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Ciabatta_Sams.jpg Whitsons Culinary Group
The Ciabatta Sams concept features sandwiches made fresh daily and served on Ciabatta bread.

Best Concepts: Whitsons Pop Ups build K-12 participation and buzz

Whitsons Culinary Group has been named winner of the 2022 FM Best Concept Award in the Best Management Company Concept category for its Pop Up Shops.

The challenges facing K-12 nutrition programs this fall will range from dealing with the end of the pandemic era’s emergency universal free meal program to managing supply chain, labor and food cost issues, all while trying to gauge the food preferences that will encourage meal program participation. In recent years, as the availability of new and exciting meal options along with demand for nutritious menus loaded with authentic and diverse food choices have risen, school districts have sought dependable solutions to driving engagement and participation that are fiscally and operationally viable.

Whitsons’ Pop-up Shops, originally introduced at the start of the 2021-22 school year with the Yard Bird chicken sandwich concept, has provided an ideal opportunity to showcase emerging and favorite trends in a flexible format that can accommodate altered service models and expand points of service while significantly increasing meal participation—even during a pandemic. The key is generating a lot of excitement in a short period of time while keeping menu offerings fresh and enticing. Simply put, Pop Up Shops build a sense of anticipation and demand by offering something the students can’t get every day.

Whitsons Culinary GroupCiabatta_Sams_Close_Up.jpg

A close-up view of a Ciabatta Sams Tuscany Griller selection.

The current selection of concept themes is a roster of proven kid favorites. They include…

• Yard Bird, menuing Yard Bird Classic Crispy Sandwich and Yard Bird Classic Grilled Sandwich with pickle chips, dipping on a brioche bun;

• Sabrosos Tacos, serving authentic food truck-style tacos like the Sabrosos Classic, Braised Tofu, Jammin Pork, Tropical Chicken, Cajun Fish and Classic Beef with Pickled Cabbage;

• Wing Shack, serving wings with flavors ranging from Honey BBQ, Buffalo and Honey Sriracha to Wing Shack Thai and Wing Shack Original; 

• Incredibowls, featuring choose your own (brown or white) rice, protein, vegetable and sauce creations in a bowl; and 

• Chibatta Sams, serving sandwiches made fresh daily and served on Ciabatta bread, with selections including Neptunes Fish and Chips Sandwich, Country Turkey Megan and The Tuscany Griller.

Wing_Shack.jpgPhoto credit: Whitsons Culinary Group

Photo: Pop-Up Shops Wing Shack concept serves wings with flavors ranging from Honey BBQ, Buffalo and Honey Sriracha to Wing Shack Thai and Wing Shack Original.

Advance promotion builds a buzz and awareness of the programs, with Pop-up Shops designed to mimic an outside vendor, and all signage looking unique and different from traditional Whitsons branded themes. Advertisements are also typically placed at the school’s entrance the day of the event to draw attention to the special offerings, as well as in key areas within the school and cafeteria, to make sure students know that something exciting is going on. The look and aroma emanating from the station then do the rest of the promotional work as students approach.

Data Whitsons collected and analyzed data from the start of the 2021 school year through the end of December 2021 show a 7% Increase in overall participation, a 14% increase in average daily participation and a 59% Pop Up Shop engagement ratio (i.e., the percentage of meal participants choosing the Pop Up Shop option vs. other options available). In addition, the company notes that average daily participation jumped 29% when it was paired with a Whitsons Chef Trek guest chef appearance in locations that don’t always have a dedicated district chef on site.

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