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.