Why an Independent School Went Self-Op

Nardin Academy had done its due diligence in evaluating cafeteria modifications. With the necessary changes and goals established the leadership team needed to decide if the school would coordinate with its foodservice provider or move to a self-operated program.

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Nardin Academy started traveling down this path believing the school could serve better food and discovered that a fancy new kitchen with an expanded menu was not the answer. It was clear the environment was right for a redefined food program, and Nardin Academy realized the school could do more than address the quality of food.

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“Nardin is a top-rated academic institution. We should make sure that we address all areas that impact student experience with the same high standards,” says Leslie Johnson, vice president of finance and operations.

Nardin’s foodservice provider of 25 years had been engaged during the entire evaluation process. The school had created a strategy that its provider could adopt, but the leadership team continued to wonder what decisions the school could make that a foodservice provider would not be able to, like integrating foodservice into curriculum, community events, or student service projects. Furthermore, the school would have the freedom to hire staff, choose vendors, manage volunteers, and decide what to do with newfound revenue?

Aside from changing a long-term relationship, Nardin’s leadership team questioned the time it would take to internally manage the service. When asked what some of the fears of moving to a self-operated program were Johnson replied, “Would we get lunch out on time? How would we manage if one of the team was out for a day? For a week? Would a sustainable foodservice program have the desired impact?”

For the leaders of an academic institution like Nardin Academy, bringing a department that lies outside of their core competency, like foodservice, in-house can seem counterintuitive. While this initial reaction is valid to a certain extent, this is exactly what’s happening across all segments of the non-commercial foodservice industry. After evaluating their foodservice operations against the institution’s overall goals, healthcare operators, colleges and even schools like Nardin Academy are opting to travel the self-operated path.

Regardless of which party implemented the new strategy and menu its team would need specialized training in sustainability. The leadership team questioned making this investment in a foodservice provider rather than making it for themselves. Additionally, as an independent school, Nardin Academy was able to view the new program as an alternative revenue stream. Not only could the school serve better food but it could do more business to support other student experiences in the process.

With support from the student body, parents, and administration pouring into these discussions, it became clear that Nardin Academy would be able to better execute its vision by managing the program internally.

“Truly it was about making certain that the student experience extended all the way to the lunch program and that we could focus on ways the students and the school can make a difference in their community and the world,” says Johnson.

To help the school realize this possibility Beyond Green worked with Nardin Academy to build a conservative budget based on observable, average sales compared to average costs. We looked at various areas of the strategic plan to identify savings. This can be anything from eliminated inefficiencies, reduced menu sizes, or moving to non-disposable ware.

Uncovering these opportunities make purchasing higher quality food costs neutral. For example, buying real flatware at the beginning of the program would pay for itself after four uses. Other financial factors considered were wages, waste removal, and the point of sale system. Utilities were already being paid for by the school.

We then looked at projected sales. The school needed to sell at least 100 lunches to make a profit. We gradually increased total sales over three years to project profits selling at least 400 lunches per day. That is only half of the school’s population, and Nardin Academy was not interested in including lunch for every student as part of tuition—at least not at the beginning.

The overall idea was to show the school administration and board that managing the program in-house could be an additional revenue stream while increasing the quality of the lunch being offered.

“The foodservice provider was making a profit serving mostly processed foods, and there was no community "ness" about the program, no education back to the students. It was just lunch. The school is now able to offer a high-quality product in both food and sustainability education by turning the profits back to the program,” says Johnson.

In order to adopt a self-operated plan it had to make business sense to the school. Affirming this opened the door to the many additional opportunities an internally managed program would afford the school.

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