By Cecily Walters 2016-09-09 00:36:55
IF THERE’S ONE PRODUCT CATEGORY that’s essential to procure in order to operate a school meals program, it’s the menu items that make up those meals! This is why foods (and beverages) tend to get the most attention in any discussions or trainings about K-12 school foodservice procurement. You need the right food products to arrive on your doorstep at the start of the year and keep on arriving week after week. Understanding what works—and what doesn’t—about the food procurement process is a top priority. Equipment and technology are important components of a school nutrition operation, too, but most school districts tend to purchase these items with much less frequency and on a much different timetable. Still, School Nutrition wanted to be sure that this issue’s focus on procurement also included some insights and reflections about practical approaches for these two categories. How can K-12 foodservice operators and industry leaders learn from one another to improve purchasing practices? Start by keeping the fundamentals in mind: Whether school nutrition operators are introducing or upgrading technology, equipping a brand-new kitchen or replacing a piece of equipment, the purchasing process for these big investments flows more smoothly when school nutrition professionals and their vendor partners can collaborate—and communicate—to meet the needs of both parties. So, what does that successful collaboration and communication combo look like, from a school nutrition operator’s perspective? School Nutrition asked several operators to share what they want industry to know about how they purchase technology and equipment products, along with suggested tips for improving the collaborative process to achieve the best results. If you’re an industry representative, consider this an inside look into the purchasing process from the operators you partner with or would like to partner with. If you’re a director or supervisor, you might pick up some tips from your colleagues that are worth trying in your own program. Although technology and equipment are both big-ticket items that schools purchase with less frequency, the decision-making processes can be quite different for the two categories. “Rarely can you compare technology ‘apples-to-apples’ as you can many pieces of equipment,” points out Meghan Gibbons, RD, LDN, SNS, director of nutrition services, Valley View School District, Romeoville, Ill. Thus, distinctions are made between the two as much as possible throughout this article. HOW WE PURCHASE Let’s start at the beginning of the process, when a school nutrition director or supervisor is ready to replace that oven that’s finally given up the ghost or specify the particular units to equip a kitchen in a brand-new school. Or, maybe a school nutrition operation is upgrading an outdated POS system or seeking to capitalize on the advantages of a new inventory management system for the central warehouse. How do they go about deciding which products to explore further, and how do they reach out to vendors for more information? While “each purchase is unique in the procurement process—there’s no one size fits all,” as Gibbons acknowledges, some common themes emerge pertaining to how operators navigate the beginning stages of purchasing. HOW WE ASSESS THE OPTIONS For Jill Kidd, MS, RD, SNS, director of nutrition services, Pueblo City (Colo.) Schools, the experiences and recommendations of her peers regarding technology and equipment play an important role in how she learns about new product options. In addition, she finds attending vendor shows helpful for this purpose. Kidd works with manufacturers’ representatives and brokers to receive more information about products and to gain access to opportunities to test them. She finds it helpful to “consider their recommendations for products that might present a solution to a need.” Joanne Kinsey, SNS, director of school nutrition services, Chesapeake (Va.) Public Schools, relies on many of the same approaches to learn about new technology and equipment products. Other resources she finds valuable? “I pay attention to professional trade magazines and email [communications] such as SNA SmartBrief,” she reports. Sara Gasiorowski, SNS, child nutrition director, Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, Indianapolis, Ind., considers SNA’s Annual National Conference (ANC), as well as her annual state association conference, to be invaluable forums for learning about equipment. From there, she works with manufacturers’ representatives and brokers to obtain more details to help her decide which equipment may be the best fit for the needs of her operation—this includes seeing the equipment in action. “I will review the literature, visit a district that currently has the equipment in use and, occasionally, go to a test kitchen. Price, of course, is a very important consideration! But I also look at the ease of use for our staff—we don’t need a lot of bells and whistles on certain equipment,” Gasiorowski reports. She also admits to some brand loyalty—for multiple reasons: “If I have a brand of equipment that I’ve been happy with in the past, I usually continue with that brand, because it will be familiar to our staff and familiar to my [maintenance technician].” Similarly, Lori Danella, SNS, school nutrition coordinator, Lee’s Summit (Mo.) R-7 School District, and SNA Midwest Regional Director, shares that she includes staff members who will be using the equipment in the assessment process of potential new product purchases. “They use the equipment on a daily basis, so they need to be included,” she affirms. Like Gasiorowski’s team, Danella’s staff “likes things simple. When you go too high tech, there are more things that can go wrong and more things to learn,” she observes. Danella cites combi ovens as an example. “There are really nice upscale ones that can do many things, but our staff just needs something to turn on, adjust the temperature and steam,” she explains. Ease of use rules the day in their busy school kitchens. In Texas, Riyad Alsaid, director of technology for the Food & Child Nutrition Services department in Dallas Independent School District, notes that it’s useful for your research process to include conversations with your current vendors to obtain their recommendations. He also highlights the importance of taking a look around to “see what the rest of the industry can provide.” In his district, “much of our department’s research and software and hardware solicitation is done by resellers and consultants who can provide product specifications and comparison analyses, which we then weigh with our own criteria to [determine] what best fits our business requirements,” Alsaid elaborates. Wesley Delbridge, RD, director of food and nutrition, Chandler (Ariz.) Unified School District, learns about new equipment by keeping his eye on trends that start outside of the school nutrition environment. “I do research on the [commercial foodservice] side,” he says. “I try to pay attention to what’s new, and I’ll talk to the person at that retail facility or look online” to learn more. Later, Delbridge will approach one of the manufacturers he already works with to see if they offer a similar product. If not, he’ll conduct more research, which incorporates inviting various brokers or manufacturers’ representatives to visit his operation to discuss a particular product option in more detail. Next, he establishes an agreement with the vendor to pilot test the equipment for three months. On the technology side, however, “It can be tough finding a vendor whose products meet the specs for the security requirements of the school district’s network,” he relays. He explains that he finds out all of the specs that he can about a potential technology product and then confers with his district’s IT department. Will it work on the large scale of his district? Will it meet the district’s network security requirements? If so, Delbridge and his team once again will ask to pilot the product. If the testing goes well, he works with the IT department to write the appropriate specifications for purchase. “Getting IT involved early is key,” he says. “The earlier I get them involved, the more willing they are to help me.” WHO MAKES OUR EQUIPMENT/TECHNOLOGY PURCHASING DECISIONS? In some cases, such as for Jill Kidd in Pueblo City Schools and Sara Gasiorowski in Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, the decision-making power is in different hands depending on whether a purchase is for equipment or for technology. “I make the decision for equipment. Technology must be approved by the IT department if it interfaces with other district programs,” Kidd explains. Gasiorowski also leaves the technology procurement details to her IT department. In one of the largest school nutrition operations in the country, Dallas ISD Director of Technology Riyad Alsaidis responsible for making purchasing decisions for technology hardware and software for the school meals operation. The district has a separate IT department that provides the district with its own technology solutions, he explains. Alsaid meets with this team periodically to update them on his program’s direction and needs and collaborates with them on technology initiatives that may impact overall district services. Other school nutrition operations may be required to go through a district-level procurement department for all school-related purchases, from chemistry beakers to combi ovens to carrot slices. It’s also not uncommon for a school district to use an independent agent, such as a consultant, to specify all the furnishings of a brand new facility, including the kitchen and cafeteria equipment. School nutrition operators—from managers up to directors—are urged to be proactive and insert themselves into these decision-making processes as much as possible. No one knows the needs of your operation and the capabilities of your team better than you do. Don’t get stuck with equipment that goes unused or causes inefficiencies because you failed to speak up and explain, in detail, exactly what you need—and why. HOW WE BUY Just as when they are purchasing food, beverage and supply products, school nutrition operations are required to use one of the federally approved methods (see “To Bid or Not to Bid...,” page 32) when buying equipment and technology. Both Requests for Proposal (RFPs) or Invitations to Bid (ITBs) are applicable approaches to use. Pueblo’s Jill Kidd is specific about when she uses each approach. “I most frequently use an RFP if I want the respondent to have the opportunity to provide a solution to a need. If I am replacing a standard piece of equipment and speed is necessary, I use a bid,” she asserts. Chesapeake’s Joanne Kinsey also uses both methods of procurement. “Bids are appropriate for kitchen equipment. RFPs are better suited for larger technology products that include a number of locations and multiple components,” she explains. In Dallas, the first step for Riyad Alsaid is to determine whether his district has an approved Board agreement with a particular technology vendor. If so, he may be able to leverage existing contracts. But if such an agreement is not already in place, “We issue our own RFP, and in that process, we may provide our procurement office with [a list of known] industry vendors that may be capable of providing solutions,” he states. He notes that the need to create RFPs can be a consequence of the fact that “some foodservice solutions have such specific criteria.” HOW WE CAN BEST WORK TOGETHER Relationships between operators and the manufacturers’ representatives, brokers and buying groups they work with are enhanced when both sides communicate openly about the best ways to work together for an overall satisfactory business experience. To that end, school nutrition professionals insist that they do appreciate the opportunity to hear perspectives from their industry partners regarding how to achieve an effective collaboration during the purchasing process. But in this particular article, the advice goes in one direction: from operators to industry partners. • “I believe our industry partners have done a wonderful job listening to our needs and concerns over the years,” Sara Gasiorowski observes. She encourages industry partners to “stay current on USDA procurement rules and understand what they can and cannot do when it comes to [helping us in] writing [bid]specifications, etc.” • “Get to know us, our district and our needs. Help us to find solutions and introduce us to new products that will enhance our program. Utilize conferences and cooperatives to your advantage. Sponsor state SNA [conferences and events] and get to know your customers,” Jill Kidd urges. • Similarly, “I highly recommend the vendor learn more about the specific end user experience—what final result is expected [from] the particular hardware or software solution,” Riyad Alsaid counsels. • Vendors have approached Elaine Harris, school nutrition director, Paola (Kan.) Unified School District, with information and photos about the equipment options they sell, but it can be difficult to make purchasing decisions based solely on such two-dimensional materials, she warns. “It’s very important for a vendor to see our space in person, so I can learn what a piece of equipment will and won’t do, and how it will work for the [specific] facility I need it in,” she explains. “That lets them know what I need and what I have to work with. Then they can come up with ideas for how to make the product work.” • Lori Danella also urges industry partners to spend time with potential customers to understand precisely what they need. “Sometimes with all the options and choices, what we want and what [industry representatives] think we want are two different things,” she reflects. • Vendors who maintain relationships after the sale are keepers, says Meghan Gibbons. “In general, I make purchases from industry representatives who not only represent an excellent piece of equipment but will also be there after the purchase. You never know what you’ll need six days—or six years—after the purchase, and you need to ensure you have a ‘go to’ person for any and all questions you or your team may have,” Gibbons emphasizes. • Wesley Delbridge asks his technology vendors to be willing to work with his district IT colleagues. He expects both sets of partners to come to a group meeting prepared to ask and answer questions about the product’s capabilities and the district’s needs. • Delbridge also appreciates when vendors are honest, such as admitting to the possibility of a slow download or other possible strain on the system. “The more authentic they are, the better I feel about them.” PLEASURE DOING BUSINESS WITH YOU Whether you’re an industry member or a school nutrition operator, why not set a goal for this new school year to invest renewed attention into making the purchasing process for technology and equipment as smooth as possible? By aiming for a mutually beneficial collaboration and open communication, both sides will be on their way to asserting, “It’s a pleasure doing business with you!” That’s something to strive toward for both single transactions and for longer-term operator/industry relationships—this school year and beyond. PEER TO PEER Are you new to school nutrition operations, recently promoted to the top spot or merely understaffed and overwhelmed by your to-do list? The operators interviewed in this article offer you their best practice tips for purchasing equipment and technology. • Lee’s Summit R-7 School District’s Lori Danella and her team work with her district’s facilities department to be sure they have enough power to supply a piece of new equipment. • Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township’s Sara Gasiorowski acknowledges that purchasing equipment properly can be a time-consuming process. However, “When you think about the dollars you are investing, it’s worth the time to do your research, talk to other end users and ‘kick the tires’ to make the best decision for your program,” she insists. • “Make sure [you have] a clear understanding of the product and what it will do,” advises Pueblo City Schools’ Jill Kidd. Also, “build an honest and open relationship and conversation with [industry] representatives so that they have a full understanding of your needs and expectations and the procurement process.” • Building relationships with vendors is also key for Paola Unified School District’s Elaine Harris. Doing so early on provides value for operators down the road, she believes. Harris strives to make face-to-face connections with vendors at trade shows so that if a product is a good match for her operation’s needs, she “can pick up the phone later on,” she says. • Vendor discussions should include reviewing time lines from start to final anticipated installation date. “Check allocated resources to ensure that you have what is required to get what you want,” recommends Chesapeake Public Schools’ Joanne Kinsey. • Staff members who will be using the newly purchased technology solutions should be included in the research and assessment discussion. They’re also helpful in getting buy-in when it comes time to implement the technology or install the equipment, notes Dallas Independent School District’s Riyad Alsaid. This type of collaborative spirit “turns the project into a partnership,” he observes. • “It’s all about communication,” Chandler Unified School District’s Wesley Delbridge echoes. He asks to be included in all conversations and emails between a vendor and his district’s IT team, especially if a technology product isn’t working. “The more I can be involved, the better. This keeps the relationship going and keeps us all on our toes,” Delbridge finds. • Along similar lines,Delbridge believes it’s important for operators to keep vendors involved once they have made a purchase. He advises “asking for that support component piece” by building details into contracts or service agreements that address how often the vendor is following up with or updating you. “Don’t lose that person and that relationship as soon as they’ve sold the product to you,” Delbridge counsels. Cecily Walters is an SN contributing editor and freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. She is a former managing editor of this publication.
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