Can you give away free food?

Can you give away free food?

I had to increase sales in a school where the free and reduced percentage was at 90% while the participation rate was below 20%. This school could not “GIVE AWAY FREE FOOD.” What I mean by this is that the free and reduced rate was at 90% and only 20% of the students wanted to dine with us. This means students would rather go hungry than to come to the cafeteria and get a free meal. I will use another analogy. That is like me giving you a free tank of gas and you turn me down and instead pay for a full tank yourself. I know that sounds INSANE but that is what was going on in the cafeteria. Well that is downright shameful.

The team had to pull itself up by the bootstraps and go to work. We met with a group of students to first address the customer service and food offerings. We found out that the students were treated poorly at the point of sale. They were told “to hurry” up through the line, or asked callously “what do you want?” I was initially disturbed when I heard this but I have always said, “if you don’t know any better you can’t do any better”. The next point that came up was that the hot food was cold and the cold food was hot. The food on the line looked like the staff was in a rush to go home. In essence, the staff would come into to work and cook everything on the menu and PACK it into the warmers and put the cold items on the line and they would start to clean up so they could go home on time. How can you have food on the line or warmers at 9am and lunch is not served until 11am? If you had the last lunch shift you were in for a real treat (in my sarcastic tone), iceberg burgers with slightly warmed milk. So, I conducted some professional development with the staff so we could address the customer service and food quality issues.

Within two months we increased the school’s cafeteria participation by 30%! Not bad for a school everyone else had given up on!

Here is what you can do to have the same success.

-Ensure that all of your cashiers are addressing the students by name or raise the bar and address them as yes sir or mam. Huh? Yes, just do it. This will give a newfound level of respect for your staff.
-Meet with student groups like band, student government, SGA, safety patrol etc. Getting involved will put a face to the cafeteria and you will not be known as “just” cafeteria workers. You will be known as Bill, Shelly or Teresa.
-Sample product offerings frequently. The students need to know what is on the menu before it is served at lunch. I suggest that you take the same approach of the food court in a mall. Hand out samples. Yes, take the retail approach and give out samples to your customers because it will build a rapport with your student base and establish you as a team that provides excellent service.

Yes, 30% in two months. Was it easy? Heck, no. But you can do it. What you need is a team dedicated to making necessary and impactful changes. That means paying attention to:

-Putting the right menu items at the top of your list.
-Nutritional value and price filtering the selection of the menu items.
-Customer opinion that will aid in increased participation at all levels.

I’ve personally put initiatives in place throughout high schools yielding increases upwards of 46% over a 3-year period. My approach was and is still quite simple. We “let the student tell us the kinds of items they want to see in their cafeteria.”


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