When Paul Becker asked the students of Fort Zumwalt East High School what food and nutrition changes they’d like to see on the Saint Peters, Mo.-based campus, their answer was a little unexpected. Instead of requesting a vending machine or new lunch menu options, they asked for a coffee bar.
“We conducted a few focus groups. We asked the students, if they had a magic wand and could add something to their school in the area of food and nutrition, what would it be?” explains Becker, Fort Zumwalt School District’s director of nutrition services. “A few students mentioned a school-based coffee shop.”
And so, Becker and Assistant Director of Nutrition Services Beth Stevens got to work. They began by visiting standalone coffee shops in the area for menu inspiration and even went through barista training to learn more about coffee and drink prep. After a year and a half of planning and development, East Side Espresso opened at the start of the 2018-2019 school year.
Becker and Stevens knew a coffee bar wouldn’t be the real deal unless it offered great espresso. So they decided to invest in a top-of-the-line espresso machine and coffee bean grinder. “That was the most expensive piece of equipment,” Becker says. “Beth and I agreed that a successful coffee shop needs an excellent crema in an espresso shot, which is an indication of quality.” Having the machine meant that East Side Espresso could offer the same kinds of drinks that customers would find at coffee shops off campus, like hot or iced cappuccinos, lattes and Americanos in a variety of flavors. And just like at other coffee shops, the drinks are made to order.
But coffee drinks aren’t all that’s on the menu. Students looking for something more substantial can opt for made-to-order smoothies in flavors like strawberry, blueberry and peach. Knowing the blended drinks would be popular, Becker and Stevens purchased a heavy-duty commercial blender. (They also got a sound barrier to keep the loud noise from being disruptive.) There are plenty of snacks available, too, including sandwiches, Kind bars, cheese sticks, muffins, beef jerky, fruit or vegetable cups, mini bagels, yogurt parfaits, donuts and fresh-baked cookies. Students can also purchase bottled water or Crystal Lite. An LCD television with rolling screens lists the menu items and rotating drink flavor options.
As for the prices? They’re a bargain compared to most other coffee shops. “The markups aren’t that different from the cafeteria,” Becker says. Coffee drinks and smoothies range from $1.35 to $3. Sandwiches cost $2.35, and snacks are between 60 cents and $2.
East Side Espresso is only open for two hours per day, during the school’s breakfast and lunch hours. But instead of diverting existing cafeteria employees to run the operation, Becker and Stevens hired staffers just for the coffee bar. “The positions were critical to the success of the operation,” he says. Having dedicated café staff meant that East Side Espresso could serve more than just students. “We also provide delivery service for teachers after breakfast,” Becker says. Faculty can email their orders to the barista, who’ll bring the completed order right to the classroom.
Despite the extensive menu, food and drink wasn’t the top challenge Becker and Stevens faced. It was finding the right location. “Our biggest obstacle was accessing water and sewer,” Becker says. “The building principal, superintendent and director of facilities were all involved.” The group was ultimately able to find a spot in the cafeteria, making it easy for students to swing by during breakfast or lunch.
Since the coffee bar was originally a student suggestion, it might not come as much surprise that East Side Espresso has been a hit. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Students take great pride in their coffee shop,” Becker says. Iced lattes and strawberry smoothies have been some of the most popular sellers so far, though Becker and his team continue to hold student tastings to test new menu items.
There have been extra perks, too. Having a coffee bar motivates some students to be on time in the morning. “Students have mentioned that it’s one of their driving forces to get to school, see the barista staff and order their usual,” Becker adds. Word has even gotten out around town. “It’s so popular that middle school students voice their excitement to attend high school and get their coffee fix,” he says.