What can Harvard learn from FreshDirect?

(Lafayette Shopping Center, Mies Van der Rohe, Harvard Loeb Design Library)

Cambridge, MA doesn’t have a FreshDirect, but this NY Times story on FreshDirect did a nice job of illustrating many of the purchasing complexities present in an institutional dining system.

On FreshDirect website,  shoppers are greeted with information at every turn. Every grocery item has a thumbnail image, quality rating (from “below average” to “never better”), and a fairly extensive write-up: history on the item, nutrition, ingredients, reviews. Customers can modify searches with queries: local, organic, tropical & specialty. A customer can find produce and products by the state or consult the local map, which illustrates Fresh Direct’s sourcing with cute icons, organized by category.

FreshDirect operates online only, but they make a beautiful effort to compensate for the information loss that customers experience by not seeing the food in person.  While no one can smell a cantaloupe for freshness or weigh a pumpkin on the FreshDirect website, customers are inundated with information — much more than in the grocery aisles, when you can find shoppers looking sideways at a prickly pear.

Grocery stores once seemed like a major removal from primary information. A far cry from the general store or the nearby farm, shoppers learned to trust and buy from national companies that sold food in cans or frozen. Now, in the age of online food shopping, there’s another major adjustment on the horizon — customers are learning to buy food without ever seeing it.

At Harvard University Dining Services, as with all major restaurants, we work with the same constraints. We, not the students, inspect the food as it comes in & send it back if the quality is low. But as we choose and inspect the produce, we need to the same information that FreshDirect provides to their customers. Students can’t choose which cabbage they’d like to buy, they can’t reading the label on how the cabbage was grown. Just like FreshDirect, we work to fill in the gaps in the information loss. What do students want to know about the food that comes into the dining hall?

Making up for this loss involves lots of information and communication. We work to figure out what students want to know about their food. We work to figure out how students best access information. Do all students want or need to know it? In those cases, we’ll display information on dining hall signage or on the labels above every entree. If it’s more sensitive or specific information, hard to communicate in a busy dining hall, it’s best on our website. It’s a challenge to find a way to communicate the right amount of information to everyone, without the information becoming wallpaper in a busy dining hall.

FreshDirect (and the subsequent article in the Times) are beginning to do the legwork — using graphics, maps, icons, and plenty of information to offer customers a satisfying view of their food before it reached their plate — even if shoppers never see the food before it arrives at their plate.

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