64’s Java City in D-Hall, Festival Conference and Student Center’s Burger Studio and Grab & Go, Chips Convenience Store and Starbucks in Carrier Library.
To use the service, students first download Starship’s food delivery app from their phone before choosing a meal from a participating restaurant and selecting a pick-up location. A wheeled robot will deliver the meal for $1.99 in roughly 30 to 60 minutes, and customers can track its progress before unlocking the robot via the app when it arrives.
Bella Smith, a freshman nursing major, said she’s ordered from Starship once and is likely to again to avoid the cold and wait for food to arrive at her dorm.
“It’s pretty easy [to order food with Starship],” Smith said. “There’s kind of a long wait sometimes, but other than that, it’s fine.”
To open or not to open: JMU Dining’s decision-making process
JMU Dining made decisions to keep open or close on-campus restaurants based on logistics and safety — not profitability, Beringer said in the email.
When JMU instructed students living on-campus to go home from Sept. 7 to Oct. 5, less than half of those with meal plans stayed, Beringer said in the email, adding that JMU Dining then considered how it could operate safely and where it needed additional space based on which places were most popular.
For example, Qdoba was shuttered to allow for more line space at the ever-popular Chick-Fil-A, and limited traffic in the Student Success Center and the Engineering Geosciences Building led to the respective closures of Bistro 1908 and EnGeo’s Provisions On Demand (P.O.D.) Market.
All-day breakfast has arrived at JMU thanks to The Den, a fast-casual concept from Denny's. JMU Dining hopes it'll entice upperclassmen to buy meal plans, while Denny's is banking on it building brand loyalty with students.
“Like any business, in order to provide, you know, the meal plans to the students at the best possible rate, we try not to offer options that make no sense and cost money,” Beringer told the Madison Business Review on Aug. 27.
On-campus dining locations — not including convenience-store markets — that closed starting Oct. 5 per JMU Dining include Qdoba and Steak ’n Shake in D-Hall, Bistro 1908 and Dunkin’ Donuts in the Student Success Center, Starbucks in Rose Library, Subway in Grace Street Apartments, Corner Bistro in Memorial Hall and Lakeside Cafe in the College of Business building recently named Hartman Hall.
Of those closed locations, only Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway and Steak ’n Shake have since reopened.
Auntie Anne’s in Madison Union also closed on Oct. 5 and is expected to reopen on Nov. 20, while Freshens Food Studio in UREC has been closed since Aug. 26 through the semester.
Grace Taylor, a freshman nursing major, went home in early September and has been underwhelmed by weekend on-campus dining options since returning. She said she hopes Dukes Dining will open since it provides plenty of options.
“I feel like during the week there’s enough options, but on the weekend, like right now, it’s like D-Hall and E-Hall open, and that’s it,” Taylor said. “So, it kinda makes it hard to, like, take something and go.”
Despite closures and limited hours at many on-campus eateries, JMU Dining didn’t furlough any hourly workers, Beringer said in the email. He added that JMU Dining is actively looking to hire and is recruiting students for jobs.
When asked if opening more restaurants would reduce the spread of the virus by limiting long lines and in-person huddles, Beringer simply said that guest behaviors like physical distancing, wearing masks and checking in via the LiveSafe app will stop the spread of COVID-19.
James Faris is a senior media arts and design major. Contact James at email@example.com.