As coronavirus-imposed restrictions face school meal programs, concerns are being raised about how those programs can continue to offer kid-friendly service when cafeterias will be prohibited from offering self-serve, and social distancing combined with time limits will restrict meal customization.
One possible solution lies with preordering, which would allow school meal programs to offer made-to-order service to students in a grab-and-go format that can accommodate social distancing requirements. Such a system was piloted this past January and February—that is, before the COVID crisis—by a company called Wholesome Food Service (WFS) at a major Denver area public school district’s high school, where students were able to preorder meals from the school’s kitchen for later pickup.
For most of its decade-long history, WFS had been providing dining services to a clientele consisting of private and charter schools. Currently, it serves 54 schools and some 16,000 students.
Its traditional operating model uses local commercial restaurants that contract with WFS and the school to allow students or their parents to preorder meals from an online menu that are then prepared by the restaurants in their kitchens and delivered to the school in time for lunch. Payment is at the time of ordering, and the service can be available for every day or just select days of the week as the school prefers.
Currently, WFS has partnerships with some 200 restaurants, both independents and units of chains like Noodles & Co. and Boston Market, in the markets where it operates, which include Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Charlotte, Atlanta and Pensacola, Fla. It was preparing for further expansion in regions like Southern California, Northern Virginia/Washington, DC and Texas when COVID shut everything down.
That traditional WFS model effectively serves schools that don’t have onsite dining capabilities or prefer to outsource it—and also potentially gives them a competitive advantage in that they can claim a lunch service that literally provides “restaurant-quality” meals to students.
However, public school districts that have established in-house foodservices are a different market and for most of its history, WFS stayed away from it. That changed when Carolyn Griffin took over as CEO early last year and decided to explore the possibilities presented by public school districts by modifying the WFS operating model to switch from external restaurants to the in-house foodservice program as the provider of meals.
That led to a partnership with a “major” school system” in the Denver Metro area—Griffin says she cannot name it due to contractual obligations—and a pilot early this year testing the preorder concept in a public high school with its own foodservice operations.
Here’s how it went down and what they learned…