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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.