Coffee is Cool in School

Can coffee and kids co-exist? One district makes it work.

Foodservice operators, particularly in the higher education, business-and-industry and healthcare markets, know the importance of offering a good cup of joe. But coffee and kids don't really mix, so school foodservice providers have historically geared that segment of business to faculty and staff only, if at all. That is until recently.

FoodService Director - Canyon ISD - coffeeThe Canyon (Texas) Independent School District is embarking on its third-year in the coffee shop business, having opened two such locations, one in each of its high schools. The district is neither ignoring the nutritional needs of the students nor the standards by which it must operate. Rather, it has found a happy compromise that offers students "coffee beverages," the most popular of which contain more milk and flavoring than caffeine, as well as other items that pack a nutritional punch such as fruit smoothies and salads.

After years of allowing students the freedom to roam off campus, Canyon ISD decided to close the campus for the lower grades, freshman and sophomores, and keep them on school grounds, starting in the fall of 2003. Administrators, however, knowing that students would bristle at the new restriction, sought to ease their pain with palatable options that could compete with off-campus offerings and satisfy their food and beverage cravings.

Concept adaptation: Director of school nutrition Ken Robinson says district administrators were impressed with Java City, a coffee shop concept which they had seen at a nearby college campus. "We thought, 'what about doing this for high schools?'‚" he recalls.

"The trend is that students crave a more sophisticated environment to hang out in. When you tour the area, you see them hanging out in Starbucks and at other coffee shops. It's a neat place to hang out; they're not carded; they're of age; and they enjoy the music and the atmosphere."

Robinson says administrators and the Aramark-managed foodservices team predicted that the Java City unit would be a good fit. One high school now has a full-service, walk-in coffee shop with its own lounge and seating for 15 to 20 people. The other school features a Java City kiosk in a commons area with high tables and stools. The shops open before classes begin at 7 a.m. and close around 4 p.m.

Together, the two shops have added "thousands" to the bottom line, officials say. The average check runs between $3 to $5 and the two locations combined do about 300 transactions daily. The business, however, is not restricted to school-day hours. The Java City shops open for after-hour sports events and concert, a feature that Robinson says parents and other visitors to the schools enjoy.

Kid friendly? A coffee shop popping up in the school market may raise the eyebrows of those who question the wisdom of selling coffee beverages to youngsters, but Robinson explains that the caffeinated drinks aren't the top sellers. Frothy milk-based drinks are what's popular. "Students are buying a lot of 'steamers', steamed milk with a flavored shot in it," Robinson reports. "It's wonderful because it provides a lot of calcium."

"We use skim milk in a lot of beverages and the sugar-free syrups," he adds, "and we better meet the needs of our diabetics as well as our calorie-conscious and fat-conscious patrons."

This year the menu includes food options such as sandwiches, wraps and composed salads, in addition to the previous selection of pastries; fruit, ice and yogurt-based smoothies; and hot and cold coffee beverages. Robinson is not concerned that offering more food items at the Java City locations will diminish sales elsewhere on campus, but rather, believes it will simply add to overall participation. "If anything we'll increase transactions especially in the afternoon when our student athletes are hungry, and our food courtyard area isn't open," he says. "They can grab a quick, healthy snack with quality calories. That's our main emphasis here, quality calories, not empty calories."

The new offerings will have the added benefit of decreasing wait times in other locations, he predicts.

Keep it small: While the district and the foodservice team found the coffee-shop concept suitable for their high schoolers, tougher nutrition standards imposed by the state of Texas on its public-school foodservice providers presented a challenge last year.

"The first year, we were very, very strong in sales, "it was new and we were not under [such] strict guidelines" Robinson explains. "Last school year, under stricter guidelines, we [could] only sell 'short' drinks which are 12 oz. [until the end of the last lunch period]. The prior year we could sell 'short,' 'tall,' or 'grande.'"

High school students have debit accounts with which they can pay for their purchases at the coffee shops. They also can buy gift certificates for each other or for teachers; and teachers sometimes give gift certificates to students as an incentive or as a reward for good performance.

Along with implementing the coffee shops, the foodservice team made other changes to make dining-in more attractive for students such as designing a courtyard area where students can eat, relax and socialize.