Trustees learn of new dining options for students

·6 min read

Jul. 20—JACKSONVILLE — A food delivery system that uses robots to carry treats and meals to students on campus could be up and running in time for the fall semester, Jacksonville State University trustees learned Monday at a quarterly board meeting.

In what industry professionals call "virtual dining," students living on campus will have the opportunity to use an app to order meals that will then be delivered to them by a small robot. The trustees were treated to a demonstration of the beeping and booping device as it rolled along the floor.

A bowling team and an Alabama Department of Transportation safety grant were some of the other topics trustees talked about at their summer meeting.

The food-service robot is an element of a package of new dining options the university is creating this year, including facilitating food trucks to the campus and "virtual dining" options that would use robots to deliver food to students.

The virtual dining option eliminates the physical brick and mortar facility to order from, according to Customer Success Manager for Virtual Dining Concepts Michael Flaherty. The food is prepared in an existing kitchen space at JSU, then packaged and either picked up, or placed in one of JSU's new Kiwibots.

JSU will be the first university in the state to use robot delivery dining options, according to John Tarin, the Director of Global Operations for Kiwibot.

Kiwibot partnered with a company called Solexo for the "Everyday" app, which students can download to order the food from.

"We will be deploying 15 robots the first months. We will have more robots if necessary. And the students will be able to see all the promotions once they download the app on their phones and also through the website."

The small robot was displayed to the board Monday and received many claps and "aww"s, both from the board members and the attendees.

"We thought of the size, and it's not the biggest robot you've seen, but we decided to keep it small because it makes it feel a little bit cuter," Tarin said.

"The other reason is actually that we can't have large robots on the sidewalks with humans because it would start interfering and people probably are not going to like that," he continued.

Students will be able to order one of four options from the virtual dining app, according to Flaherty.

"Jacksonville State is going to be running four of our virtual brands; Buddy V's Cake Slice, Mr. Beast Burger, Pardon My Cheese Steaks, and Mariah Carey's Cookies," Flaherty said. "So there's going to be four different restaurant offerings to Jacksonville State students that are coming in the fall."

Collegiate bowling league

During the Athletics Committee meeting, university Athletics Director Greg Seitz addressed the panel, explaining that during the time the Big Time Entertainment center in Oxford was being built, JSU's athletics department asked the company to keep the school in mind as ideas for a collegiate level bowling team were in the works.

The department gave Big Time Entertainment the measurements the NCAA requires to properly house a collegiate level bowling team, according to Seitz. He said the use of bowling lanes there would be similar to the school's use of Silver Lakes Golf course for the golf team, in that the university doesn't own the facility, but rather uses it as its "home" game space.

JSU has 17 sports, and the athletics department strives to think of new ways to bring scholarship opportunities to students, Seitz said.

"It's something that we want to do," Seitz said. "With the move to Conference USA, it'll be some more opportunities to add additional scholarships on the female side. Because with football, we're adding 22 more scholarships. So from a gender equity standpoint, we want to give some of those opportunities to some of the other students as well."

Stadium expansion redirect

One issue brought to the board by Senior Vice President of Finance and Administration Dr. Arlitha Harmon involved the university's plans to expand the stadium, adding features such as student housing.

At the last board meeting, Harmon proposed the stadium expansion during the presentation of the master plan for the school. However, inflation and rising building costs have forced a redirect on building plans for the expansion, according to Harmon.

"We didn't want to borrow at a time when the rates would have been higher and there's a lot of instability in the market," Harmon said. "We wanted to let the market kind of stabilize, and also hopefully take advantage of when the construction costs come down."

Five new options were presented to the board, which voted to explore the fifth one; it would place the student housing in a different area.

Safety grant

The trustees approved the application of an Alabama Department of Transportation grant to enhance safety features at the campus's crosswalks, specifically the one on Pelham Road in front of the new Merrill Hall and the one at the yield turn beside the International House.

Currently, the crosswalks present a hazard to pedestrians, given the heavy traffic in the area and the lack of both driver and pedestrian attention, according to JSU police Chief Michael Barton. Barton said when he speaks with students each semester, he urges them to be extra careful at all crosswalks on campus, and asks that they put their phones in their pockets before stepping out into traffic lanes.

Barton said there have been three traffic-related injuries in recent history where a vehicle was involved with a pedestrian, which prompted the university to look further into the issue.

The plan with the grant funds would be to build a pedestrian refuge in the center of the road and add some landscaping or barriers that draw the driver's attention to the area, said Vice President of Auxiliary and Business Services Dr. Kevin Hoult.

The university, the city and the state of Alabama have worked together to enhance safety at dangerous places within current budgets, such as by installing extra signage, Barton said.

With the highway speed limit coming from Piedmont set at 65, the slowdown coming into the city near the university is abrupt, Barton said.

The yielding turn in front of the International House is also a heavy traffic area that can pose a risk.

"We're looking at making that turn a more 'stop and turn,' Hoult said. "We may also relocate some of the entrances to parking lots across the street from Brewer Hall as well as looking at the parking lot at the International House to see what we can do to make it a little more traffic friendly."