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Marketing Your Menu to Students and Parents

Let effective messaging move your school foodservice program to the head of the class.

Few things are more routine than school schedules. First period, second period, third period, lunch period, fourth period, etc. But same-old same-old doesn’t cut it when it comes to school foodservice.

Whether it’s breakfast, snack time, lunch break or an after-school nutrition program, you strive to offer variety and energize students. You want to stand out from the daily rhythm, and that means you need to communicate your menu with students and parents.

“They’re your customers, so you want to get them involved,” says Gordon Food Service Education Segment Manager Nicole Nicoloff. “And there are lots of ways to get the word out—websites, emails, texts, phone messages, take-home flyers and word-of-mouth.”

Variety is the spice of communicating

With so many options out there, it’s easy to overwhelm the recipient, says Paula Buohl, Director of Communications at Text Ripple, an Asheville, North Carolina-based mobile marketing company. She recommends a mix of communications methods for best results.

“Send out a paper flyer with the weekly or monthly menu so parents can post it on the fridge at home,” she says. “But also publish the same flyer on the school website in PDF form so busy parents can access it at work or students can print it out and put it on the inside of the locker door.”

As for electronic messages, Buohl says text messages are a great way to reach students, since research shows many of them have smartphones by the time they’re first-graders. Make sure parents know about your texting program and have them sign students up to receive instant communication about daily specials or substitutions. Your text messaging also can contain a link to other foodservice or school-related information.

Nicoloff  and Buohl also believe in using email to reach both students and parents. An email, they point out, can also include information on food safety, snacks, healthy choices, the value of a nutritious breakfast—information parents can use at home that also lets them know your program is focused on healthy dining at school and beyond,

Beware of information overload

One thing to be careful of, however, is overwhelming parents and students, Buohl says. Text Ripple has a product called Mobile Builder that creates a simple landing page where information can be conveniently packaged and presented—the school foodservice director then sends out a text message with a link to the site.

“The school puts the information out there, and then sends a text alert so parents and students can come to you when they’re ready,” she says. “You can also send out a notice about a survey that can be taken at the site to gain insights about your food or your program.”

Another thing texting can do, she says, is communicate your foodservice department’s variety—letting students and families know about special foods that may be part of a holiday celebration, a spirit week, or available at an after-school sporting event or festival.

Monitor your menu

Marketing your menu is only part of the battle, Nicoloff says. Before the message goes out, schools also need to make sure they have a menu students will crave.

“I challenge directors to hone in on the foods you’re offering on at least a quarterly basis,” she says. “Know which items are the most popular—this helps you keep in tune with student preferences and it reduces the number of products you have to order to build the menu.”

She also suggests conducting product taste tests with student panels.

“When the students are involved, they’ll know more about what’s on the menu and be more willing to get it when it’s served,” Nicoloff says. “And don’t be afraid to test something totally crazy—students and adults have completely different taste buds, so the foods and flavors they like are what needs to drive your menu.”

Good service helps sales

Just serving the food students like doesn’t guarantee success, Nicoloff says. You can serve pizza every day and still fall short of the results you want if you’re not paying attention to service points.

“A lot of students want to eat quickly and go to recess or socialize with friends,” Nicoloff says. “They won’t want to wait in long lines even if you’re serving foods you know they love.”

Observe traffic flow and then let them know you’re paying attention by opening up multiple lines for the popular menu items and you’ll likely increase sales, Nicoloff says.

“For the students who don’t want to wait in line no matter how short it is, consider a grab-and-go cart, something you can use to encourage participation and build sales,” she says.