Quick Tips for a Better Student Dining Experience

Written by Milt Miller – Observing School Food programs across the country, we have noticed three areas where all seem to be missing the mark in enhancing the student dining experience and hence participation. Marketing, Customer Service, and Management and Staff Out Reach appear to be weak points in today’s school café’ operations. As is often thought, food is not always the problem with low or eroding participation in this industry. The food is actually getting better and more relevant to today’s patrons. Here are a few low-cost high-impact ways to increase participation.

What’s the mystery? In many cases its not the meat, but who is serving it. Most times, when asked what their server’s name is, students answer “lunch lady.” Being able to identify with and have dialog with someone is much easier, if you know to whom you are speaking. Think about it, of all of the places you go, isn’t it easier to talk to a server with a name tag than just saying hey? People patronize places where they feel comfortable and welcome. Do you feel comfortable and welcome in a room full of strangers? Isn’t it easier to speak and engage a person when you know their names. This is why most restaurants and other service industries require name tags. They want to enhance customer engagement and make customers feel more welcome. At some international companies, like Disney, not only is the servers name displayed, but also where they are from. This makes it easy for guests to identify with them. Hey Jim I’m from PA too and a conversation begins. The guest has been put at ease and feels part of the operation. In schools where we have implemented name tags, we have always observed increases in participation and student satisfaction. If you currently are not using name tags you may want to consider it.

Who cares what I think? When asked, many student customers say this simply because no one has inquired. “Table Touching”, or when the manager or staff come from behind the line and ask students, “How was you dining experience?” In every operation we observe we seek the perception and thoughts of customers first hand. Many times they react by saying, “this is the first anyone has asked.” Its easy to do and once you have conquered the fear of hearing something you might not like, it is a very valuable tool. Don’t worry, when you approach tables for the first time, it is unlikely students will say things like, “Hey your tie and sweater are ugly.” They may look at you as if you have three heads at first because they are not used to this happening and they are uncomfortable too. With continued practice, who knows what great things about your program? Students will also begin to feel involved and again participation increases. Its amazing, the great things that happen when customers are made to feel important. Its also amazing the great things you can accomplish with the right information in hand.

What do the experts say? Student Focus Groups, are one of the most under used information gathering and marketing tools in the industry. Again, its that fear of “what they’ll say,” that holds us back. Putting together a committee of students that represents a cross section of your total enrollment is the way to start. You need the student athletes, technology, science, debate, agriculture club members, as wells as the band members. We have observed that there is a distinct correlation between having a wide variety of outlooks to achieving the best view of customer perception of your operation. Use these groups to get a general idea of what customers think, test new products, discuss new ideas, and to market what you are about to their peers. Remember, people give more credibility to their peers than to their superiors. Make these meetings fun, informative, and something they look forward to attending. You may even want to include parents and educators to the group too.

What is it you really do? Another, frequent response from students when asked, what’s happening in your school café’? I’ve always said, school food professionals are either the humblest or shyest people in the world. They do so many great things every day that no one knows about. Most students never know what really is happening in their cafeterias, what a shame. Use morning announcements, student broadcasting clubs, social media, posters flyers, texts, emails, what ever means you have to let them know. No one would be buying Ford Trucks, if they didn’t know they were made tough! Think about it, if no one knows what you are doing, are you really doing it? Even when “Table Touching”, or conducting a focus group meeting, let them know what you are doing and planning. Don’t be afraid to “toot your own horn.” Those who don’t usually have participation issues.

These are all low cost, high impact areas that drive participation. Think about trying at least one. If you need more information or help, go to our website at www.foodserve.com to see all of the great training programs available that address these issues, or give me a call.

Milt Miller is Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 33 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For a school food service operation consultation, contact Milt at www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

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