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.