The COVID-19 pandemic forced dining service operators in all segments to adjust, but what was unique for the K-12 market was that operators had an obligation to continue feeding customers even though they were no longer on school premises. That meant providers had to develop new ways to offer meals, which in themselves had to be adjusted to being served outside cafeterias.
One of the most effective providers taking up this challenge over the past year has been Southwest Foodservice Excellence (SFE), an FM Top 50 firm that was among only a handful of companies on the list to post an increase in the past year.
SFE serves only K-12 schools and is the largest contract services operator in the school market outside the “Big Three” of Compass Group, Sodexo and Aramark, with operations in 15 states and 165 school districts, including Atlanta Public Schools. The focus on the single market helped the company make a quick pivot when the pandemic struck in March 2020 to altering its operations, says Sara Murphy, vice president of marketing & communications.
“SFE never missed a day of service heading into the pandemic shutdown,” she notes proudly. “We did not wait for states to interpret waivers. Districts look to us to provide direction and we took that as an opportunity to do the right thing first, which was to keep students fed.”
Once districts began shutting schools and sending students home, the company immediately developed processes to modify menus and service models to meet evolving feeding needs and distribute meals—initially through curbside pickup at school sites but, as it became clear that the pandemic closures would extend beyond a few weeks, distribution was expanded to local parks and community centers and even to homes through reverse bus routes, with SFE staff riding alongside district transportation teams to deliver meals to neighborhood pickup sites and to students’ front doors.
“We were doing the [expanded distribution] before the school year even ended and before we had clear guidance on waivers because districts wanted to do the right thing,” notes Chris Odom, the company’s vice president for strategic solutions. “The majority of our [focus] early on was just on safety in general—keeping our employees safe and making sure our meals were safe. We hadn’t yet begun in those first couple weeks to realize that this was going to go on for 15 months!”
The company also partnered with their client districts to expand meal options to include dinner, weekend and holiday meals and has helped them earn over $3.5 million in grant funding to purchase new equipment, service supplies and additional fruit and vegetable varieties. SFE also launched a mobile ordering solution called SFE To Go that allows for contactless ordering, pickup or delivery.
“Our success is directly related to our passionate, dedicated team members whose experience serving K-12 students has allowed us to be innovative and highly adaptable while still offering the great tasting, from-scratch and healthy meals our partners have come to expect from SFE,” offers CEO Monty Staggs.
Serving kids near and far
In the current 2020-21 school year, with client districts using various approaches ranging from in-person and 100% remote to hybrid in-person/remote instruction, SFE has developed feeding models that keep in-school student fed safely with strategies like meals-in-the-classroom and scattered kiosks and points of service while continuing to refine its offerings to serve remote learners.
Menu development hasn’t suffered either and the company has remained committed to using as many fresh, wholesome ingredients as possible while continuing to roll out new menu items such as a hand pressed, fresh Angus Beef burger and Tangy BBQ and Spicy Buffalo Chicken Sandwiches. Pre-pandemic, SFE was noted for the wide range of branded cuisine concepts—over three dozen at last count—it could offer school clients based on their preferences. These branded concepts extend over a wide range of cuisines, from Caribbean (Hey Mon), Hawaiian (Ono) and Thai (Good Pho You) to barbecue (Smoke House BBQ), salads (Gourmet Greens), hot dogs (The Dog House), breakfast specialties (Flapjack’s Pancakes), various regional American traditions (Creole’s Cookery, Philly Steak) and unusual—at least for K-12—offerings like Quiche Lorraine and Bento Box.
“One of the key reasons we have so many different restaurant-style concepts is because there is a large variety of taste buds and preferences across the country, so we’re able to implement a handful in each individual district that truly customizes it to their program and their likes and dislikes,” Odom offers. “Going into full unitized meals, weekend meals, full meal kits, community feeding and things like that, we were still able to keep somewhat of a variety. Certainly, we had to serve meals in way where there wasn’t a ‘daily selection’ for each meal but there was certainly variety throughout the seven-day period.”
Of course, because of its wide range of geographic coverage, SFE had to deal with a variety of state and local restrictions, mandates and policies governing meals and meal distribution, and it has with help from its internal resources, Murphy says.
“One of our strengths is having a robust team of registered dietitians, and one of the capacities in which they help is by being compliance experts to keep us on track with each state’s interpretation of the regulations and let us keep track of the changes over time. That in turn helps us keep our clients and partners informed on what potential changes are coming down the pike and adjust as we need to.”
Photo: Visually appealing chicken wings are among student favorite selections offered on SFE culinary concept menus. The company offers over three dozen concepts.
For its employees, which had to continue serving customers in spite of the pandemic’s dangers, SFE in addition to its standard safety protocols immediately required mandatory temperature checks and health screenings for all associates and established mask and social distancing policies. It also honored frontline associates with a HERO Bonus in recognition of their hard work and commitment to nourishing students throughout the pandemic and allowed all team members to roll over unused PTO from this year as many had plans or trips cancelled due to the pandemic or chose to stay and support their community and team by working.
Crisis brings innovation
A couple of SFE initiatives over the past year particularly stand out. They include the SFE To Go mobile order platform, which was “an innovative item that we had slowly been working on over the last couple years just to find the right place for it in traditional K-12 service, such as offering high school students a mobile pickup spot to ‘jump the line’, as it were, and to allow teachers to get almost their full 30 minutes back,” Odom explains. “We quickly realized that it was probably one of our keys for success for this entire school year, to have mobile order in schools to allow students to order breakfast and lunch for the classroom. It also served in some of our mobile hot spots for community feeding where [families] can come up and pick up their meal kits for the week and also for teachers, many of whom were absolutely exhausted by the end of the day. For them, we were able to scale it up to teacher family meals to go, so we were able to deliver to teachers via the mobile app a meal for four, six or eight depending on their family size.”
SFE To Go had been in a few districts previously “but just exploded into one of our key tools for success this year,” Odom adds.
Another key initiative is Roving Chefs At Home, which is an adaptation of a pre-pandemic chef demo program that brought SFE culinarians to schools where they chef would bring a collection of ingredients and create a meal with a group of about a dozen students from the school. The meal would then be one of the highlighted entrees that day in the lunchroom.
When the pandemic hit and “we realized that waivers allowed us to provide multiple days of meal kits to send out, we had to put some [loose] ingredients in the boxes to get it done relatively quickly with the limited resources we had,” Odom explains. “[That meant] we had to tell families how to put them together, and that’s where we came up with the idea to use our roving chef program. We insert recipe cards into these boxes and in some instances also post an actual ‘How to Cook It’ video on the school’s YouTube or Facebook page, with the chefs preparing the meal and letting the parents see it and follow along to create that breakfast, lunch or dinner.”
Initiatives like Roving Chefs At Home have been too successful to give up quickly, notes Ivan Mothershead, SFE’s vice president of corporate development.
Photo: A high-tech hot food vending unit, one of the expanded array of meal and a la carte service options SFE is planning for the 2021-22 school year.
“Given the waiver extensions through next year, there’s definitely a world where we could be doing both our traditional bread-and-butter [operations] but also continue these programs,” he says. “One hope would be that schools realize the benefit of bringing from-scratch—in a sense—food out of school and into the homes, and what that brings to the community and their students.”
“We have decided to focus on food service within the K-12 market in SFE and healthy home delivered meals through our Home Style Direct investment because we recognize that these areas have the most impact on communities and also represent a significant opportunity for growth,” adds Brian Poplin, operating investor in SFE owner Harkness Capital Partners and executive chairman of SFE Holdings.
Looking ahead to next fall, when most assume (hope?) that most kids will be back in school, SFE is confident that its experience over the past year and a half and the professionalism of its teams will allow it to ramp up to serve appealing meals efficiently and safely to what is generally expected to be expanded in-school populations, says Murphy.
“Our front-line folks have pivoted day after day throughout this past year and I think that gives us a great level of confidence going into next year regardless of what individual schools or districts decide,” Murphy says. “We know we have the capacity to help them through the next stage of getting back to quote-unquote ‘normal’ because of the teams we have on the ground.”
To meet the challenge of appealing to kids who have spent the past year-plus with more expansive food options from commercial sources than they would in a typical school year, SFE is planning to gear up more special menus and service styles that it hopes will add some excitement to lunchtime.
“We’ve spent a lot of our time thinking about how we make next year exciting for students as they come back,” Murphy observes. “They have the memory from a year ago of what school lunch was, so how do you look forward and get those from-scratch meals and great-tasting flavors back on their plates in a fun way. We really want to get them back excited by the experience.”
She mentions food trucks and food trailers, smokers, barbecue grills, coffee shops, kiosks for remote meal pickup and also c-stores dispensing both reimbursable meals and a la carte options s additions to school meal programs to both offer service flexibility and add excitement.
“One of the great advantages of these alternative points of service is their innate ability to spread students out, so it’s automatic social distancing because it gets kids to go to different areas of the school and so helps promote a more safe environment while also giving them a fun experience, something a little more retail-focused like they see outside,” she adds.
The company is also looking to stretch the boundaries of the kind of technology deployed in K-12 meal service, not just with the SFE To Go mobile order option but with “mobile-kiosks-slash-vending-machines that you can pre-order to, and then simply walk up to it and either swipe your payment method or use the app, put in your PIN and your meal comes out,” Odom explains. Unlike traditional school meal vending units that offer a pre-set selection of items, these potentially have a customization component.
Odom adds that with the waiver extension, SFE is strategizing on using the units to dispense reimbursable meals “but in order for us to make it fun and innovative into the future, there will definitely have to be some a la carte type items.”
As examples, he cites a frozen yogurt dispensing unit that lets students get several yogurt flavors with customized toppings, as well as another one that dispenses both hot and cold choices ranging from burger and fries to salads and wraps, “so it gives us a ton of flexibility in menu planning,” In addition to the customization, the units also add visual flair. For instance, such as with the yogurt dispenser, which lets the customer watch the order being prepared by the robotic unit.