Building a Better Breakfast Program

Published in FSD Update

When it comes to promoting the morning meal, creative solutions can be found in large revamps or small strategies. This month FSD talked with six operators to find out what they’ve done to sell breakfast. 

Dallas Independent School District
Solution: Using alternative methods to serve students in a large, urban district

In large, urban school districts with a high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced priced meals, it’s important to offer multiple ways for students to conveniently grab breakfast, often on the go. That was the case with the Dallas Independent School District (ISD), which has an enrollment of more than 155,000 students, about 89% of whom are eligible for free or reduced priced meals.

Although many students purchased lunch, only 30% participated in breakfast. In 2010, Dallas ISD was awarded the Partners for Breakfast grant, managed by the School Nutrition Foundation and the Food Research and Action Center, to pilot an alternative breakfast program for students. The first step for Dora Rivas, executive director of food and child nutrition services, was to market her new breakfast program to district administrators. “It was easier for principals to embrace the program if we gave them three options: breakfast carts with delivery to class (breakfast in the classroom), breakfast available in the hallway or a grab-and-go option from their cafeteria. The grant helped support expenses for our pilot start-up and the development of training and promotion materials.”

The breakfast carts provided students, who often do not visit cafeterias in the morning, with an additional service point from which to purchase meals. The carts are placed strategically in schools, not only in hallways but also in courtyards where students tend to congregate. “It was important for us that the breakfast carts look like a professional meal service, so we put our department and district logo on them and also have staff wearing aprons with matching logos,” Rivas says. “The cart itself is like a billboard for showing teachers, students and parents the concept.”

Rivas looks for carts with wireless capability, so students can key in their code for reimbursement. She also likes carts with extra shelving in the front for additional items, such as sandwiches, cookies, fruit and chips.

“The results of the pilot [program, which included the carts] led to an over 200% average increase in the number of students who are eating breakfast, and students have improved focus, attentiveness and fewer trips to the nurse’s office,” Rivas says. The program gained support and is now districtwide, in 220 schools. “I really hadn’t realized before how serving breakfast would affect the whole community,” Rivas adds. “I learned that we could impact the big picture, and that many people who are concerned about hunger would offer their support. I would encourage you to reach out to your community and work with programs that are already in place that have a shared goal to fight hunger.”

Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Minneapolis
Solution: Renovating a self-serve breakfast bar

Give customers the ability to make their own dining decisions and you’ll often find success. That’s what happened with Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s breakfast yogurt bar. The hospital, a part of Allina Health, was offering a premade yogurt cup, which Kari Doffing, manager for Sodexo at the hospital, says didn’t go over very well with customers because “people like to make their own decisions.” To allow customers more choice, the department implemented a new breakfast station, the Yoplait ParfaitPro, which offers customers low-fat and Greek yogurt options.

“The pilot was a real success,” Doffing says about the hospital’s new breakfast station. General Mills helped with merchandising materials for the new yogurt bar, and sales have increased from 10 servings a day to between 40 and 45 servings a day. “We spread the word about this new breakfast option through the employee network and [the hospital’s] website; we had flyers, signage and also advertised on patient television screens.”

The new yogurt bar allows customers to customize their breakfasts with toppings and flavors that change every two weeks. Some unusual toppings have been a hit, such as wasabi peas, sliced almonds and unsalted sunflower seeds. Fruit, including strawberries, fresh frozen raspberries, and canned pineapple and mandarin oranges have been popular. “Sliced bananas, shredded coconut and sweetened frozen strawberries didn’t work—they became mushy and unappealing,” Doffing says. “People come to the cafeteria looking for comfort food, but we wanted to offer healthy foods and support our health initiatives. That’s one reason we removed a sweet kiddie cereal topping from the yogurt bar, because the health message was lost.” Customers can follow parfait recipes that are printed on static clings placed above toppings on the sneeze guard.

Employees were initially resistant to the yogurt bar, Doffing admits. “It was change,” she says. “A big help was including a map of where to find the toppings, because a lot of employees didn’t know where we kept certain items in the storeroom.” 

The parfaits are priced at 40 cents per ounce. “A lot of people want to take the yogurt away and store it in a fridge for later, so we include lids. Other sales have picked up, like Starbucks coffee, bottled juice and milk, that people buy along with the yogurt.”

CulinArt at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP,  New York
Solution: Increasing B&I sales via cards and comments

In 2009, when the recession hit, Carlos Rivera, director of dining services for CulinArt at this New York law firm, was looking for a way to stimulate breakfast sales during the economic downturn. Rivera’s answer: a promotional punch card. Customers would receive a punch after spending at least $1.50 at the morning meal. After collecting 10 punches, customers would receive a free breakfast, up to $3. Customers began spending more than the $1.50 needed to get a punch, and Rivera was honoring about 500 cards every two weeks. 

The promotion has been so successful, Rivera has continued it. “We started that when the economy wasn’t so great, but now that things are a little better we won’t stop doing that. It remains an award for people who stuck with us during that time, and I believe no matter how things are financially, that people want a good value.”

Getting customers participating in breakfast has additional benefits for Rivera. “Breakfast is a wonderful opportunity to engage customers and to interest them in coming back for lunch,” he says, whose café serves 700 employees at one of the oldest law firms in  the United States. “Our Executive Chef Ryan Deutsch is very creative, and we always have something exciting with our specials and promos.” Rivera says a lot of chefs make the mistake of getting locked into a revolving menu. “They’re copying and pasting items in and out and not really paying attention, unaware of what is selling and what is not. But we have very educated consumers now; they want quality, creativity and value, and they realize when you’re not engaging them.”

In an effort to engage customers, Rivera spends time talking with his clientele and responding to their needs. “I open myself up to relationships with patrons. On the upper right-hand corner of our electronic menus, we have a button you can push and your message goes directly to my email. I get a lot of comments, and I think that many managers wouldn’t want to open up their email to customers and check all of those, but it’s been good. Customers like being able to express an opinion.” 

Rivera is working on implementing another use of foodservice technology: a  program that will accommodate web-based ordering. “We’ll have an express menu for breakfast, where you can order and pay online and then come to a staging area to pick it up,” he says. “No one likes to wait.”

The café uses two components for breakfast, the cook-to-order grill and an omelet station. “Right now frittatas are very hot,” Rivera says. “Our specials have included Stuffed French Toast, which has been very popular, and Eggs Benedict. A very funky combination, but people love it.” Healthy options are also brisk sellers, Rivera adds, particularly oatmeal with cranberry and raisins or flaxseed.

Cal Poly Pomona Foundation, at Cal Poly Pomona University
Solution: Expanding breakfast service using a food truck

Breakfast for college students often doesn’t conform to traditional industry standards. “Our average student’s first meal takes place around 11 a.m. and the last around 12 a.m.,” says Aaron P. Neilson, interim director for Foundation Dining Services. In addition to eating later, Neilson says, some students wouldn’t walk to one of dining services’ 23 food outlets on campus. To help make meals, including breakfast, more accessible, the university launched The Poly Trolley food truck earlier this year. Although it’s only been operating for a few weeks, Neilson says breakfast volume has increased since The Poly Trolley’s launch.

“Now that we have the logistics worked out, we will be serving breakfast foods through the day and into the late night,” Neilson says. “We think the late-night breakfast will be a big hit,” he says, adding that the department’s Soyrizo breakfast burrito is the biggest seller on the food truck’s breakfast menu.

Alerting students and staff about the truck included a little element of mystery. “We had a lot of ‘coming soon’ advertisements through Constant Contact (email blasts) and large banners at key places on campus with only the words @polytrolley,” Neilson says. “This created excitement, and we began interacting with our customers on Twitter before the truck ever arrived on campus.” The food truck also has its own website, polytrolley.com, which provides menus, the truck’s location, news and contacts for booking the truck for on-campus events.

“The truck features the first mobile Starbucks operation in the country, with a Wi-Fi Positioning System (WPS),” Neilson says. The WPS enables cashiers to walk down the line and electronically submit orders to the truck’s kitchen for quick service. 

For those thinking about trying a truck, Neilson says, “Limit your menu to a handful of items done really well. Keep your truck as small as possible. We have found our truck is not as maneuverable as some and takes time to shut down, move and reset. It makes it difficult when a VIP calls and asks you to, ‘Swing it by my office, so I can buy my staff a cup of coffee.’”

Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York
Solution: Providing breakfast for no-show students

“We noticed that a lot of students were sleeping in and skipping breakfast in our resident dining locations,” says John Hutchison, executive chef at Stony Brook University, which contracts its dining program with Lackmann Culinary Services. “In order to capture these sales we launched Breakfast Bundles.” Capitalizing on the concept of a quick bite to eat on the way to class, each Breakfast Bundle consists of a yogurt, hand fruit, orange juice and granola bar. “We found that students would purchase a bundle the night before and bring it back to their dorm rooms,” Hutchinson says, so the Breakfast Bundles are available at all of Stony Brook’s foodservice locations in the evening. Students can purchase the Breakfast Bundles with meal plans, cash or credit cards. 

“For students that do attend breakfast, we have made-to-order omelet stations where students can customize their breakfast, and we introduced breakfast pizzas at our student activities center food court,” Hutchinson says. “We also have a new coffee shop, serving a locally roasted coffee, fresh baked goods and a large selection of grab-and-go items that are made in house daily.”

Launching the new Breakfast Bundles campaign included social media, digital screens that are positioned around the school and a number of large posters around campus.

Jackson-Madison County School System, Jackson, Tenn.
Solution: Bringing breakfast to the classroom

“The first time I suggested breakfast in the classroom (BIC), the folks at the school district laughed at me. I showed a video from a state meeting, but the idea was so different, they couldn’t imagine doing it,” says Nutrition Director Susan Johnson, who is responsible for 29 cafeterias in the Jackson-Madison K-12 school system. “I was really surprised the next day when a principal called me and volunteered to do the pilot program.” Johnson says the principal could envision how the breakfast program would eliminate the morning chaos at his school. “Students came in late, and either couldn’t get to the cafeteria at all or expected us to serve 300 breakfasts in 15 minutes so they wouldn’t be late for class,” Johnson recalls.

In November 2000, before beginning the pilot test of serving breakfast in the classroom, only 25% of Johnson’s students participated in the morning meal. The first pilot began with a single kindergarten class and slowly spread from class to class. As expected, morning chaos disappeared. “We worked hard to work out the kinks early on. It’s been a slow process. But principals would come and see how it was working well. I let teachers know from the beginning, ‘This is what you are doing for your students.’ It’s about the kids. Who doesn’t want to feed a child?” Johnson still uses the term ‘pilot’ with new participants, “so that they feel they have a way out if it doesn’t work. Principals are key; they market breakfast to their staff.” Teachers who were critics of the BIC program quickly have been won over because the program works smoothly, with students at their desks on time and performing better with improved nutrition.

Johnson’s breakfast in the classroom programs are now implemented on a schoolwide basis and the meals are universally free. Currently, 80% of students eat breakfast, accounting for 9,900 meals each school day.

“Everyone is an important team member, so cafeteria and custodial staff join teachers at meetings,” says Johnson, whose schools have been recognized with two awards from the USDA. “The staff was all given a folder of information, including menus, procedures and statistics. We marketed the program to parents too, and posted menus on our wonderful website, jmcss.org, and relied on the principals at each school to help by promoting breakfast.”

Johnson keeps tabs with each school about which foods students like or don’t like, and new items are added as foods fall out of favor. 

“The program is a win-win-win for everyone,” Johnson says. “The kids get a great breakfast. The teachers get well-nourished students who are in class on time. The custodial staff has an easy cleanup, with a breakfast-waste receptacle at each classroom where the liner is changed daily and no cafeteria to clean after breakfast.”