The Low Hanging Fruit

Quick… name a school that doesn’t need more money?

Yes, it is a pretty obvious trick question… as there are no schools that don’t need more funding. The Herculean challenges of providing the greatest education value for the lowest tax funding prompt an endless search for grants, savings and additional revenue streams. We want to offer an avenue that more and more schools are discovering to their significant advantage:  Point of Sale integrated, school customized automatic merchandising retail computers… or the somewhat more common definition: Hi-tech vending machines that can sell reimbursable meals and snacks, healthy ala carte 24-7 and even school supplies.

The cost-benefit valuation is quite extreme… with benefits including more meal sales, substantial but healthy food and beverages access to students after they finish their afternoon extra-curricular activities, keeping them safe on campus, and a new revenue stream that can add tens of thousands of new net income to a single school. There are even educational benefits available such as using Special Education students for restocking or an FFA, DECA or FBLA school chapter to either partner with Food Services of operate these automatic computerized healthy school stores independently.

The foundational reason why a school earns at least 500% more from self-operation of specialty school vending machines (as opposed to the traditional tiny commissions from an outsourced vending company) is that schools don’t suffer with all the expenses of an outsourced vending company. Schools get the keep the income a vending company would have used to pay for their:

•  Off-campus warehouse & warehouse personnel

•  Those $45,000 route trucks and the route drivers with all their labor costs

•  The fuel, maintenance, insurance for this warehouse, vehicles and personnel

•  The owner’s profits

•  The federal & state income taxes that vending company would have to pay.

All of those expenses become school profits when school vending services are internalized… just like Food Services, facilities maintenance, IT management, etc.

That significant difference is only the beginning. It gets better. One of the problems with using an outsourced vending service is that their machines will have to be at least 50% empty before they can even afford to send people to restock them. Their profit is directly related to how much money is collected each time they restock. If the machine is empty, then they make a very high profit in relation to their restocking costs. Yet this is extremely inconvenient to the students and staff at the school being serviced so poorly. Schools can restock their own machines as frequently as needed with little or no cost, such as offering students the job credits for restocking the school vending machines. This is why schools who self operate their vending machines enjoy far higher sales than the outsourced vending machines they replaced… simply because they are restocked more regularly.

Another very significant issue is that no outsourced vending company is going to offer fresh, perishable foods in their vending machines. Yet school operated machines can easily put fresh, cafeteria baked cookies and muffins into their vending machines. They can easily sell for a lot less due to the lower product cost compared to commercially packaged cookies and muffins that cost double and carry a far higher carbon footprint due to the vast distances these products must travel to get into the school vending machines. Why not sell fresh cut fruit cups (with a taped spoon) or fresh fruit yogurt parfaits, cereal, six inch subs or Jamwiches/Uncrustables or sandwich wraps or your own trail mix recipe in a sealed bag? We will even give you a free packaging system.

We’re still not done with the significant reasons why schools can so dramatically increase their vending income by self-operation. You can integrate your vending machines with your School Lunch POS program so that students and staff don’t even need cash to buy healthy, substantial food, snacks and beverages. Experience documents that this cash-free payment option not only doubles school vending sales but also speeds up the lunch lines as this bleeds off ala carte only student customers who are willing to wait in line to use their parents money.

The impressive advantages for school self-operated vending is low hanging fruit just waiting for harvest. We can even offer a very popular municipal lease/purchase option that doesn’t require any deposit, an annual cancellation privilege at budget renewal points, no prepayment penalties, and no ballon payment at the conclusion of the lease to own the machine. We even have local technicians in every market that will set up each machine, train those who will operate the machines and provide support when and if needed.  This is truly a “low hanging fruit” income, nutrition and education opportunity.

POS integrated vending frequently increases total Food Service sales in a school by 15-20% annually. Click here to get started!

Ask the Experts

Written by Milt Miller – Every school food program comes complete with its own set of experts. That’s right you guessed it, ask your student customers what they think of their current lunch program and what they want for lunch. This exercise is not for the faint of heart or those who do not want to hear the truth. Student focus groups are brutally honest and to the point, but with the right group of students they are the best thing that can happen for fixing your program and getting students back to the lunch table.

A program we worked with was experiencing drops in participation at their elementary schools. More students were bringing packed lunches from home than ever before. Participation had dropped by 15%. We went to the experts and they told us how to fix the program. When asked, students told us they did not always like the main lunch items and they packed on the days they did not like the choices. We looked at what they were bringing from home and realized they brought “Lunchables” or PBJs most days they packed. We put our heads together and came up with a grab and go lunch, which fit the HHFKA guidelines, and provided choices for students that they could count on consistently. By the end of the first week we had increased lunch participation by 15% and by the end of the second week 20%. The students liked the fact they had consistent choices along with the main lunches.

We had a similar experience with a high school program where participation had dropped off considerably. Again we spoke with the students and they told us the lunch lines were too long and they would rather pack as it provided them more time to eat lunch. After giving the situation some thought we developed a grab and go area where students could quickly grab a packaged or box lunch and immediately go to the cashier with little wait time. Within a few weeks participation had increased 10% and the students were thrilled someone had taken their comments seriously. Customers love to see their suggestions come to fruition and they will definitely support their own ideas.

Recently a Food Service Director contacted me about a drop in female participation in her high school. Many girls were packing lunches in designer lunch bags and not eating school lunch. I suggested she speak with the girls and ask why. Their response was they thought the bags were cool and they liked carrying them. It was sort of a status symbol. I suggested she find out what they packed in their designer bags and ask if she could pack the lunches for them using their bags. After completing the research, she developed a menu the girls liked that provided several choices. She designated a cooler in the lunch room to store the lunches and encouraged the girls to pre-order, pre-pay, and pick up their lunches when they came to the cafeteria. As of last week she told me the pre-order per-pay system was working and 25 students were ordering from the cafeteria again. Many of the items provided for them to choose from were already on the menu daily. Salad, wraps, fruit and yogurt parfaits etc…

The point of this article is, in the face of declining participation it is easy to blame guidelines, but if you ask your customers what they need to see for them to participate they will provide you with the answer. In many cases the big question is, are you open minded enough to listen and then respond? If the answer is yes your cafeteria table will fill up and participation will not be a problem. If you seek the answer from the experts they will provide it.

Milt Miller is Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

Why Opening Day of School Can Become a Nightmare

Written by Milt Miller – The time has come for school to begin and opening day for the food program is here. My days are filled with travel and training. As I talk with cafeteria staffs around the country, I here many say opening day is always a disaster. Many say it is the most dreaded day of the year and the following week is much the same. Listening to them talk, I always make it a point to ask why they feel this way. Most have the same issues year after year, until they believe it is just the nature of the business.

When asked what they would do to improve openings, most tell me you can’t really fix anything it is just how it goes every year. Most have the same common recurring issues that no one seems to look at with anything other than acceptance that this is just how things are. Their major complaints are usually, not enough time to get set up and prepared, food items needed are not delivered or are “stocked- out” at the distributor, too much time spent on training and not enough on set-up, information overload, necessary information unavailable, necessary food for first day menus not received in time to prepare properly, and finally half of the equipment is not functioning properly. This all usually results in poor customer service, surly staff members, and disappointed patrons.

All of these issues boil down to one thing, poor planning. Planning that should be done all year leading up to crunch time is done in one or two months. Directors tell me that they are too busy to plan at the end of the year because they are closing down. They are too busy to plan during the year because they are busy making sure everything is running correctly. Others can’t plan during the Summer months due to Summer Feeding, or they only have a ten-month contract and are off for the Summer.

I guess, when I was directing a school food program, like many of the successful directors out there, I was just stupid and took planning seriously. Planning is like having a family, if you wait until you are ready or the time is right it never happens. The birth of my daughter showed me I really wasn’t ready, but more planning for how to raise her and meet her needs was necessary. I had the same type of obligation to her as I had to my employees and customers. I was obligated to meet their needs and expectations as well and that involved making time to plan, looking at problems and finding ways to alleviate them.

Listening to staff members at each training I conduct, I see several reasons why opening day is a disaster. Talking to directors of successful programs, I also see similar thinking in solving these issues. Below are several things to consider for next year, to improve opening day.

1. Look at the time available to you and use it wisely. Most school staffs are on a 184-186-day work year contractually. Most school years are 180 days on average. Use the extra days for proper close down, open up, and training. Conduct training at the end, beginning, and during the year to allow more time at the beginning of the year for set up and preparation. A proper close down facilitates a smoother open up. Use the extra days to your benefit. Letting staff finish the last day and walk out the door for the Summer is nice but not always good for the operation.

2. Plan menus for next year at the end of the previous year. If menus and order guides are set when you leave, the first week’s orders can be placed giving the distributor a heads-up and lessening or eliminating “stocked-outs.” Have food deliveries arrive during prep and set up days planned for your staff. Good planning leads to great execution. If staff is not hurried through key duties and have been given the proper tools and knowledge to do their jobs, you have time to be a manager not a babysitter.

3. You can’t fit ten pounds of stuff in a one-pound bag. Covering one-years’ worth of information in one day is foolish and ineffective. Opening week training should be kept for information necessary to open the establishment, not to make up for necessary CEU’s for your audit. Too much information confuses the issues, muddies the waters, and takes precious time from necessary duties. Not to mention, it is not effective, because they are thinking about what they have to do not what you are teaching.

4. Test your equipment well before you have to use it. Every piece of equipment should be turned on checked and tested before use. Preferably in time enough to get it fixed before you need to use it. POS Systems and computer systems should be up-dated, tested and ready for use before opening day. Oven, grills, pizza ovens, and refrigeration should be tested calibrated and ready to go before staff has to use them.

5. You can’t sell from an empty cart. Have your first week’s orders delivered in time to react to “stocked outs” and prepared for first week service. If they come that day you are at the mercy of fate. Avoid this at all costs. Running around trying to figure out what to serve at the last minute is counterproductive and frustrating to staff and customers. It makes you look foolish.

6. “Non Profit” is a Tax Status, not a Budgeting Technique. Have your Direct Certifications and new Free and Reduced Meal Applications under control. Start in July to work towards this. The biggest creator of bad debt is out of control inaccurate lunch accounts. Have Charge Policies approved, posted, and understood by staff from the start not after they are out of control.

These are just a few of the most common problems that cause opening day disasters. If you have not considered these things before, perhaps you would benefit by thinking about them for next year. Many successful directors do. Many unsuccessful directors don’t. Which one do you want to be?

Milt Miller is Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

Start the New School Year by Reaching Out to Your Students

Written by Milt Miller – Most school food programs are underachievers when it comes to student participation. The participation issue is a many faceted issue; one in which most schools blame their underachieving on the new rules and regulations. Many believe their students have lost faith in school meals due to the prescriptive nature of the new guidelines. Many say the kids don’t like being told what they must eat and don’t like the new healthy offerings.

In order to move forward we have to ponder, if the students are saying this, what are they really saying? Are we as directors and school food professionals really hearing them correctly? Or are we hearing something entirely different and easier for us to swallow? Are we really listening? Most times the difference between mediocre participation and great participation is found to be in the translation of what we really hear our customers saying.

I just finished reading an article about the 2015 School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania Director of the year Jillian Meloy. Jillian is the Food Service Director at Greater Latrobe School District in PA. This woman is really hearing what her students are saying and she is responding. When I read this article I knew what my next article would report. Great participation is directly proportional to the effort taken to listen and understand what customers are truly saying, and responding to those requests. 

“Your clients are the kids,” Meloy said. “They really have a voice in what they want to eat, what they like, what they don’t like.” “It’s really showing them what a balanced meal is. If the students take every single component, it’s a pretty meal, and it’s very, very balanced.” Jillian keeps track of what fast-food and chain restaurants are serving as a way to see what foods are being marketed to students and what they want to eat. She uses that information to develop meals that are appealing while being healthy. “I watch what they’re eating. I see what they’re putting in their grocery carts at Wal-Mart. That type of stuff helps me see what the kids really like to eat,” Meloy said.

What do her peers say about her? “She just doesn’t stay stagnant. She’s out there reaching out to the families of her district and different community groups.” Meloy works with a group of students to get feedback on what meals are popular and what should be changed. She also organizes samples of new menu items to get feedback on whether they should be added to the menu. That feedback will continue to be important as more regulations are passed on to school districts. Meloy said, “The next challenge is reducing levels of sodium in meals while still making them appealing.” As Jillian continues to adapt meals and encourage healthy eating habits among students, she hopes that her efforts impact what foods they eat throughout their lives. “You’re really making a difference, because they’re still growing,” she said.

Wow, congratulations Jillian on a job well done! How many of us are really listening to what our student customers are saying? How many of us take the time to look at what they are eating outside the school café”? This is a new year and at this time of year we are starting to look at next school year and plan our approach to winding down the old year. Why not take this as an opportunity to make a commitment to reaching out to our student clients and truly listening and looking at what they are really telling us?

How many of us are developing menu items based on current trends, not just using new products to produce the same old tired menu items? How many are effectively using student focus groups and not just going through the motions to say we have one? How many are reaching out to parents and community organizations to share what we are doing in our café’s? Are we providing our staffs the opportunity to tell us what students are really saying?

As this New Year dawns, let’s take the opportunity to make the remainder of this year and all of next, all about reaching out to our customers and meeting their needs. I guarantee your participation will increase and so will your revenues. If you are having trouble thinking of ways to do this, contact me. I promise I will listen and share some ideas based on what you are telling me. Let’s make this year the year of the customer!

Milt Miller is Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

30 Tasks for School Food Service Professionals to Start the New School Year

August will soon be grinding to a close. Students are preparing to return to school. Moms are doing their last minute school shopping. Sounds like summer is over and life is returning to the norm. Are you ready? For school food service professionals, both old and new, these are the days that never seem to have enough hours in them. So much to do so little time. All necessary information seems to come in the final hour as everyone rushes to get ready to start. I used to call this time the “Run for October”, as things do not slow down from August 15th to October 15th, or thirty (30) days after the first day of school. This is the time of year when great preparation makes all the difference. If you prepared last year at closing for this year’s opening you are ahead of the game. If not, here is a simple check list that may help you to get ready.

  1. Menus ready, utilizing holdover inventory and USDA commodities, as well as being checked for compliance with all HHFKA guidelines and guideline changes for this year.

  2. Menus posted on school websites and in local news media to give students and parents ample time to review them.

  3. Free and Reduced Meal Applications ready with instructions and sent via mail if applicable. They should be starting to return slowly at this point.

  4. A la carte menus and products compliant with the new Smart Snacks in Schools guidelines.

  5. Parent information packets outlining policy changes, price changes, and program changes for the upcoming year sent or made available to all parents via mail, email or social media.

  6. Staff meetings and open up production times planned and ready.

  7. Return to work notices sent to staff including menus, policy changes, guideline changes, meeting agendas, staffing changes, and meeting and start date information.

  8. First week’s orders for food and supplies, or pre-orders made at the end of last year reviewed and sent to distributors for delivery.

  9. POS, free and reduced meal software, and computer equipment updated. Students rolled forward to the next grade levels. New students and enrolls added to the systems. Computers and networks checked and running properly.

  10. POS software updated with new menu items and price changes.

  11. Price and menu changes communicated to staff, parents, and students.

  12. Direct certification letters sent to all eligible families directing them to not fill out free and reduced meal applications and to contact the food service office with any discrepancies such as children in their house holds not listed on their notifications.

  13. Direct certified students updated in F&R and POS software.

  14. All equipment checked and preventative maintenance checks completed. (Especially refrigeration)

  15. Staff training and opening meetings completed.

  16. All staff returning to their regularly scheduled positions to ready the kitchens and dining areas and to receive deliveries.

  17. All required signage posted prominently in all operations.

  18. All food and supplies received, inspected, and stored properly.

  19. Beginning inventory physical counts taken, recorded, and compared with closing inventory values from last year end.

  20. Necessary preparation and production assigned and completed for first day menu.

  21. First day for teacher’s coffee breaks and administrative catering planned setup and delivered.

  22. MSDS files updated and posted in each kitchen.

  23. HACCP plans revised, reviewed with staff, and posted in all appropriate areas.

  24. Temperature charts posted in each appropriate area.

  25. Thermometers calibrated and available in all areas.

  26. T-Sticks (temperature control strips for dishwashers and ware washing) available in appropriate areas.

  27. All policies and job descriptions reviewed and posted on employee bulletin boards.

  28. Final managers meeting to review all open up issues and to insure readiness.

  29. Final review of POS keyboards and to issue operating cash banks if applicable.

  30. Final meetings with staff before each meal period. Open the doors!

I may have overlooked a few details, but for the most part if all of these items are completed, you are ready to go. Please remember that things will go wrong with even the best laid plans, but you now can be proactive rather than reactive. Take a deep breath, pat your staff on the back, and start your first day. Please don’t relax to long as things will not slow down or settle in for at least another 30 days. If you are a CEP district your free and reduced work is completed, but you still have a considerable amount of work left to do.

I hope you have found this check list helpful. It never ceases to amaze me just how hard getting things reopened can be. No matter how long you have been doing it, it still requires much planning and hard work. Good luck and have a great year!

Milt Miller is Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

MySchoolAccount Support: Things to Do Before the 2016/17 School Year Starts

Login to your parent account

By doing so, you will be sure of your login credentials and you will be able to review your personal information.  Review information, such as your email address, to be sure the information is still current. Use the “manage my account” link to view your email address, personal information and notification settings.     

 

Keeping your email address current is very important

Our form of communication with parents is via email. Your requested notifications (payment confirmation and low balance notifications) are generated by the system. The emails are sent to the email listed within your parent account. This is also the case when you use the “forgot password?” link to obtain your login credentials. The process is much quicker if your entered information matches what’s listed on your account. In addition, if we are notified of a returned payment by your bank, in most cases we will send you an email alert about the return and give you an opportunity to correct the issue. Examples of this would include a return due to non-sufficient funds or an invalid account number.   

When reviewing your notification settings, be sure you have all the boxes checked and that your minimum amounts are still appropriate for your growing students. I typically suggest setting the minimum to at least 4 times what they spend a day for lunch. As an example, if they spend $5 a day, set the minimum at $20.  That way you’ll have time to react the low balance notification email before their accounts get to low. In addition, you can enter different amounts for each student based on their spending habits. You may want to set your High School student’s minimum at $20 and your elementary student at $15.  Also, be sure that the enable box is checked next to the amounts. (see image below)

low balance

 

Forgotten Password/Login Credentials

Please use the “forgot password?” link on the login screen. The system will prompt you to enter your current email address. If the system recognizes the email, it will automatically generate an email which will include your user name and password.  

If the system does not locate the email address entered, you will be asked to enter additional search information, such as your student’s name, school/school district or parent mailing address. The search information you entered, will then be sent to our support staff via an email and your login credentials will be sent out typically within 24 hours.     

 

New School Year/New Students

There is no need to create a new parent account every year. Once your account is verified and your students are added, the account will carry over year after year. If you have a new student entering school, they can be added to your current account, as long as they attend the same private school or public school district that your account was created under.     

High School and middle school students within a public school district can be on the same parent account. However, if you have students who attend a private middle school and a separate private high school, you will most likely need to maintain two separate accounts, one for each private school.

 

Graduating Students/Changing Schools

Your local school is responsible for maintaining the student lunch accounts and all the associated funds. Myschoolaccount.com provides the web portal that allows you to “view” and make payments into those lunch accounts. For more information about closing the lunch account and obtaining a refund, you should contact the Food Service Department at your local school.

To close your parent account, if you do not have any additional students, you can deactivate your account from within your parent account. Once you login, select the “mange my account” link at the top on your landing page. Next click the “other account options” located on the right side of the screen above the Mobile MSA banner. Select “deactivate account” and enter a reason for deactivating, such as son is graduating. Once your request has been submitted, we will deactivate your parent account.

8 Steps to Lowering Unpaid Lunch Bills

Written by Milt Miller – As sure as death and taxes unpaid lunch bills will always exist in schools under the current systems. Of late these unpaid accounts are creating quite a stir in the media. Administrators are trying to get costs under control, but are looking like heartless uncaring individuals in the news. School food service professionals do care about feeding children first but also have to control costs in order to have a sustainable operation from which to feed them. Under the new guidelines schools that are at least 40% free lunch eligible based on direct certification may opt to employ the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to allow all students, enrolled in their districts, a free breakfast and lunch.  

This program has some bugs involving state and federal funding issues, but many have been resolved and others are being worked on. For schools that this program applies too and benefits, it is a great opportunity. The potential for eliminating paperwork and unpaid account balances is fantastic. Schools that qualify should definitely examine adopting this program. What about schools that do not qualify? They are still subject to the same problems they have had in the past, expired benefits, due to families not submitting a new Free and Reduced Lunch Application, resulting in unpaid balances and interruption of services. Bad press for denying students a school lunch for excessively low account balances follows on the heels of this situation.

Schools that do not qualify for CEP or those not wanting to implement it for other reasons, can employ any or all of these eight (8) steps to potentially lower and better manage unpaid lunch bills.

  1. Obtain information from your current Free and Reduced Lunch software showing whose meal benefits will expire in mid-October each year. This report should be updated and generated weekly from the beginning of the school year until the week before the cut-off in October. This will allow you to track the progress of your program to get these applications in on time.
  2. Communicate to parents and school principals who will lose benefits from failure to submit a new application weekly. Letting parents know they will lose benefits will cause a greater return earlier. Letting principals know and get an opportunity to assist with the calling of parents protects their Title 1 monies as well as grant and aid levels determined by F&R percentages.
  3. Calls weekly increase the chance of higher returns. The more you or your principals remind parents, the better chance of higher returns and less loss of benefits.  
  4. Send Free and Reduced Applications home with the students in danger of losing meal benefits after each call. Things get lost or miss placed easily. The more you keep the issue in front of families in danger of losing benefits the more it helps you.
  5. Offer special evenings to review and assist with the filling out and submitting applications. You will be surprised how this helps. People who have trouble reading and writing often fail to submit applications for just that reason.
  6. Use single family multiple child forms, but set the parameters of your software to show all enrolled student with a common address and phone number. This allows you to peer match. Many times low income parents do not list all of their children enrolled in the district. This will allow you to include these students living in that household and not listed on the application.
  7. Meet with parents of all students in feeder systems such as Head Start to explain and assist with the application process.  As Ben Franklin said,An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If you work with increasing communication at registration you increase participation in the long run.
  8. Constant communication and persistence lead to success. Keeping the issue in front of everybody insures greater returns and lower unpaid bills.

We have employed this system in several school districts and have witnessed the results to be Free and Reduced percentages in the beginning of the year to be closer to those at the end of the year, lower loss of meal benefits for students, higher levels of grants and aid all year long, and lower unpaid bill totals. These eight (8) simple steps have worked wonders in the schools we have used them in.

Milt Miller is Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

4 Steps for Marketing Next School Year’s Food Program

Written by Milt Miller – Menus are ready and meet the guidelines. Employee trainings and meetings are scheduled and planned. Free and Reduced Meal Applications and instructions are at the printer. The first week’s food orders are ready to go. Student accounts are ready to be added, purged, and rolled forward in the POS. Inventories have been taken, extended, and ready for next year. Staff recall notices are ready to be sent and their schedules are ready to post. Policy changes and the first month’s menus are ready to be sent to parents. Preventative maintenance projects are completed. Wow, you are thinking, “I’m good, I’m ready to go and its only July!” The real question is, are you really ready?

Most school food directors would say yes. Many would tell you that this process is automatic and they can do it in their sleep. Some would already be on a secluded beach somewhere relaxing. Some however, would be planning ways to get their customers excited and ready to jump back into the world of school food. These few would be those with the most consistently successful programs. Too many times we get caught up in the ongoing struggle to be compliant and forget the customer has been away and has most likely forgotten us. While compliance is required, without customers it is relatively meaningless. The most compliant, organized, and prepared operation without customer interest and participation, is nothing more than an empty shell.

Let’s face facts, students take time to shake off the haze of summer fun and get back into the structure of another school year. They aren’t looking forward to returning to the world of rules, regulations, and academia. They walk through the doors, on the first day, like the zombies from the “Living Dead” and remain in that state for at least two weeks after Labor Day. The real question is; can your program wait to see any real growth in participation until October? Your marketing strategies, developed and acted on before opening day could just be the spark necessary to turn the zombies to human form again!

Marketing is one of the most overlooked areas in school food. As operators we get so caught up in the rules we forget who we are there to serve. People like to feel part of things. They like to be kept informed and in the know. They are drawn by excitement. Students are people, though we sometimes forget that and treat them like sheep that need to be prodded and herded, with little or no regard to their needs and expectations. Its hard to be young and excitable. We forget this too often as we become adults. Being forced to follow rules and perform all day is bad enough, but when your only oasis in this sea of forced servitude (the school café’) is also filled with more rules and regulations, why participate? Many times we as operators treat our student customers like mushrooms. We keep them in the dark, on what great things we are doing, and expect them to happily eat whatever we tell them to eat. Would that excite you?

Marketing is the sizzle that sells the steak, the excitement that fills the room, and the concepts that meet their needs and keep them coming back again and again. Too often we overlook its importance and then wonder why our program is losing money. Developing and implementing an effective marketing strategy can be accomplished by following several steps. Below are my key steps to effective marketing.

  1. Promote when it is needed not just to say you did something. Use your monthly POS sales reports to determine patterns of low or slow participation. These times are usually from the end of August to October, from November to January, and the last week of May through the last day of the school year. Plan promotions and special days during these slow times to create excitement and generate participation.
  2. Don’t Keep it to yourself, let customers know what you have planned in advance. Develop your plans then let your customers know what you are doing. Reach students through the medias they use, email, texts, social media, and signs in areas they frequent. Send flyers home to parents, post events on your website, and text a list of special event to parents also. Send flyers to teachers, administrators, and board members, add these promotions to your board reports or request time at a board meeting to discuss them. Let everyone who is touched by your program know the exciting new things you are doing. Create excitement by letting everyone know.
  3. You can’t be great on your own, involve your staff. Share these marketing ideas with your staff and get them excited that something new is happening. The worst thing is to have a great promotion that staff members can’t enjoy with your customers. Think of a restaurant you have gone to and inquired about one of their special promotions, only to find your server knew nothing about it and didn’t suggest or inform you of what was being promoted. What a letdown. This happens with many school food promotions also. If your staff isn’t excited your customers won’t be either.
  4. Vendors and manufacturers make great partners. Involve the companies you work with, they bring added excitement to the mix. Ask for small prizes, posters or decorations that promote the products or the events. Most companies have these types of items built into their marketing budgets, so utilize them. Invite manufacturer and vendor representatives to be part of the promotion. The more new faces and bells and whistles, the greater the excitement. Remember, the more advanced notice and planning time you give your vendors the more they can and will help. Don’t wait until a week before the event to ask.

Utilizing these simple steps, you can develop and implement an effective marketing plan to bolster excitement and participation in your program. Take a little more time before heading out for a well-deserved break. You will be glad you did.

Milt Miller is Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

15 Components of School Food Customer Service

Written by Milt Miller – “One Million Students Nationwide have Stopped Eating School Lunch”, “Students Have Meals Taken From Them Due to Low Lunch Account Balances”, “New Food Guidelines Cause Increased Waste and Costs”, “Students Refuse to Eat New School Lunches”, “Open Campus Policy Destroying School Lunch Program”, and my personal favorite, “We’re from the Government and We’re here to Help”. Headlines, articles, and blogs like these have littered the media giving school lunch a black eye in the minds of their patrons. All of these writings outline what students won’t do or how poorly the implementation of policy has been, but none say what anyone is doing to find out what students want and how those desires can fit within the rules. A lack of Customer Service stands out in all of these articles, what happened to the age old cliché “the customer is always right?

Customer Service: the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services. This has become a lost art in today’s society. Companies who understand customer service are the most successful and are usually in business for many years. It isn’t only the product quality or ambience of the operation, it’s the feeling people get when they believe they have made the right decision and their expectations have been fulfilled. Customer service is very hard to do and takes a major commitment. If it was easy every business would be successful. All of the above articles tell what the students, parents and program administrators do not want, while never asking what they want that will make them support the school lunch program.

Let’s break Customer Service down to its basic parts and see if what we are currently doing fits the definition.

  1. Communicate policies, procedures, products, program ideologies, and guidelines to students, parents, administrators, and the community.
  2. Utilize all resources necessary to understand patron needs and expectations.
  3. Select products and service models geared to meet those needs and expectations.
  4. Today is the time to start moving towards meeting patron expectations. Yesterday’s opportunities are gone.
  5. Operate within current rules, guidelines, and costs to meet patron expectations.
  6. Manage costs through improved purchasing, portion control, and USDA commodity utilization to provide the best affordable products your patrons want.
  7. Educate students, administrators, parents, and the community why your service benefits them.
  8. Respect your patrons as your most prized asset. Without them you have no program.
  9. Support you customer by assisting them in preparing forms crucial to insuring your continued service before that service is interrupted.
  10. Educate and re-educate patrons and staff on why you do what you do and how it benefits them. Strive to make all policies and procedures clear.
  11. Remember without customers you cannot succeed. They are your most prized asset.
  12. Voice your ideologies of good customer service to your staff until they become their own.
  13. Initiate new and creative ideas to meet patron expectations within current guidelines.
  14. Create excitement to make your program something patrons want to be part of.
  15. Educate, this has been listed three times as I believe it is the most important aspect. People fear what they do not understand. If your customers do not understand your program it looses its effectiveness.

While I agree the new guideline have been handled poorly with little end user consideration, I firmly believe its intent is for the good of all. Rather than thrash about and dwell on the bad, let’s look at how with a little more effort we can successfully serve our customers.

Milt Miller is VP of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

5 Reflections on Another School Year’s Closing

June has arrived and with it comes the end of another school year. For students, it is a time for fun and relaxation. For school food service professionals, it is a time to review, re-evaluate, and re-tool for next year. For me, it has been a year of discovery. This year has presented me the opportunity to discover several self-evident truths, within our industry, that if over looked, as they often are, cause food programs to fail. I have seen the same recurring sequences of events at many school food programs we visited this year. All are deep in red ink, with no idea how they got there. Administrators, boards, and food service directors are all asking each other the same question, why isn’t this working, we have done everything we were supposed to? We have instituted the new guidelines and we are compliant. We have joined a purchasing consortium and have great pricing. We have upgraded our equipment and remodeled our cafes, why are we still seeing six figure losses? Perhaps your answer lies buried in the self-evident truths we discovered over and over this year. Hopefully, your answer lies in the paragraphs below.

1. New Products Don’t Fit in Old Packaging
Changing tastes and trends require re-thinking how products must be presented to meet student needs and expectations. Yesterday’s sandwich is today’s wrap or flatbread. Yesterday’s sit down meal is today’s grab n go breakfast or lunch. Cultures and times have changed and many school food operators have failed to keep pace, with these changes. New healthier whole grain products require different methods of preparation and handling to produce acceptable results. Programs who fail to make the leap to meeting today’s student expectations, soon find their participation has dwindled.

2. A House Out of Plumb Will Soon Fall Down
All things shift over time. Needs change and what once was a necessity is now a stumbling block. Structures sag, frameworks bend, and sand shifts. Labor contracts, job descriptions, and labor models are much the same, as they are the frame work of the operation. Over time operational needs change and costs increase. Many operations, we visited this year had a labor model from another age when more actual hands on cooking was required. Most of their staff worked 6-7.5 hours per day, received full benefits and retirement, and followed job descriptions that were no longer relevant to the work being performed. Time had moved on, needs had changed, costs increased, but the framework remained the same and was showing signs of wear from the shifting demands placed on it. This was resulting in low productivity, a lack of understanding of the necessary work expected, and astronomical labor costs. Staff had no real understanding of what was expected of them, levels of service had declined, and labor costs, in many cases were above 65%. When asked why workers were performing tasks in a specific manner the answer was consistent from administrators, food service directors, and staff, “that is how we have always done it.” If this sounds like your operation and you do not have an HR professional on staff, seek help from an HR consultant soon. This can be the cause of huge losses for your organization unless they are fixed.

3. Computer Software and Calculators Only Work if You Know What Information You Want
Visiting school food operations throughout the year, we found most if not all, equipped with great Point of Sale (POS), Free and Reduced Eligibility tracking, and accounting software. Operators had their numbers at their fingertips. The major

issue here was that most of these high-tech operators didn’t know basic numbers that are crucial to the success and sustainability of their programs. They knew their participation numbers, labor percentage, food cost, Free and Reduced Meal percentage, and their food cost percentage. These are great things to know when you understand how these numbers relate to the success or failure of your program’s sustainability, but these numbers don’t tell you why you are losing money. Even knowing the minimum price increase required (by the use of state and federally supplied calculators) to maintain compliance with the Equity in School Lunch Act, was a number known to most of these operators. When asked if this increase was enough to cover their costs and keep them self-sustaining most replied, “It’s the amount we are required to increase prices so it must be.” Armed with all of this data and still no answers, what a shame. When asked what their average spend per student per day for labor and their average spend per student per day on food and supplies might be all replied they had no idea. Asked what the average student spend per day was in their operations all again had no idea. Once we showed these operators that the sum of spend per student per day on labor and food subtracted from student spend per day was the true indicator of how the program was doing it brought clarity to all of the other numbers they had at their fingertips. In most cases student spend per day exceeded the sum of the cost numbers by at least $1.00 per student per day. In these cases, if I were the operator, I would hope to sell no lunches each day because each sale was costing my program money! Understanding these three simple numbers can save a program. If this sounds like you, obtain these numbers and use them to manage all of the others. If you are in need of assistance call me, I will be happy to help.

4. An Unfriendly and Uninviting House is Always Empty
“If I cook it they will come”, is a philosophy long dead. It died somewhere in the 1950’s with the emergence of “Fast Food”, the two (2) income family, and increased choices. School Food has lagged behind this culture shift for well over fifty (50) years. Many operators and their staff still expect to treat their customers like mushrooms, “keep students in the dark and feed them whatever the operator wants them to have.” These are marketing and customer service issues and need to be incorporated into daily operating procedures. If student customers don’t know the great things we are doing for them why would they visit us? If when they do visit they are treated like inmates rather than invited guests, why would they return again? In every school operation we visited this year marketing and customer service were lacking. Participation covers a multitude of sins, but lack of participation is a sin. Where does your operation fit into this picture? Think about it and take the appropriate actions. Again, seek help if you need it don’t wait.

5. Knowledge is Power, Providing Needed Knowledge is Life Saving
“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” This is much like saying, “Food Safety Training is politically correct, but enhanced cooking skills and improved customer service will save your program.” The safest food in the world if poorly prepared and served in an uninviting, unfriendly manner will never be eaten or enjoyed. With the opportunities provided by the Professional Standards for School Food Professionals guidelines, many times we repeat the same training over and over because we are accustomed to it and it is required to be reviewed each year. In every operation we visited HACCP manuals and ServeSafe certifications were plainly visible and current. All operations had food handling, service delivery model, and customer service issues. Food Safety is crucial, but review means review, not dwell on. Other skills drive participation and self-sustainability, maybe dwell on these a bit until they become second nature? Look carefully as you plan next year’s training, being safe but empty is not in your program’s best interests.

Reflecting on the past school year as we race through June and into July, I am amazed at the common issues we have found in the schools we visited. Many of these programs were plagued by several if not all of them. I liken the struggle for self-sustainability in school food to the struggle for independence of the original thirteen (13) colonies. All of them were plagued by the same abuses of power by a tyrannical king, while all school food is plagued by the struggles to stay in the black. Like the Founding Fathers in their struggles, we found the above truths to be self-evident in ours. What do you think? Happy Independence Day and best wishes for a successful new school year.

Milt Miller is VP of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.