With families busier than ever, students are accustomed to the atmosphere and offerings of convenient, popular fast-casual restaurants time-stressed parents resort to when there just aren't enough hours in a day.
And it’s changing your students’ expectations in the lunch line.
Fresh, made-to-order dishes served quickly in a comfortable, relaxing environment are a win-win for time-stressed families, and have become the norm for today’s students. Meeting these new expectations is important to maintain school lunch participation, but how does a food service director recreate a fast-casual atmosphere in a school lunch room without breaking the bank?
John Henry, Food Service Director at Rockford Public Schools in Rockford, Michigan increases participation and meets students’ expectations by ‘upscaling’ their school menu with an array of Child Nutrition-friendly items that are fast favorites. From an Asian bar, a built-to-order sub and panini cart, to the custom-branded Southwest Grill - serving custom tacos, burritos, and burrito bowls - and McRam’s - the school’s mascot-themed take on healthy fast food - Henry’s program offers upscale menus in addition to a traditional school food line. Interested in ‘upscaling’ your school menu and lunch room? Here are some steps to consider.
Ask students where they like to eat when they go out with family. Or better yet, if your school has an open campus lunch policy, Henry suggests asking students where they go for lunch. “If they’re leaving for Chinese food, ask students if they’d be more likely to eat at school if you offered it.”, he recommends. Investigate these restaurants and their menus, looking for items that can be duplicated in your kitchen and simple decorative elements that make the lunch room feel like a restaurant.
Pricing is also important. “Make your pricing comparable to local restaurants,” Henry suggests. Giving students what they want at a price they’re already used to paying is an added benefit to students.
Kids - especially at the high-school level - like choices. Let them have it with ‘build-your-own’ options. Think salad bars, burrito bowl bars, baked potato bars, panini stations, and beyond. This is also a great way to meet meal pattern requirements - Henry says, “Our made-to-order sandwich bar is a great way for students to meet vegetable requirements. Similarly, our Southwest Grill helps us meet minimums for beans.”
Your school lunch room doesn’t need to exactly replicate the popular fast-casual place around the corner, but take a few pointers from their decor choices - branded signage and welcoming booths are some good places to start. Also, think about how the food is presented. At Rockford High School, Henry showcases food in modern-looking black containers, incorporates simple signage to direct students to lines, and arranges tables and chairs in a restaurant-style setup instead of traditional lunch tables.
Sample new items and ideas with parents and students for their feedback. “Nearly every menu item we offer at our high school is a result of student feedback,” Henry points out. Including students in the decision process also helps promote new items. If it’s a hit, word will spread.
“Novelty is okay. You don’t need to feed all of your students when adding a brand-new concept. If you have the ability feed 20 percent of your students, you’re creating excitement by only offering limited quantities,” Henry says.
Marketing your program to students and parents is key to participation. Posters, flyers, and electronic signage are all great ways to get the word out. If school policy allows, encourage students to share photos of lunch on social media. Create a photo contest with a custom hashtag and choose a weekly winner.
When it comes to lunch, a little creativity goes a long way, but it can get expensive if not monitored. Henry’s advice? Plan your menu around products that can be cross-utilized. “Prepared chicken strips - like the ones we use for our stir fry bar - can be seasoned differently to work at our Southwest Grill”.
The concept transcends schools, as well. While offerings tend to be more basic at Rockford’s elementary and middle schools, some dishes from the high school are incorporated in lower grades. “I was surprised by the success of our Orange Chicken - especially at the elementary level, where students are more sensitive to spices,” Henry recalls.
Staff training and controlling labor costs are also key to cost control. “While fresh produce is an attractive option, be sure to keep preparations relatively simple to save time,” he advises. Lastly, train your staff on proper portions for cost control. “Make sure they know expectations so you aren't giving food away.”
With limitless possibilities, it’s important to avoid the mind set of ‘we’ve always done it this way’. “Don’t let things get stagnant. Keeping things new and exciting keeps participation up,” Henry recommends.