By Kern Halls, Chief Innovator, Ingenious Culinary Concepts “No one ever asked me!”
That’s what a group of students replied when I was recently conducting a Focus Group. In my experience working with school systems around the U.S., I’ve found that Focus Groups provide the most honest — and sometimes startling — responses from the students we’re trying to reach. So I take them seriously and have been rewarded with useful insights time after time as a result.
If you haven’t worked with focus groups or just don’t know how to conduct them effectively, I suggest you give them your attention. I don’t know of a more reliable way of tuning in to the student mind-set. After all, knowing what they like, hate and really want in advance is valuable information for any of us working in the K-12 foodservice world.
Many school districts use canned fruits to provide variety and reduce food costs. But is there a better alternative? We asked our team, “What can we do differently to increase student consumption of fruits and vegetables?” And then we set out to get creative and also discover what our customers are willing to buy.
Our goal was to make it fun to eat fruits and vegetables in the cafeterias. We started by wanting to offer a new fresh fruit option. That led to our working with a manufacturer to develop “spears.” They cut honeydew, cantaloupe and pineapples into approximately three-inch sections. They put them into clear bags that students could open and then push the fruit out, eating it on the go. Schools went from serving 75 portions of canned pineapple tidbits to over 800 portions of the various fresh spear products. Pineapple was the number one seller. This was all done through focus group communication with our customers followed by bringing the final product to them for approval before the big launch.
We have conducted a plethora of focus groups over the years. Using the results obtained, we have written award-winning menus along with cost-efficient processes for serving them. For example, most students do not eat the typical apple that is served in the cafeteria. At one school they served about 25 apples with an enrollment of almost 2000. Making matters worse, the majority of the apples ended up in the trashcans. These were the healthiest trashcans I’ve ever seen. So we sat down with some students and asked them what was the best way to eat apples. Not surprisingly, the resounding answer was “apple slices.” But we were looking to add more “fun.”
So we worked with a manufacture to create diced cinnamon apples. It consisted of diced apples tossed in cinnamon — with no sugar. It was an immediate success. That school went from serving 25 portions of apples to over 800. There was only one problem. The trashcans were angry because they did not get their servings of fruit anymore!
We are always looking to streamline offerings in schools due to limited funding. We recently developed a product through partnering a national manufacturer with a National Council. We married two existing products and created a new best-seller. The product consisted of yogurt, cereal and diced cinnamon apples. This product increased breakfast participation from 10%-20%. The incremental sales that the manufacturer experienced ranged from 50%-303%. Not bad for infusing a little creativity and listening to the end user, your “customer.”
Applying this same formula we developed a secondary meal concept that increased sales by 20% simply through creative packaging. While brainstorming the challenge of what will make secondary students eat in the cafeteria, we kept coming back to what we repeatedly heard in focus groups. The cafeteria lines were the number one complaint in every school. What if we could eliminate all the waiting in long lines? That became the genesis of a new product: the black boxes. Students loved selecting the black box meal of their choice and rapidly getting to their tables to enjoy lunch. Another win-win all around.
You don’t have to second-guess what works or doesn’t in your market. Just ask. Formulate the right questions to the right sampling of students and you have a wealth of input — including some pretty savvy suggestions — from which to build new products and/or systems that fit your needs and budgetary parameters. You’re sitting on a gold mine of resources ready to set you straight and eager to enjoy the fruits of their participation. Why not go for it!
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Kern Halls, Chief Innovator of Ingenious Culinary Concepts, turns empty dining halls into gold mines of student activity! By seeking out and combining just the right “ingredients” to accomplish what many call impossible: Halls gets students to “want” to dine in your cafeterias!
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