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R&IEditorial Archives2005May 1 — Business

Learning Curve
Teens’ spending habits influence ideas and solutions in school dining.

At Township High School District 211, most foodservice decisions are made independently by each of five schools.

Cooks at Conant High School created a pizza strip/dip item modeled after a popular retail product. Point-of-sale technology minimized waste, reduced costs and increased sales.

Studying teens is a pastime for Ruth Jonen, but feeding 13,000 of them every day is her full-time job as director of foodservice for Illinois’ largest high school district. How students order pizza, what snacks go into backpacks, what comes out of lunch bags and how much is spent on flavored coffee or cookies are details Jonen uses to help manage Township High School District 211 in Palatine, Ill.

Each of the five district high schools operates like a separate restaurant, with Jonen acting as CEO. The schools’ open-campus policy, allowing students to leave premises during lunch, challenges the foodservice department to keep its customer base loyal and fosters a spirit of teamwork among Jonen and her five managers. “We’re as good as our last meal,” she says.

Unlike District 211 operations, commercial restaurant operators aren’t required to meet government-mandated nutrition guidelines. They also have greater pricing flexibility to help offset rising food costs. Last year’s higher prices for dairy and produce forced Jonen’s managers to be extra frugal. “My budget for meals is approved in April for the next school year. The only way I can offset those is to change pricing in la carte sales,” she explains.

Township High School District 211
Palatine, Ill.

High schools: five, each with self-operated foodservice

Total enrollment: 13,000

Students on free/reduced-price meal program: 11%

Annual budget: $4.5 million

Number of employees: 100

Operation: Hot breakfast and lunch service; continuous operation of retail cart/counter

The district’s $4.5 million annual foodservice budget, staff of 100 and yearly revenue surplus of $200,000 are handled with business skills Jonen sharpened in contracted school foodservice and while managing an employee cafeteria for a utilities company. During 24 years with District 211, she has tripled revenue, increased breakfast and lunch participation, implemented a point-of-sale system and worked with colleagues to develop a blueprint for commodities reprocessing that is a model for the state.

Jonen’s success can be attributed to knowing her industry, smart hiring, delegating and networking. At monthly meetings, managers share solutions to common problems. They also swap ideas about the next “hot” food item. When a national pizza chain introduced pizza strips with dips, cooks at James B. Conant High School developed a version within a week. Hearing a Chicago restaurant chain manager boast about the success of a cheese-and-beef sandwich resulted in sampling and analyzing the commercial item and creating something similar for the entire district menu.

Decisions on bids, vendors, foods and commodities are made quickly, a benefit of being self-operated, according to Jonen. In a contract-management foodservice situation, introducing a pizza strip item might take months. The full support of the district’s school board and administration allows such flexibility. “If I see great tomatoes at a farmers market, I buy bushels,” says Jonen. “No one second-guesses me.”

Separate Tables
Each school’s foodservice manager is responsible for decisions and innovations—from scheduling staff, changing serving times to accommodate bus schedules, designing events and promotions and responding to customer demands.

When students at Palatine High School petitioned for a specific cookie brand, they won even though it cost more. At William Fremd High School, staff and students dreamed up a three-day Chicago Days food festival. Morning bus schedules squeeze breakfast time at Palatine High School, where the cafeteria is slammed with 100 orders between 8 a.m. and 8:10 a.m. To cope, Foodservice Manager Debbie Madaj increased grab-and-go choices and cut back on time-intensive hot items such as French toast.

Hoffman Estates High School (HEHS) has the most ethnically diverse population of any district school. Food preferences for its 2,100 students lean towards spicy, bold flavors, says Foodservice Manager Mary O’Connor. HEHS’ typical 90-minute classes allow just 35 to 40 minutes for lunch periods. The 21-person staff starts serving at 10:40 a.m. and finishes at 1:10 p.m.

Greater household affluence influences spending habits and frequency for William Fremd High School’s 3,000 students. The school has the district’s greatest number of la carte transactions, up to 2,500 a day. Those ecipse 300 to 400 hot-lunch orders.

Tracking Smart
Ask for statistics on sales of crustless peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches versus crust-on and Marilyn Gibson, foodservice manager of James B. Conant High School, clicks computer keys to get the answer. Point-of-sale technology, introduced in 1991, produces exact answers.

“My numbers are consistent. I know what’s wasted and what’s used,” says the 23-year school-foodservice veteran. Tracking sales helps reduce waste. When the popularity of green beans started to trail that of kernel corn, she reduced bean orders and reassigned the vegetable as an ingredient in soups, salads and stir-fries.

When daily sales of warm chocolate chip cookies reached 560 pieces, a corresponding 10% increase in milk sales sparked an idea: Add more warm items to increase milk sales. Soon Conant was serving bagels with house-made spreads and pretzels customized with salt, cheese or cinnamon-sugar.

Teens’ awareness of national brands of canned, flavored coffees was evident in sales at Palatine High School, where daily purchases jumped from 100 12-ounce cans to 360 in 2004, spurred by heavy advertising by two competing coffee chains located near the school. The school was a winner in that competition, says Foodservice Manager Debbie Madaj: The 12-ounce can sells for $1.25 at a food cost to the school of 66 cents.

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