Allen Independent School District (ISD) north of Dallas boasts one of the most eye-popping high school cafeterias in the country, one that offers over half a dozen serving stations, including units of national restaurant chains Subway and Pizza Hut along with in-house concepts serving teen-friendly fare ranging from burgers and wings to burritos and chicken sandwiches.
The district’s high school and its separate freshman center for 9th graders are not in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) while the elementary and middle schools are. Allen is a fairly affluent community with 18.63% of students categorized as “economically distressed” on the district website, which allows the secondary level to be more flexible in its approach to its meal program while still taking care of students who would qualify for federally subsidized meals, says Kirsten Reitzammer, Allen ISD’s director of student nutrition.
“At those upper levels, we still honor free and reduced meals and as a district just absorb those costs,” she explains. Over the past few years when the federal emergency universal free meal program was in effect, the lower grades participated but the secondary level retained its cash approach, along with the district subsidy for qualifying students.
The high school, one of the largest in the state, has an enrollment of over 5,000, with lunch split into four 30-minute periods between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The Pizza Hut and Subway units are “true franchises” of those chains purchased back in 1999 “and they operate just like a brick-and-mortar Pizza Hut or Subway would,” Reitzammer says. “Our employees staff those stations but they are trained by those franchises, and both come in [regularly] to perform what essentially are mini food inspections to make sure we are keeping their standards.”
The ingredients used by the Pizza Hut and Subway stations are the same proprietary products required by the chains—nothing is modified for the school environment—and are purchased from their contracted vendors—PFG for Subway and McLane Foodservice for Pizza Hut.
The Pizza Hut station serves a couple varieties of the same personal pan pizzas one would get at a regular unit while the Subway has the chain’s standard sandwich line complete with its customization component except there is no toasting option due to the need to keep the line moving.
“We usually have multiple people on that Subway line who are really pushing out those subs!” Reitzammer remarks. “It’s very impressive how quickly they can go compared to what you see at a [regular] Subway.”
Customization is also offered at the Caliente Mexican cuisine station, an in-house brand that rotates build-you-own offerings like tacos and nachos, while the other stations for the most part offer standard fixed menus and pre-made items like salads and sandwiches.
Hot items like chicken sandwiches and burgers are batch-cooked continuously over the course of the lunch period to maintain freshness. In fact, just about everything is made in-house either at the stations or in a large production kitchen, Reitzammer proudly notes.
“I can’t think of any entrees we don’t make in-house,” she offers. “The only things that really are bought pre-packaged are a la carte items like drinks and chips.”
Because of the retail approach, participation is difficult to gauge but Reitzammer estimates that the high school serves an equivalent of about 2,500 meals a day. Participation is also affected by flex schedules, she adds, as some students finish classes before lunch while others leave to attend classes at the district’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) Center facility where they can also pick up food. That facility offers its own daily entree options similar to what’s served at the high school from its own kitchen but with more pre-packaged choices because of the small volume and need for speedy service.
“We only have a couple of staff there and it’s really set up more like a Starbucks where you can come in and grab and sandwich or drink,” Reitzammer offers.
Traffic at all the high school’s serving stations tends to be brisk over a typical lunch rush. While the national brand stations obviously have an allure, they tend to draw more sophomores, who are experiencing them for the first time, while juniors and seniors tend to be more flexible with their dining choices, Reitzammer notes. Among the non-franchises, she says, the Roost chicken station is always popular as is Caliente, which was reopened recently after sufficient staffing was secured.
Pandemic-imposed staffing challenges the last few years also impacted a station called Mark-It Fresh that originally was exclusively vegetarian but now operates as a hybrid entree station with both homestyle and vegetarian choices.
“Students still recognize it as a place they can go for vegetarian options if they want because there is always a vegetarian option there along with, usually, a homestyle option,” Reitzammer explains. She says that homestyle entrees will eventually return to the Great Plate entree station, which is currently closed, leaving Mark-It Fresh as exclusively vegetarian.
Also slated to reopen once staffing issues are resolved are the Chopped salad station and the Panini sandwich station, situated on opposite sides of a circular line so that students can get sandwiches on one side and salads on the other.
Currently, packaged sandwiches and salads are sold at the Crust and Crumb station, which is also open for breakfast, offering items like freshly baked jumbo muffins and cinnamon rolls from the school’s in-house bakery. Once the Chopped and Panini stations are open, the array of salads and sandwiches sold at Crust and Crumb is expected to expand, Reitzammer says. The station remains open all day to allow students and staff to grab something between classes or during open periods.
Another food outlet at the high school is Blu, a student restaurant run by its culinary arts program that serves lunch and is open to the public. “What they serve is made by the culinary students from their own recipes,” Reitzammer notes, adding that her department supports the program to enhance the students’ education and experience.
“The students come into the high school cafeteria to learn some skills by working alongside our staff in short rotations at different stations just to see a different side of foodservice,” she explains.
Photo credit: Allen ISD
Photo: The district’s culinary art program operates the student-run Blu restaurant at the high school.
Allen High School serves grades 10 to 12 while 9th graders attend the Freshman Center. Located a few miles from the high school, it has its own cafeteria with some of the same stations as the high school (but no Subway or Pizza Hut) along with a few exclusive lines. It, like the high school, is not in NSLP and so has menu flexibility.
The three middle schools and 18 elementary schools—all participating in NSLP—have common daily cycle menus with elementary schools generally having two daily options and middle schools three or more. Breakfast is offered in the traditional way (I.e., in the cafeteria) for the most part though a couple sites with high breakfast participation levels offer breakfast-on-the-go.
Each school has its own kitchen and production facilities with everything made onsite. The only production kitchen other than those in the schools is a training kitchen located in the district’s service center that is used not only for training but to do recipe testing and to service catering functions for district events.
In addition to providing meal service at the schools and catering school functions, the Allen ISD Student Nutrition Dept. also operates concessions at the district’s Eagle Stadium, an 18,000-seat facility that not only hosts the high school’s home football games but serves as a site for neutral site playoff games.