Solutions Center: Food Courts

Q:We need tips on setting up a food court-type area in our school. We want to keep students on campus during lunch, but they've grown tired of the standard cafeteria fare.— submitted via e-mail

A: For many years, foodservice directors have recognized that high school students are losing interest in school food-service programs, resulting in underutilized and money-losing operations. That trend has grown worse as students have become more mobile. For administrators, the potential liability associated with students leaving campus during school hours to seek commercial foodservice is an ever-increasing problem.

Innovative foodservice directors working with administrators have begun to develop solutions. School foodservice has several advantages:

  • Proximity-Situated on campus.

  • Nutrition-Participating in USDA programs, ensuring nutritional offerings.

  • Financial-Supported by USDA programs that offer reimbursements and free or reduced meals.

Along with the advantages, some disadvantages:

  • Institutional-style service.

  • Limited menu choices.

  • Competition from large, multi-unit chains with huge advertising budgets.

  • Brand recognition of competition, developed over years of heavy advertising by chains.

  • Stigma associated with qualifying for the USDA free- and reduced-meal programs.

The food-court concept is a viable way to overcome these shortcomings. In effect, school foodservice programs are adopting the marketing principles of their commercial competitors and winning back their clients. The food court presents an attractive, menu-expanding climate. The environment that students associate with food, friends and fun is moved into the school. A small additional cost associated with the decor is necessary to take full advantage of the concept. Choices are increased and the nutritional value of the meal is maintained. A wide variety of foods are available from commercial suppliers that conform to the nutritional requirements of the National School Lunch Program. USDA has altered its programs to adapt to students' eating habits.

“Offer vs. served” and “new menus” offer flexibility to directors who are adapting to new trends. Those directors are marketing to the students through branding. Although they are not offering a Big Mac, some programs, particularly in older schools, are establishing proprietary brands around the school's history and traditions or the ethnic origins of the food.

The stigma mentioned earlier can be lessened by incorporating an accounting system that has everyone using some form of debit account. All students appear the same at the cashier. One additional advantage to a food court is flexibility. Once a concept has proven successful, food processors offer products quickly for the new category. Because food courts use countertop display equipment for the most part, changes can be accomplished readily with decor and little or no equipment changes.

Larry Huber, food facilities consultant and founder of Foodservice Consultants Studio, Richmond, Va.

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