By Penny Mclaren 2017-04-04 18:10:11
One school nutrition operation embarks on at student-driven redesign project to upgrade cafeterias and menus. To walk into Georgia’s Hephzibah High School or Westside High School cafeterias is to know what Generation Z students want. How can we be so sure? Because the school nutrition team asked. They asked and the kids told them: They want what’s tastier, brighter, quicker, smarter. The school nutrition team asked and then they listened. And then they delivered. They delivered tastier, brighter, quicker, smarter. They delivered what their Generation Z customers wanted. Hephzibah High School and Westside High School are two of 57 schools (and 11 total high schools) in Richmond County School System, in Augusta, Ga. In what is expected to be a district-wide endeavor to refresh all school cafeterias, these are the first to be completed. The grand re-opening was just a few weeks ago, on January 30, following a months-long transformation process. A third high school cafeteria renovation was slated to open this month. By SY 2017-18, says Director of Nutrition Services Kelly Schlein, all schools in the district should see changes. Schlein joined the district in July 2015 and, right away, she knew that changes would be a top priority. “I knew the challenges,” she recounts, citing lackluster participation in some schools. “I knew where we were at and that we needed to get where we wanted to go.” She also realized that she wanted the support of an outside, objective voice. After meeting consultant Kern Halls at an SNA conference, she thought that his company, Ingenious Culinary Concepts, would be a good partner in determining and making improvements. Halls worked as a Food and Nutrition Services senior manager for eight years at Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools and has a background in restaurant management at Walt Disney World. Starting at the two schools in greatest need of a participation boost, Schlein and Halls asked questions. Then they took the answers and went to work. The results so far? “Like night to day!” exclaims Schlein. Students are impressed. Staff morale is up. Most importantly, participation is up—by 21% at one high school, and 34% at the other—in just the first two weeks. A GENERATION SPEAKS OUT “The changes are all based on student feedback,” says Halls. “It’s all about what the customers want.” The feedback came through a number of focus groups, with customer comments providing the roadmap. Tastier. Schlein says her team has made a commitment to procure and serve the menu items kids want to eat. When students requested such offerings as better chicken, they didn’t have to wait until the next school year for the new item to show up on the menu. “We implemented the changes right away,” she says, adding, “We want them to know we will deliver.“ The kids were appropriately amazed to have their wishes granted. Students don’t always know exactly what they want. Schlein and her crew taste tested various items in the focus groups. “The students said they wanted a better chicken patty,” cites Halls. Out went the version that was chopped and formed. After testing, a whole-muscle variety met with their approval and was added to the menu. Applying time-honored marketing principles, Schlein and Halls also recognized that presentation is as influential as flavor. Improved packaging helped make existing menu items seem far more appealing. Foam packaging has been switched to clear plastic and stylish black utensils are another upgrade. Quicker. Lines? Nobody likes them. “We wanted to make sure the lines sped up,” reports Schlein. But which tactics would help move things along? For Richmond County, it was the addition of grab ‘n’ go carts located in the cafeteria, as well as outside, or in the gym in winter months—places where teens prefer to go instead of the cafeteria. “Wait time is cut down, and throughput sped up because of the carts,” notes Schlein. Fresh fruits and vegetables—lots of them—are placed in baskets so kids can grab them. In fact, all items are merchandised in a way that allows students to reach them fast and easily, like bento boxes and restaurant-style take-out containers. Most helpful is an automated unit that dispenses utensils and napkins. There’s also a Top It Off Station, specifically requested by students, that gives them freedom to pick their own choices of condiments, just as they would in commercial restaurants. Brighter. Bold graphics attract. “We asked students various atmosphere questions,” Halls explains. “They stated that the cafeteria looked bland and that the seating was not the best.” The previous look was “white and drab,” reports Halls. A designer developed various renderings of possible new looks and the kids offered their feedback. Now, the cafeterias are a bright red or blue with bold graphics. Drab uniforms had to go, too. Cafeteria staff now wear chef jackets with colorful visors or caps, and these also contribute to a brighter image. Smarter. Smartphones rule. Schlein and her team learned that text messaging is an effective and desired approach for connecting with kids. The budget allows for a monthly maximum of eight texts to students. The kids can “opt-in” for the texting services by using a short code word. “We started the texting off slow, to nurture our customers, and we will move into more targeted messaging after we gain their trust,” Halls explains. Within a day of announcing the idea to the students, 100 kids had opted-in. It helped that the school nutrition team offered added incentive: When kids optin, they are entered into a drawing for a $25 gift card and also have a chance to earn food offers. But if they’re signing up for prizes, they’re staying for the details. Schlein already has metrics measuring their efficacy. “We have found that students look at the texts within three minutes of receiving them,” she reports. “It is working great.” Richmond is also saying bye-bye to paper menus. “Students don’t look at them,” asserts Schlein. A 50-in. digital monitor in the cafeteria shows the menu, and students can also download it via a MealViewer app. In addition, Halls and Schlein produced a three-minute video to celebrate one site’s grand opening. Featuring positive interviews with students and administrators and showing off the renovations, the video’s energy sends a strong, compelling message. The video, posted on YouTube (http://tinyurl.com/SNMag-RichmondCtyVideo) is made available to the community through the district website. BUILDING A BRAND Determining exactly what Generation Z wants is integral to the marketing approach that Halls advocates, but he also is a firm believer in borrowing from commercial counterparts. At the heart of the success of most popular restaurant concepts is the brand. Schlein recognizes that she’s running a business that is, essentially, a franchise operation. So, building a brand that will carry across all foodservice sites throughout the district was a critical undertaking. The results affect all aspects of the operation: » The Nutrition Services department got a sleek, new logo with the tagline, “Fueled 4 Focus,” that echoes its mission statement: “Nourishing excellence in Richmond County.” » A customer-centric attitude was instilled through training. Staff members learned to show off the friendly attitude they naturally have, but may not have been encouraged to express. To build those skills, they use student engagement cards featuring conversation prompts and simple phrases, such as “Glad you are back” or “See you at breakfast.” » Staff members wear name tags with their name and their place of birth. This tactic, one that Halls picked up from his Disney experience, also provides a possible conversation starter. While Richmond County’s students are the primary target audience for such marketing efforts, Schlein doesn’t discount the far-reaching impact the initiative has had on her team members, as well as parents and others in the community. “Staff has been involved in the process. We had to have their buy-in,” she explains, noting that it’s paid off in high morale and “many more staff members interested in management positions.” Parents have been engaged, as well. Fifty turned out to attend the grand re-opening at Westside High School. Teacher participation in meal service is also up. Schlein is also grateful for strong administrative support through the whole process; it has helped to raise her profile and she’s now on a first-name basis with administrators who barely recognized her before. HOW TO GET FROM A TO Z How can you replicate Richmond County’s journey? Schlein and Halls recount their own steps. They began the process in November. Schlein and her management team identified their goals and assessed the current operation’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. For example, the district had adopted the Community Eligibility Provision, which means that all students can eat for free. That boosted participation and revenue, which, in turn, helped to pay for redesign expenses, which would generate more participation and more revenue for reinvestment. Halls believes that student-based focus groups are essential for such endeavors. This approach helps to drive data-based decisions. These were organized quickly. “We spoke with the administration staff to assemble an active, yet socially responsible group of students,” he explains. Principals selected 10 students based on their interest and commitment to wellness, academics and innovation. They were given their charge, says Halls. “They were going to make decisions for their peers in their schools and district-wide.” The focus groups were conducted in December and questions focused on four areas of the school meal program: atmosphere, operations, menus and food quality. Schlein and Halls wasted no time in putting feedback into action. Final designs for the new look were approved before the winter holiday break and all the renovations were made while school was closed. Students came back to their transformed cafeterias in January. Participation by the hand-picked group of students didn’t end with the focus groups. Instead, Halls and Schlein raised their level of involvement, establishing teams of “School Nutrition Champions” to serve as peer ambassadors for the school nutrition program. “They’re high-profile kids,” notes Schlein. The kids proudly wore branded School Nutrition Champion t-shirts at the grand re-opening events. The cafeteria refresh process continues throughout the rest of the district. A few schools will need less-extensive changes, but all will get the grab ‘n’ go carts. In addition, all staff will receive new uniforms and customer service training. DON’T GUESS What did Schlein and her team learn about their Generation Z student customers? They want to know what they are going to get as menu options before they get to the cafeteria. They want to like what they see (and taste). They don’t want to wait long to get it. And one more thing: They might not have said they wanted what they got, but they do know they like it once they have it. (Follow? Ask a Gen Z to explain.) Have you found yourself wondering about your own customers, “What is it these kids want, anyway?” You may not be able to answer that question. But your students will. So, ask. REACH OUT AND TEXT SOMEONE So, you want to use text messaging to communicate with students. Feeling… well, “tongue-tied” about what to say? Here are some examples of initial texts to Richmond County’s new School Nutrition Champions group, as well as to the entire student body: SNChamps: I am looking forward to everyone joining me during the “Taste Test” at Westside HS, Thursday @ 9:30am SNChamps: Sneak Peak of what you will be sampling tomorrow. Mandarin Chicken, egg rolls, Chinese noodles, Mocha Freeze, 100% juice slush, Primo pizza plus much more... You will be called from your class and transportation is provided. See you all tomorrow. SNChamps: Tomorrow is our official Grand-Reopening. You will be given your t-shirts in the morning. Please be in the cafeteria by 10:15 am. SNChamps: Today is the kick-off. Meet in the cafeteria at 10:15 am for the Grand-Reopening. We will have your shirts ready for you. ALL: I hope you are enjoying the new meals and condiment stations. We will announce the winners of the $25 Gift Card next week. ALL: Congratulations to Destiny Williams from Hephzibah HS and Jamal McCoy from Westside HS for winning the $25 Gift Card Giveaway. Penny McLaren is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Wash., and a former editor of this publication. She can be reached at email@example.com. Photos courtesy of Richmond County School System and Ingenious Culinary Concepts.
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