In the past two years, Amarillo ISD in Texas has achieved a meal participation increase of more than 22 percent in its high schools, as well as a 30.5 percent lift in a la carte sales and “overwhelmingly positive” customer feedback, thanks to an initiative called Amarillo Balance Kitchen.
The concept, custom designed for the district by foodservice provider Chartwells, operates in Amarillo ISD’s three high schools, which collectively enroll some 6,000 students. The retail-minded concept emphasizes health, wellness, balance and sustainability—all identified as priorities for the high school market in Amarillo—and is promoted through custom signage, messaging and digital signage throughout the cafe space and extended into other areas of the schools.
Given that high school students are traditionally more difficult to engage in the school café—they are social, highly mobile, highly connected and have high standards in their dining experience—the district and Chartwells knew that they needed to look beyond the traditional cafeteria approach to a retail-inspired, restaurant-quality dining experience with a philosophy students could believe in.
An opportunity to renovate the high school cafés came after the dining program accrued a fund balance surplus that allowed it to allocate $3.7 million to café aesthetics and equipment upgrades throughout all three high schools.
The brand-new Balance Kitchens, which debuted in fall 2014, highlight nutrition and sustainability and utilize restaurant-style serving stations—from delis to grills, exhibition stations to Latin flavors—that can easily be switched and customized according to the needs of different student populations while promoting customer engagement with the café.
In addition to the main serving area stations, each Balance Kitchen features a coffee/snack bar that brings a coffee shop experience to the café with freshly brewed coffee and baked goods and pastries made from scratch every day in the district’s own bakery. The coffee shops as well as the cafés serve as gathering and socialization spaces for students as well as places to get snacks and healthy meals.
Since the initial burst of enthusiasm, there was no fallback in student participation levels even as new menu items are infused into the program. Moreover, in addition to growing café sales, each high school is also seeing an increase in student selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains to support their classroom and afterschool performance.
“The ‘Balance Kitchen’ concepts…successfully transformed the high school dining environment by providing a more enticing and healthful experience for our students,” summarizes Amarillo ISD CFO Les Hoyt.