What to Expect During the First Weeks of a New, Self-Op School Cafeteria

Drawing up a plan to take Nardin Academy's school cafeteria self-op was one thing but actually doing it was another. Here consultant Greg Christian shares the surprising results of this endeavor, including the reactions of the student population and beyond.

Nardin Enjoy lunchNardin Academy

Hiring kitchen staff for the first year of a self-operated program was something Nardin Academy had never done before. The school was getting into the food business, and it would come with both successes and surprises. Regardless of the planning and training that took place in the summer of 2013, Nardin Academy couldn't be sure when it opened its doors to the new school year how students and other stakeholders would accept the new program.

"We did the best we could getting ready, but when you put it into practice with 900 kids going through the cafeteria you just don't know what to expect," says Leslie Johnson, vice president of finance and operations.

The main focus was making sure students could make it through the lines quickly and know how to navigate the various stations. The salad bar, beverage coolers, self-service line, and condiment stations were closely monitored for accessibility and location to the POS systems.

Nardin Handmade burger pattysSwitching to a scratch-cooked menu, which included handmade burgers like the ones seen here, meant some growing pains for the kitchen staff at Nardin Academy.

Leslie Johnson, myself, and a handful of teachers remained in the cafeteria during lunch periods to help kids with the new flow of service. Johnson says, "The first couple of weeks were spent on logistics, showing and telling students where things were. We had microphones and asked for a couple of minutes during lunches to explain the new procedures and instructions." This included the new waste separation system.

Nardin Academy had anticipated serving 150 meals each day when school first resumed. In the first weeks the school averaged 250 meals a day. This meant the team had to regroup to assess the ordering, preparation, and staffing adjustments necessary to accommodate such a positive opening.

Nardin service line at nardinThe early emphasis at Nardin Academy was on making sure students could make it through the lines quickly and navigate the various food stations.

Still, not everyone agreed with each decision that had been made for the cafeteria. Johnson stresses the importance of getting feedback from the students and teachers. "People typically keep things to themselves or share with their peers unless you ask them. No matter how much communication you have done you need to do more. It needs to be consistent and steady throughout the year, especially in the first months."

One surprise was that the adults had a more difficult time acclimating to the new set up than the students. Some adults did not understand what changes were made and why they were happening. Adults have spent most of their lives practicing one way or another, so to change things was a harder transition for this group than expected.

Another group that Nardin Academy paid special attention to was the senior high school class. Having been at Nardin Academy for the longest time this group experienced the biggest change among the student population.

"It became apparent that we needed to focus on getting the high school seniors on board with the initiative in a more meaningful way so they could not only understand it but take the learning with them," Johnson says.

Nardin Clean plates at NardinNardin Academy anticipated serving 150 meals a day when it introduced the school’s new foodservice program. Students liked the food so much, as evidenced by the clean plates here, Nardin Academy served 250 meals a day.

For the kitchen the first weeks of the school year were hectic at best. Teaching people how to make food taste good in high volumes is a challenge. Learning was still happening in real time. Staff who had prepared quantity foods before had old habits to break. These come to light during day-to-day service more so than in a training environment.

One aspect of a scratch-cooked kitchen is that staff should cook using high heat. This is not the case in most heat-and-serve cafeterias that rely on sauces and salt to flavor food. Cooking food should take a little manpower, a little sweat. This alone was an adjustment.

We taught staff how to make simple sauces on the side in small pans, adding it to a brazier full of food. For stir-fry we cook each vegetable in a hot brazier separately, combine all the veggies, and then include the sauce. Garnishes at the cafeteria level are historically weak, but kids eat with their eyes. Even a pinch of chopped parsley atop stir-fry can make a big difference.

This type of cooking requires time management and planning, and it was clear that staff was not used to cooking in "real time." They had been trained to cook things halfway or tray items like frozen cookies to finish the process in the morning. This system means people are constantly handling food and transferring foods to and from the cooler. I'm a huge proponent of creating processes and recipes that require you to only touch foods once.

The overall reception was rewarding. The majority loved it: a cafeteria that smelled different each day, had beautiful colors, and food that looked great. In my next post I will jump further into the school year. What was the program like at the end of the semester? Stay tuned.

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