The new Center for Nutrition and Culinary Services (CNCS) complex that Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida opened in the summer of 2017 is not simply another central production facility, though it does turn out bulk-prepared meals for a dozen of the district’s smaller population schools.
However, that’s a small proportion of the total as the district, the nation’s seventh largest, still operates onsite meal production at 235 of its schools.
Rather, instead of simply consolidating all or most of district meal preparation as in a classic central kitchen model, the CNCS serves more as an additional revenue source for the meal program through a variety of services targeted at internal and external customers.
Among these are a street restaurant called the Silo Café and a fully formed in-house catering division that serves both district events and outside clients either in its own facilities or at external venues. The CNCS incorporates an event center space that can accommodate several hundred guests, plus a number of meeting rooms, any of which is available for rental by internal and external clients.
To serve external venues, the catering division can either deliver and set up, or the client can choose to pick up.
The CNCS’s catering business fluctuates by season, slowing down in mid-winter after the holidays, but overall it averages a little over half a dozen events a week, ranging from events involving over a thousand individuals to meetings of a dozen or less, says Mary Kay Harrison, general manager of the district’s Student Nutrition Services department, who adds that the numbers will soon be growing.
“I am at the point where I think we need to more actively market the event center,” she says. “At first I didn’t want to market it really heavily because I had to get the [Silo] café up and running and I wanted people’s energies devoted to that and the central kitchen. But now we’re at a point where we have developed a nice brochure and packet of material—sort of like a hotel—that we can show people.”
Most of the catering to date has involved district-related functions, but not exclusively, as the CNCS catering operation builds a clientele. Indeed, on the day FM spoke to Harrison, a food broker had rented the facility’s demo kitchen area.
“The Hunger Coalition had a three-day conference here,” Harrison adds, “and a local construction company has used it twice. Also, Head Start and Title One do things for parents here, we’ve had a state foodservice meeting here and will be hosting major city meeting for Institute of Child Nutrition in April.”
The catering team, which consists of a dedicated core group of four individuals that includes a certified executive chef and a baker, can turn out anything from simple sandwich trays and hot options like taco and pasta bars to customized menus, such as it developed for various holiday parties it put on toward the end of last year, with seasonal treats ranging from holiday turkey, ham and sides to sweet treats made by the CNCS’s in-house bakery operation.
Taking the show on the road is no problem, even for large events. For example, the team catered an event in nearby Ybor City for 500 attendees of an Association of Architects conference recently and delivered food to school functions involving more than 1,500 guests all over the district.
Meanwhile, Silo Café is growing a regular clientele for its breakfast and lunch service from among the some 3,500 people who work in the business park in which the CNCS is located, and where Silo is the only foodservice outlet. The eatery currently averages about $1,500 a day in revenues, operating from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays.
The onsite clientele and word of mouth are critical in building business, Harrison observes.
“We’re at end of the office park and the café faces away from main road,” she explains, “so we have a bit of a challenge” marketing it.
However, being the only foodservice outlet in the complex—the closest other options involve driving through a rather busy part of Tampa—gives Silo a competitive advantage, Harrison adds, noting that the business park has now even begun touting the café as an amenity for potential tenants, in effect putting Harrison’s department into the B&I foodservice business.
The Silo’s menu includes a traditional array of hot and cold sandwiches, salads, grilled items and baked goods, plus daily specials. One recent big hit has been a daily keto carb-free special offering that is designed to appeal to post-holiday dieters following the low-carb keto diet regimen.
“We sell out every day, so that’s helping draw people,” Harrison says.
Another draw is the café’s online order option. “We get a lot of those, even from this office,” Harrison observes. The CNCS houses the administrative offices of the Hillsborough County Schools Student Nutrition Services department.
In addition to operating school nutrition, catering and B&I businesses, the CNCS also lets Hillsborough County Student Nutrition Services operate as a foodservice contractor as the complex provides meals for area Boys and Girls clubs, a YMCA and a number of charter and private schools, and Harrison is looking to build up more business in areas like meals for seniors.
Thanks to the capacities of the CNCS, Harrison’s department also now has a contract with the Red Cross to provide up to 20,000 shelf-stable meals a day during emergencies, and in the summer, it supplies meals to the county for its summer meals program for children.
The in-house business is expected to grow somewhat in the coming year as well as Harrison plans to expand the CNCS’s meal service to 10 additional Hillsborough County school sites, primarily smaller-population schools. Like the dozen schools already being supplied by the CNCS, these sites—primarily smaller elementary schools—would operate only finishing kitchens requiring less expert manpower.
“The long and short of it is that I don’t think we’re ever going to find enough skilled staff, including managers, to put in all these schools,” Harrison explains. “We are getting more managers with college degrees now and to put them in a school with just 400 kids wastes their skills.”