Old Space, New Design
A new, roomier cafeteria has boosted participation and created new revenue possibilities for this Ohio school district.
At A Glance: Jackson High School in Ohio
•No. of students: 1,800
•Foodservice Director: Marsha Escola
• Name of cafeteria: The Commons
•Servery stations: 4
•Official opening: Jan. 3, 2007
•Foodservice staff: 11
A new 600-seat cafeteria at Jackson High School in Jackson, OH, is allowing the foodservice department to broaden its menu and build participation among the school’s 1,800 students. The cafeteria may even prove to be a money-maker for the school district in another way, as the school considers renting out the facility to local groups.
The new cafeteria, called The Commons, officially opened on January 3, 2007, as part of a larger, $2.6-million renovation project. The cafeteria portion of the project took about one year to complete and included the addition of several new pieces of kitchen equipment, such as combi ovens.
Too old, small: Why the need for a new cafeteria? “First of all, our old cafeteria was definitely very old,” says Marsha Escola, foodservice director for the Jackson Local School District. “It was too small, and we didn’t have enough room to get the kids through the lines quickly enough. The layout itself was very, very poor.”
Participation was “really down there, and we weren’t able to get a lot of different items on the menu,” she adds.
So when they talked about a new cafeteria, yes, I wanted a new cafeteria. I wanted to do something that would let me get these kids through the line in four or five minutes instead of eight to nine like we were before.”
Escola and her staff are getting kids through the servery faster by delineating a quartet of specialty stations.
There is a main entrée line, and they can choose items from that,” she explains. “We have a station called At The Grill where they can pick a sandwich and potato item.”
There is also a pizza-and-pasta area and a salad/deli station. Students can select from items like a chef’s salad, shrimp salad, veggie or turkey wraps and sub sandwiches. “This is really nice,” says Escola. “We have it roped off in such a way so that the kids can just go exactly the way they want to go, pick up the food they want, and go right to the checkout line.”
Traffic in the new cafeteria is up at present, she notes. “We’re getting about 600 kids a day, so we’re doing a little better than we were before.” Her “realistic” goal for participation is 75%.
Students who dine in the cafeteria can pay with cash or use a card to draw on an existing account. “The point-of-sale system uses terminals that let kids put money on their accounts,” says Escola. “When they go through the line payment comes right off of their balances. Other kids will pay cash, and there are other students who qualify as free or reduced.” For them, the system is designed to be confidential.
The cafeteria includes a coffee bar called The Polar Espresso. “I named it,” says Escola. “I wanted it called ‘espresso’ because that’s what we’re dealing with, espressos.”
When she was a high school student, Escola recalls, “I drank espresso, but I drank it at home. What happens today, we figure, is that these kids are stopping at the gas stations on their way to school and picking up coffee there. This is just a way for me to generate some revenue, and it’s working.”
The new cafeteria, called The Commons, is actually two stories high with an atrium-style ceiling and a balcony that is accessible by stairway. Faux streetlights add a decorative touch, and a projection screen gives the space flexibility. School administrators can use it for presenting materials they want students to view. It is also an attraction for the outside organizations to whom the school would like to rent the room for meetings.
Menu change: The new kitchen has meant new menu directions. On the day Jackson High unveiled the new cafeteria, for example, Escola put a Chinese dish, General Tso’s Chicken, on the menu for the first time. It was a recipe, she recalls, that came from a colleague at another of the district’s schools. “I thought, ‘Hey, that’s cool, let’s do it,’ so we did. We put them in the little Chinese boxes, along with an egg roll, rice and a fortune cookie.”
Similarly, the school has never done wraps before, “but they have become very big now,” says Escola. So are recently added items shrimp and egg salads, Szechuan chicken salad and turkey wraps.
“One [employee] just made up a vegetable wrap, and it’s excellent,” Escola reports. “You would not believe it. Some of the food here is so good you could come here and think you are actually in a restaurant.”
At the pizza area, Jackson High is offering hot items like lasagna roll-ups and pasta with Alfredo sauce. “Again, we’ve never done those things, nothing like them,” she says. “I could probably join my son in his restaurant.”
Indeed, Escola surmises that if she did not work in the school system she almost would like to have a business like this. “I would like to really do the restaurant thing,” she says. “I’m trying to do this as much as I can along restaurant lines, but in a healthy way because we have to. We are under government regulations, so we’ve got to do it right, serve the right amount of protein and bread and such. Plus, we need to keep it exciting.”
Escola says she heard from one of the men working on the construction project that some of the children at the school were bringing their regular sack lunches and throwing them away when they see the new offerings. While parents may not care for that practice, “I love it,” says Escola, “because that’s what I want. I want my participation to be up.”
Chinese items will find their way onto the menu again, Escola promises. While there is not a formal cycle, menus will feature new items each month. This spring, for instance, she will add tomatoes stuffed with tuna.
The high school doesn’t operate kiosks yet. “Maybe down the road we might like to do that, or get more into the catering part of the business,” says Escola. “I would really like to do that.”
Eventually, Escola also would like to begin hosting school and community functions in her dining room. “That way we wouldn’t be serving only students. But you see, the labor is intense—I’ve got to pay time and a half, so it gets really hard to budget.”
Escola concedes it has been “a rough road getting this open,” but the positive results are causing her to think of expanding the new approach to the district’s lone middle and four elementary schools. “My numbers aren’t where I need them to be there. Maybe if I could incorporate some of this type of foodservice, especially in the middle school, we might be able to get our participation up there, too. That’s the plan.”