Savvy in Seminole

Savvy in Seminole

AT A GLANCE

Daniel J. Andrews, Director of Foodservices
Annual budget:
$21 million
Meals per day:
57,000 (includes breakfasts, lunches, a la carte equivalents)
No. of sites: 63
No. of employees:
700
Enrollment:
67,000
Percent free & reduced:
30%


COMMERCIAL APPEAL. A pioneer in developing high school food courts, Andrews aims to provide a recognizable, commercial look and atmosphere for students.

STEP-BY-STEP. Meticulous methods produce Gianni's, the district's popular, signature pizza.

NEVER SATISFIED. Andrews' philosophy—"change is necessary"—drives a continual introduction of new foods, products and marketing techniques.


The local sheriff was stumped. He remembered the name of that delicious pizza he'd enjoyed during a recent juvenile justice seminar— Gianni's, the logo had appeared on the cardboard delivery boxes—but when he tried looking for it in the phone book, he found no such listing. That's because, as further investigation revealed, the pizza had come from the kitchens of Daniel Andrews's nutrition department at Seminole County Public Schools. As foodservice provider for the juvenile facility, Andrews had sent over some of his department's own, self-branded pizza when he heard about the seminar.

It's no surprise the sheriff mistook Gianni's for a commercial brand. Andrews and his foodservice team spent about two years before they "really came up with a good formulation." The signature pizza then proceeded to obliterate the last remaining franchise pizza brands that had been in place in the program.

"Even our students still don't know Gianni's is school pizza," Andrews notes with pride. And that's just what he's aiming for.

The mission
When he signed on at Seminole as Area Manager 17 years ago, Andrews brought along two decades of experience on the commercial foodservice side (working for catering, restaurant and fast food companies). Within five years of his arrival, the director's position opened up, and Andrews nabbed the spot.

"One thing that spurred me on was the desire to take my years of working in industry and apply it to a district setting," he says. "I wanted to be able to operate school foodservice as if it were a restaurant chain, where customer service means the same flavor profiles at every site; where you don't serve foods customers don't recognize, but foods that customers really want."

In fact, Andrews has found, a general "lack of understanding of school foodservice as a business" continues to plague many districts, and he feels a root of the problem is frequently reflected in many of the programs'-mission statements. "On some schools' websites, 'to serve nutritious meals' is listed as the foodservice mission statement," he remarks. "Well, that's a basic rule—according to the USDA guidelines, you have to do that. It's like saying a football team's mission is to stay in bounds. Our mission is broader—it is to build a quality establishment, serve as many nutritious meals as possible, and support the school district."

To make sure he's following USDA rules, Andrews employs two upper management team members with masters' degrees in food and nutrition who plan the menus and ensure all meals meet or exceed requirements. But to make sure he's serving as many meals as possible, Andrews and his team finely hone and carefully market those menu offerings.

"I wanted to be able to operate school
foodservice as if it were a restaurant chain."

And they seek to ensure that those meals are prepared in ways that are in sync with what kids of today want. "You don't see shepherd's pie and 'mystery meat' meals in commercial foodservice. So kids don't want to eat offerings like that," he maintains.

There's also very little scratch cooking done at the district (most of the scratchprep foods appear on the adult food lines). "That way, we don't have people adding to recipes or leaving out ingredients, and menus are consistent among all the locations."

But it's not a matter of buying pre-made meals, either. Every single product used on the menu is scrupulously taste-tested with students until the ideal flavor is found. Gianni's pizza, for instance, uses a frozen, selfrising crust that's reformulated by a company just for Seminole schools. A "high quality" pizza sauce, 100 percent mozzarella, and "name brand" pepperoni go into making the meat version of the pizza, and kitchen staff at each site have specific, step-by-step instructions on how many ounces of sauce to use, just how to grate the cheese, exactly what temperature to set the ovens, and precisely when to turn the pizzas.

At one time, the district produced its own spaghetti, but no longer. "We found a sauce that tastes better to the kids, so we use it, along with all-semolina pasta and purchased meatballs that have just the flavor they're looking for," Andrews says.

Chefs salads, wraps, sandwich platters, Mexican selections, burgers, a full line of Gianni's Italian specialties, Phat Foods (the district's organic, vegetarian concept) and more are all assembled in site kitchens according to strict guidelines.

Using industry parlance and presentations—value meals, brands, logoed deli papers, black-bottom, plastic salad bowls with clear lids—Andrews conveys to students that they're getting what he distinctly differentiates as "foodservice in a school setting, not school foodservice."

Building the business
And the approach works. With "about 78 percent market penetration," the lunch program has seen counts consistently rise over the years. According to Andrews, between the 1998/99 and 2003/04 school years, total high school reimbursable meals, for instance, grew 174 percent. Paid high school lunches increased 367 percent in the same time period.

The results back another of his philosophies: "If a paying customer will not buy the food, then we are not doing justice to our free-and-reduced price customers."

In fact, to ensure that free-and-reduced students were getting the same foodservice experience as paying ones, Andrews was an early proponent of eliminating separate lines for free-and-reduced plan students.

Back in 1994, he began offering all foods— both a la carte and reimbursable meals—on the same lines. He then introduced a payment system in which all students have an account with the foodservice department, along with their own, personal PIN number, ensuring financial privacy (i.e., no one can see if one student pays less than another).

For the final piece in creating an equal playing field, Andrews took the most popular a la carte foods and wrapped them into "value meals," complete with all the components (fruit, milk, vegetables, etc.) to qualify as reimbursable meals. Attractively priced ($2.00 to $2.75), tagged with the familiar "value meal" name from fast food lingo, and full of students' favorite menu items, those reimbursable meals suddenly turned into hot ticket items.

Attractively priced, tagged with the familiar "value meal" name
from fast food lingo, and full of students' favorite menu items,
those reimbursable meals suddenly turned into hot ticket items.

Knowing a good thing when he sees it, Andrews continues in that vein, bundling up as new value meals all the up-andcoming a la carte best sellers. "The use of a la carte status gives credibility to new items in the eyes of the customer," he explains in his department's business report. Thus, "inclusion of these items into a value meal then exceeds expectation."

Plus, he notes, "The more paying kids walking out with value meals, the more freeandreduced-priced students will take them. That helps control inventory, reduces food costs, and builds business—it's the way industry works."

Declaring that change is not only good, but necessary, Andrews continually looks for new menu items and new trends that will appeal to his customers. In an average year, high school students may experience 15 to 20 new products added to the menu; middle school and elementary students about half that number. In recent years, for example, high school students have been treated to sushi, a line of vended organic meals, and flatbreads with fire-roasted veggies, buffalo chicken or turkey and bacon toppings.

Last school year, the department began its Provision II breakfast program; that is, breakfast at no charge for all students. As word got out and the department began marketing the program, participation soared, with counts up 300 percent this year. "We went from serving 4,000 breakfasts the first year to over 13,000 now, and hope to increase that to between 16,000 and 20,000 breakfasts by the end of the year," Andrews says.

He's made it especially easy for his customers: no registration required—they can just show up and eat. Their two menu choices daily range from cereal, French toast, and omelets with potatoes to bagels with cream cheese, breakfast pizzas and chicken biscuits.

Remote carts at the secondary level catch additional customers. Andrews' formula for staffing them goes like this: if a

cart brings in between $250 to $300 daily, two employees operate it; if it rounds up $200 in sales, one person suffices; and if it can't reach the $200 mark, it gets pulled and placed elsewhere. "The remote carts bring in about $54,000 a year; it's a nice chunk of revenue," he says.

Targeting adult customers also figures into the department plan, so each site offers separate adult lunch lines, including rotating bars and a selection of some scratchmade entrees. "It's almost harder to attract adults than it is kids," Andrews admits, "but we noticed long ago, especially at the elementary level, that if teachers were eating, then kids would stop bringing their bags and start eating school lunch."

Catering, a "small but important" part of the budget, brings in $350,000 to $400,000 annually and allows staff the opportunity to get creative and do higher-end food production.

"If a paying customer will not buy the food,
then we are not doing justice to our free and reduced price customers."

Stars, plowhorses and puzzles
Fully computerized since 1994, the department accesses daily reports on each item sold. Andrews considers this data the equivalent of a daily student survey, "since a purchase of a particular item is a vote for that item." The system, along with his team's regular analysis of the data, allows the department to stay on top of customer preferences, popular/unpopular choices, seasonal trends and the sales mix.

But it goes even deeper than that. The management team classifies every single menu item into one of four categories, so it's easier to determine the steps needed to rectify any negative sales situation and continue the positive ones.

For example, all menu items dubbed "stars" (those that are both popular and profitable) are carefully maintained through consistency of preparation, branding and highprofile signage. "Plowhorses," items deemed not profitable but popular, get tested for demand, then repackaged or repositioned, possibly by combining them with lower cost items as a plate or value meal. "Puzzles," items that are profitable but not popular, undergo increased marketing efforts, promotions and suggestive selling. Management may decide to decrease the selling price to add additional value to "puzzles." And finally, the self-explanatory "dogs," items that are neither profitable nor popular, must submit to recipe revision, rotation or, ultimately, removal from the menu.

Andrews is also keenly aware that on occasion, the best marketing technique is doing nothing: "Sometimes, we have to take a look at putting out an item or concept and not marketing it; sometimes, students respond when things aren't pushed into their face."

Payback
When Andrews states that part of his department's mission is "to support the school district," he's not just paying lip service to the notion. He means it literally, with cash.

"Some foodservices may sit with $2 to $3 million in their fund balance, but meanwhile,-the school boards are strapped for money," he explains. "All that money just sitting there is not really supporting the district."

So when Andrews took the director's reins, one of the first things his department did was to start paying for their own electricity. Now, foodservices also foots the bill for its custodial expenditures and its own workers' compensation costs (which, according to Andrews, are higher than the rest of the district's).

"We now pay $1.65 million in district costs out of a $21 million budget," he reports.

Operational maneuvers
No one runs a foodservice department like a business without implementing serious cost controls. Some of Andrews' attempts in this regard include:

  • Closing the central warehouse 11 years ago to reduce equipment and labor costs, saving $150,000 - $200,000 per year. (Each site kitchen now receives its own deliveries.)
  • Designing a minimum staffing formula for each school based upon providing good customer service, which ultimately eliminated the satellite system.
  • Developing a new staffing system, making use of staffing agencies, resulting in $1.7 million savings in the 2002/03 school year (see sidebar for more details).
  • Instituting a manager specialist program that allows for decreasing the variance in purchased food costs, saving 3% annually.
  • Minimizing the yearly cost of equipment from $387,000 in school year 1997/98 to an average of $225,000 for the following five years through new guidelines for equipment purchases and maintenance.
  • Increasing cash reserves and interest earned by implementing inventory control to allow for "just-in-time" deliveries of food and paper products.
  • Implementing technology with speedy reporting functions that allow reimbursable funds to be sent by wire transfer, increasing cash flow and interest earned.

Because menu consistency is of paramount concern at Seminole, Andrews won't agree to the open-ended "or equal" clause common in bids (the phrase is often added to a product description, allowing distributors to deliver a different brand considered "equal" to one specified in the bid).

Instead, he taste-tests with students all the brands and products a particular distributor would consider equal. "If the students decide two or three products are 'equal,' then we will allow for those specific substitutions, but sometimes they only want one brand; it's the only one that fits the flavor profile they've identified," Andrews explains. Thus, he bids exclusively on products that have been taste tested. "It's more logical and yields better prices with fewer bid protests to test and decide [yourself]," he adds.

Management secrets
But what really keeps Seminole foodservices running like a well-oiled machine are the management team and personnel practices Andrews put in place.

Three top management professionals assist him in administering the department, and his goal is to soon have things functioning "like there were four directors all working together."

On paper, responsibilities are divided up as Andrews loosely monitoring operations and handling the financial end and external environment (school boards, legislation, etc.); Linda Daniels, Assistant Director, in charge of day-to-day operations; Jonathan Dickl, Coordinator of Operations, assisting Daniels; and Chad Wilsky, Coordinator of Special Programs, handling menus, purchasing, Head Start and Title I programs.

"If the students decide two or three products are 'equal,'
then we will allow for those specific substitutions, but sometimes
they only want one brand; it's the only one that fits the flavor profile they've identified."

"But after the first year with this team, responsibilities have almost blended," Andrews says, who makes sure each team member gets a chance to experience and perform the full range of directorial duties.

"Of course, they must (and do) buy into the philosophy and vision for the program, but structuring the management team this way makes for a better working environment, and enables us to hold on to great people longer because they're allowed to grow," he explains.

Just below Andrews and his top level team, a group of eight "foodservice manager specialists" make sure the department's daily functions operate smoothly. About ten years ago, Andrews and Daniels got the idea to pull eight of their top managers out of the field to specialize in certain areas and share that knowledge and training with site managers.

One such specialist is in charge of cashiering, and her exclusive domain is to "go around and train cashiers," Andrews notes. Another is the food cost specialist, who meets with site managers who exhibit too high or even too low food costs. Three product and presentation specialists roam the various sites, making sure staff knows how to properly and consistently present meals. And two other specialists spend their time training site managers in inventory and purchasing procedures.

As Andrews notes, "With 80 to 85 managers in the field, we can't do one to two days of training a year; it has to be ongoing, and that's what these eight specialists provide. When we started this program, there was a marked difference right away in consistency, participation and attitudes at the school level."

Andrews isn't content to rest on his laurels, however. Although he acknowledges that his greatest accomplishment is probably "building a program and designing it so that it's successful," in the next breath, he adds, "but we're constantly looking out for how to redesign the program."FM

GIANNI ON THE SPOT

Andrews and his foodservice team were pioneers in implementing a number of school foodservice menu and management innovations:

1994/95: Developed in-house branded, signature pizza and subsequent Italian food concept, Gianni's.
1994/95: Eliminated separate free & reduced lunch lines at all secondary schools, and established PIN numbers for students.
1994/95: Began offering whole fruit daily on the lunch lines.
1994/95: Unveiled food courts at high schools.
1995/96: Introduced pre-made entree salads.
1996/97: Offered credit card payments for school lunch.
1997/98: Introduced estate coffee.
2001/02: Began program to accept web-based credit card payments.
2002/03: Eliminated whole milk as an offering, in order to reduce students' fat intake.
2002/03: Added sushi to the menu mix.
2003/04: Introduced line of organic vended meals at high schools.


The Labor Issue: An Alternative Solution

In the late 1990's, an unemployment rate of 2.4 to 2.5 percent in the Orlando area created a crisis in the pool of prospective employees for Seminole County Public Schools' foodservices department. (Disney, Universal and SeaWorld were offering signing bonuses at the time, according to Foodservice Director Dan Andrews).

With over a hundred vacancies and multiple employees taking sick time daily,Andrews turned to a staffing agency to fill the open positions. In the first year alone, he reports, the department saved $97,000 in labor expenditures. By the 2002/03 school year, using staffing agencies "strategically," Andrews was able to save the department $1.7 million in labor costs.

As his business statement emphasizes,"The strategic use of staffing agencies does not mean that we do not hire into the contracted ranks, but it does mean that we became very selective as to the qualifications and talents of those that we did hire. Nor do we forcibly vacate any positions to replace them with staffing agency personnel."

Using agencies to fill most non-managerial vacancies as they occur,Andrews negotiated with three companies to fill positions. He notes,"We created the areas for the staffing agencies by dividing the vacancies equally.The agreement with them was that they would have two weeks to fill a slot and then the slot would be opened to the other staffing agencies."

Currently, about half of Seminole's non-managerial foodservice staff is comprised of employees hired by the staffing agencies. Many of them have consistently worked at Seminole for several years running, but simply get paid by the agencies, not the department.

After a period of time, the staffing agencies offer benefits to the workers,Andrews adds.

"This system allows us better control over our labor costs, and it's a distinct advantage that contract management companies have over self-operated districts," he explains.

For staffers who work part-time, the agencies fill out their extra hours for them, and also provide placement in the summer and during school vacations.