Article by Leah Thayer
From the May/June 2018 Net Assets magazine
Meals at most independent schools have come a long way since the mystery meat and glutinous mac-and-cheese of yore. Today you’ll find locally grown and organic, vegetarian and vegan, gluten-free and nut-free, sustainable seafood and grass-fed beef. You’ll find scratch-cooking and culinary clubs, pizza carts and smoothie stations, and bars for salads, soups and sandwiches. What you won’t find, at least as far as Charlie Parrish’s investigations have revealed, is a how-to guide for running a food service program that is not only popular and nutritious — that part is easy, given all of today’s options — but also profitable for the independent schools that offer them.
“We’re trying to put food on the front burner,” punned Parrish, chief financial officer at First Presbyterian Day School, in Macon, Georgia, whose 920 students range from preK through 12th grade. About 15 years ago, the school launched an optional lunch program with a respected third-party dining vendor. The program’s financial goal is for dining revenues to cover its non-facility costs including labor, food, supplies and management fees. “We have accomplished that since inception,” he said. The challenge? Despite consistently high ratings from students who participate in the lunch program, their numbers have declined, and “we’re close to a tipping point” at which the program’s revenues cover those costs. Lunch participation is now hovering at around 59 percent, down from a high of 75 percent.
Parrish is still evaluating what’s behind the downturn at FPDS, perhaps some combination of students’ particular tastes and families’ sensitive budgets (lunch costs from $4.50 to $6 per day, depending on grade, adding about $1,000 a year to tuition). He’s proud of the meal program and hopeful about efforts to publicize it. But absent resurgent student participation, “we’re going to need to make some changes to either the revenue or expense side that will help us sustain our budget goals,” he said.
FPDS isn’t alone in facing this crossroads. While food service constitutes a relatively small portion of most schools’ operating budgets, its influence can loom disproportionately large in an increasingly competitive marketplace. “Oh, food is a big deal,” said Lisa Braiterman, chief financial and operations officer at Brewster Academy, a boarding and day school in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. “This is a home for our kids,” she said of the school’s dining operation, an assertion borne out in her decision to give it a top-to-bottom remodel as her first project at the school “Think about it. More than 300 [boarders] come here every September, and other than breaks and occasionally going out to eat, they’re here three meals a day. Whenever they want to get together, it’s around food. Having a place that’s comfortable, where they have good, fresh, well-prepared food — it’s very important.”
Getting dining services right is very important for schools too, day and boarding alike, regardless of whether they outsource it or manage it in-house. “The pressure is on to keep it fresh and interesting and well-managed,” said Valerie Scruggs, the in-house food service director at University School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, whose 15 food service staff produce some 1,300 lunches each day. Here are some ways schools like hers continually adjust their menus, staffing, costs and more to uncover new strategies for operating dining programs that support students’ quality of life as well as the schools’ bottom lines.
More dietary demands, more dietary restrictions, more cost pressures all around: Squeezed by competing demands, growing numbers of independent schools have opted to outsource their dining options to third-party vendors whose culinary expertise, corporate structures and economies of scale let them offer more choices, for predictable costs, than most schools can offer. Well-known national contractors include SAGE Dining Services (nearly 250 independent school clients) and Flik Independent School Dining. Many business officers cite the variety and consistent high quality of food these companies can provide, in addition to relieving schools of responsibilities such as inventory and personnel management.
There really is no mystery [to running a food service program]. The key is making sure your dining program has leadership with a vision consistent with what you want to do who have the right experience and background.
Lisa BraitermanBrewster Academy
Others feel differently. At BA, Braiterman brought dining services in-house in 2011, after decades with a contractor. She also remodeled the dining room and serving area. “It’s been a great move,” she said. Costs have gone down though wages went up. Quality has risen too, evidenced by higher consumption and positive feedback. “Some business officers are afraid of running a food service program. They are not sure they can understand it or know how to recruit and supervise the right people. There really is no mystery,” she said. “The key is making sure your dining program has leadership with a vision consistent with what you want to do who have the right experience and background. It's the same as leadership in any other department. In fact, it's easier since we all know when food tastes good or bad. But we don't all know when when something is constructed well or poorly.”
The leader at BA is its executive chef-manager, Chris Dill, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who leads a full-time team of 24 ranging from executive sous chef (who also serves as primary buyer) to dishwashers. All work essentially year-round. Good pay and benefits, predictable hours and abundant advancement opportunities keep turnover low and are a core factor in lower overall costs, Braiterman said.
Other strategies schools may wish to consider:
With more resources and 24-hour constituencies, colleges and universities are leading the way in capitalizing on campus dining programs. The price of a typical dining hall contract jumped 47 percent from 2007 to 2017, and college undergraduates “appear to be forking out about 85 percent more per day for food on campus than they would likely pay to cook and eat on their own,” according to The Hechinger Report. Some schools where students must buy a dining hall contract charge the equivalent of more than $10 a meal. Here’s some of what’s trending.
Sources: Food Service Director, Food Management
Download a PDF of this article.
The New Allergy-Safe Meal Plan (May/June 2016)
Operation Farm-to-Table (July/August 2017)
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