When you look at the foodservice spectrum, school lunch and high-end catering have often been at opposite ends of the spectrum. But that is changing.
As foodservice directors increase the culinary bench strength of their teams, they’re finding that a well-developed catering program not only helps to pad the bottom line, but also showcases the varied skill sets of a school’s foodservice professionals.
“Catering helps us to fight the stereotype that we can’t do anything except reimbursable meals,” says Nancy Coughenour, Manager of Food Services at the Shawnee Mission (KS) School District (SMSD). “It’s almost serves as our PR department, allowing us to showcase out ability to be creative and to make beautiful, delicious dishes. Plus, it puts our program in front of customers from the community we might not otherwise touch.”
Small, But Mighty
Like many districts throughout the country, SMSD only caters events within the boundaries of its schools. That can be limiting, but what SMSD lacks in commercial reach, it makes up for in fiscal ingenuity.
“The state’s budget is tight,” says Coughenour, who has been with SMSD for six years. “Being able to keep those precious dollars within the district is important to our program and our schools. By offering catering, we can provide high quality food for all types of events at a much more reasonable cost than if a customer brought food in from outside. It’s a win for everyone.”
Always looking to build business, SMSD promotes its catering program as often as possible, leaning on word of mouth referrals and its website to draw in new business.
“Breakfasts and snacks seem to be the most popular meal occasions we cater,” says Coughenour, adding that the Food Services department has its own van that can be used to transport food for catering.
Operating under similar guidelines to those at SMSD, the Georgetown (TX) Independent School District (GISD) puts its catering program in front of as many potential customers as possible by hosting a catering fair every other year.
“We take over a room in one of our schools and set it up for three or four hours with all of our menus, some samples and mock displays,” says Karen Kovach, who started her career in Sodexo's corporate services division before transferring to its education. “The catering fair has been a successful marketing tool in growing the district’s catering program.”
GISD averages about 100 catered events a year. They vary in size and style, but include everything from a simple beverage service to a school grand opening, serving over 1,000 people, buffet style.
“The district sets some parameters in regards to catering,” she says. “They didn’t want the schools to be poaching potential business from members of the community, so we agreed to only cater events that are school related.”
According to Kovach, the bulk of the district’s catering comes out of its high schools. “We run each school with its own P&L,” she says. “When a catering request comes in, the manager at the school associated with the event is in charge of execution.”
Kovach and her assistant help wherever needed and are quick to pass on recognition and praise.
“Our staff doesn’t get a lot of kudos from customers, so when they prepare a beautiful event, we make sure our customers know the ‘lunch ladies’ are the ones who are responsible,” she adds.
Raising the Bar
Setting expectations—and then exceeding them—is part of the catering game. “You only get one chance to impress a client with your program and your food,” says Kovach.
GISD uses table charts to help with layout and food placement. Managers and cooks also refer to photos of dishes from past events to ensure that the product is uniform.
“Always remember that people eat with their eyes,” says LeeAnne Frame, Director of Food Services at William S. Hart School District (WSHSD), Santa Clarita, CA. Her district has seen an 29% increase in catering business over the past year.
“It’s important to start small and add. You don’t want to get in over your head when it comes to these kinds of events. Clients don’t forget and one unfortunate catering mishap can create a perception it takes months or years to correct.”
WSHSD offers everything from carving stations and high-end desserts to cookies and punch. “Catering brings in much needed extra revenue,” says Frame. “We are fortunate to have a number of Le Cordon Bleu trainer chefs on staff. The quality of their work and the presentation of the food wows our guests every time.”
“Pre-planning and knowing your client are critical,” says Betsy Horneffer, Chartwells Senior Director of Dining Services at the Metropolitan School District (MSD) of Pike Township, IN. “Every district is different. Every catered event is different. And every person wants something different. You have to know your client group and learn what they expect. Then do everything you can to exceed those expectations.”
Keeping everyone in the loop is especially critical in meeting client expectations. MSD holds weekly meetings with the management team to go over upcoming events. This helps to ensure that each team member knows what he or she is responsible for and to make sure nothing is missed.
“We cater board dinners, retirement dinners, cookouts, holiday parties, sports banquets, sports team meals, lunches and breakfasts for meetings, classroom parties, and third party groups who use MSD of Pike Township facilities—and everything in between,” says Horneffer.
“We have some events that are well over 700 people and others that might only be for five.”
In 2012, MSD added another steady catering gig to its calendar when it contracted with Chapel Hill Christian School, a small, nearby private school with about 80 students. “We do lunch, morning snack and after school snacks for them,” says Horneffer.
Building a Team
Like most schools, much of MSD’s catering takes place during normal business operations, so it can sometimes become a juggling act in terms of balancing a catering job and normal lunch production simultaneously.
Fortunately, MSD has a dedicated catering manager who spearheads events. “She handles the scheduling, ordering, prepping, service, clean up and follow up,” says Horneffer. “She also helps out throughout the district with chef’s tables, wellness fairs and any kitchen training we might have.”
At West Chester (PA) Area School District (WCASD), Executive Chef Jason Grimes organizes all aspects of the catering program, which generates about $70,000, servicing nearly 100 events annually. “Since our program isn’t very large, our chef is able to play a dual role with catering and as an Assistant Food Service Director,” says Cheryl Babey, Food Service Director.
Douglass County (CO) School District (DCSD) has its own dedicated catering manager, Kim Wolfrum, who runs events with the help of Nutrition Services Chef Jason Morse, CEC, and Director of Nutrition Services Brent Craig.
“Catering allows us to put a professional touch on our program,” explains Morse, whose background includes extensive volume catering in both country clubs and hotels.
“Before Chef Jason, there was a stigma that our catering program was just another way of doing school lunch,” says Craig. “When we brought him on, he quickly elevated the quality of the program.”
The first step, according to Morse, was to stop thinking like a school and to start thinking like a caterer. This meant developing a core-catering menu and elevating the professionalism of its services.
“For each catered event that comes in, we talk with the client and do the fact finding first,” says Morse. “From there, we can customize a menu, do tastings if needed, and nail down all the details to make the event a success.”
Keeping Business Booming
The second step in rebuilding DCSD’s catering business was to tap into new marketing channels and grow a steady business. “We have worked hard at becoming the natural choices for our schools,” says Morse.
To help stay top of mind, DCSD does regular sales blitzes, where Morse drops off freshly baked cookies or caramels to the staff at a school, along with printed catering menus.
“It’s been working,” says Craig. “Last year we did $114,000 in catering, but this year we’ll clear well over $150,000.”
Catering also extends the earning potential for some hourly employees. “If you’re a three hour staff member, catering allows you to pick up five or ten hours here and there,” says Craig.
To keep business flowing into the summer months in the districts of Medway (MA) Public Schools and Millis (MA) Public Schools (both are also Chartwells accounts), Elijah Norris, Director of Dining Services, prints cards and flyers toward the end of the year for parents looking for catering for graduation parties. Staff also goes to the town’s “Pride Day” celebration to raffle off coupons for the districts’ catering services.
“Having staff that is willing and able to assist with getting the extra sales through the program is really important,” says Norris. “There have been a few staff members who have the attitude that, “catering is not my job,” but the goal is to help them understand that without the extra revenue, the program as a whole would not be as strong.”
By offering catering year-round, The Burlington (VT) School Food Project (BSFP), which services the Burlington School District, is able to stay busy. So much so that currently, catering makes up 20% of its operating budget.
“We have offered catering for at least the last fifteen years, if not longer. As a service, it predates any one of us here,” says Maria Garrido, Production & Catering Coordinator.
BSFP provides catering for meetings, functions and events. Its menu reflects popular items, but, just like DSCD, the district is happy to work with clients on special requests.
“We’ve done everything from coffee for six to a 500 person weekend conference,” says Garrido adding that the district also has contracts for daily meals for the senior citizen community centers, Meals-On-Wheels and the local Boys & Girls Club.
In addition to the daily sites, BSFP caters between 10 and 15 events monthly.
“In order to successfully build a catering program, it’s important to have a plan for tracking orders through the process,” says Garrido. “You also need a good coordinator with experience in customer service and kitchen staff with experience in food presentation and buffet-style service.”
Catering for a Cause
Earlier this school year, Douglas County (CO) School District (DCSD) wanted to entice its students to consume more fruits and vegetables at lunch. They came up with a creative idea that sparked a little friendly competition between the district’s 74 schools.
“The school that consumed the most fruits and veggies per captia would win an all-expense paid luncheon feast hosted by Nutrition Services,” says Nutrition Services Director Brent Craig.
District-wide, students took the challenge seriously upping their consumption by leaps and bounds, but students at Cherokee Trail Elementary were unbeatable, earning the win—and the feast.
In early January, Nutrition Services prepared a catered meal for more than 750 guests who dined on Colorado Chopped Salad with Tomato Bacon Ranch Dressing, Artisan Dinner Rolls, Grilled Chicken with Sumac Herb Seasoning, Colorado Yukon Gold Potato Wedges, Oven Roasted Vegetable Medley, Pound Cake, Berries and Whipped Mascarpone Cheese.
“Not only are students eager to consume more fruits and veggies, but the feast was an excellent opportunity to test new recipes like roasted vegetables and grilled chicken,” says Morse. “One child pulled me aside and told me the potato wedges were 5,985,698 times better than normal french fries. Based on his review alone, I’d say it was a successful event.”