Every day customers go through the lunch lines in cafeterias picking up the usual items—a sandwich, a drink and, perhaps, a bag of chips. But how do you get patrons to shell out the extra money for a slice of chocolate cake or the combo meal or let them know about your specials or new menu items? Gone are the days of passively marketing and vocally advertising products. In today’s fast paced world where grab and go rules, foodservice directors are getting creative to market new products and increase sales at the point of service.
Technology: When St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland built a new dining facility last year, a 40-inch plasma television was installed at the entrance to the dining service area. Director of Campus Dining John Pietravoia says the television, which is reserved for advertisements for the foodservice department, shows the daily menu, including pizza selections and any specials, like the availability of the school’s own salad dressing, which is being advertised as a Christmas gift for parents. “A lot of kids will read [the television advertisements] and a lot of parents will see it when they visit the school later in the day,” he says.
“We didn’t want any signs hanging above the stations or menu boards,” Pietravoia says. “We wanted it to look clean.” He adds that he thinks the television is a better way to reach students than signs, and says the technology will be even more effective once they implement sounds and videos.
When Belle Terre Elementary School in Flagler County Florida was built in 2005, the cafeteria was wired for television screens for students to watch while in the serving lines. “The idea is to capture the kids’ attention so they keep focused and not push the kids in front of them,” says the district’s Foodservice Director, Angela Torres. She says the TVs can be used to show nutritional and other videos. “Just because the kids are standing in lunch lines, doesn’t mean they can’t be learning,” she says.
New menu items: Fear not if you aren’t technologically savvy or don’t have the money to install flat-screen TVs. Directors often find computer-created signs catch a customer’s eyes. When Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., is about to introduce a new menu item or recipe, dining services places posters at the point of service advertising the item and informing students where they can try a sample. “We like to change up our menu,” says Director of Dining Services Tucker Rossiter. “We are practically all retail, so we can offer items like prime rib, but we need to know if students are willing to pay for the items.” So samples will be offered when a new protein like buffalo or alligator, or a new type of pasta, is going to be introduced.
When one of the chefs at the Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago makes a new creation, Leni Birondo, manager of cafeteria and catering services, will display the item at the cash register. One such item was a cocoa-zucchini cake, which she says sold very quickly and had customers asking for more. Birondo says she will use the space near the cash register for a display about twice a month for foods that are grab and go and do not need to be chilled, like cookies and cakes.
Promotions and specials: When Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas wants to promote healthy menu items, Foodservice Manager Mike Hoptay uses samples to encourage nutritious purchases. “A lot of people are afraid to try these items and think that they will taste bad,” he says. To alleviate that perception, he says, samples of the items are available at the service areas for customers to try, so they can see if they like the food before purchasing it.
In addition, Hoptay, in coordination with the company’s wellness department, will set up tables, both outside the entrance and inside the cafeteria, to supply samples and provide nutrition information when the menu is highlighting Hispanic or other cultural foods, or events like the Super Bowl.
Another presentation is done in the dining room when a vendor or marketing representative brings new items for the customers. They also provide information about how that product compares with those items already being sold in the cafeteria. “The customers learn something from [these presentations], and they drive the [vendor’s] sales,” Hoptay says.
In an effort to encourage students to choose healthier lunch options, this spring the five elementary schools in the North Andover (Mass.) Public School System will pilot a program using decorative foods. Director of Foodservice Erika Murphy says she tries to start a new program or idea every couple of years to keep things fresh for the students. “We want to promote healthy eating habits as well as healthy foods,” she says. The program is designed to market fruits, vegetables and healthier versions of favorites like hot dogs to the students.
Once the pilot begins, when the children go through the lines they will see fruits and vegetables cut into the shapes of stars and hearts. Main dishes will also be changed. Murphy says there will be themes like an under the sea day, which will feature an underwater scene, complete with dyed-green, whole-grain noodles for seaweed and low-fat, low-sodium hot dogs cut up and arranged as an octopus. Murphy says increased eye appeal will help attract students to the more nutritious options.
Cautions: At Indiana’s Purdue University, signs take on a different function for residential dining—warning signs. Sarah Johnson, director of residential dining services, puts signs next to potential allergens. “We try to identify the nut allergens because they are so dangerous,” she says. “We have a lot of students with nut allergies inquiring about our dining services.” If the nuts in a product are not obvious, she places a warning sign next to it. “It’s just another way we can help [our students] be safe,” she adds.
Want Fries With That?
Advertising combo meals proves to be a valuable upgrade for operators.
People are always looking for a good deal, especially cash-strapped students. On the other hand, foodservice directors are always trying to find ways to up the average check. Enter combo meals, a concept that can please both customers and operators. But with so many choices available, directors need eye-catching ways to market this profitable option.
For Victor Younger, general manager of retail dining at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., the answer came in signage emphasizing the cost benefits of ordering one of the university’s seven combo meals. “We try to present [the signs advertising combo meals] to customers at stations and we show them the saving when they get a combo as opposed to buying the items individually,” Younger says. The university began to push combo meals two years ago because “we know the value of the customer buying one,” Younger adds. The signs are not only at the serving lines, but at all walk-up retail venues, as table tents and on the way to the cash registers.
“We have definitely seen an increase in sales since we started putting the signs in the larger facilities,” he says. “It has been a 10% to 15% increase in how students will upscale when the information is in front of them.”
Tom Ponder, retail manager at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, has also seen an increase in sales since advertising combo meals one year ago. Since combos rotate daily, he places a sign stating each day’s selection, along with a photograph, at the main entrance to the café and at each designated cooking area, like the grill or the deli. “The signs work because once [the customers] see the comparison of the price, they seem to light up at the savings,” Ponder says.
When Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center changed from a traditional value meal, which included fries, to the new “Lite Fare” meal this October, Theresa Kevak, manager of foodservice, used signage and displays to market the new twist. “Lite Fare” includes a featured sandwich or entrée, with a choice of a fresh fruit, light soup or hot vegetable side and a beverage.
To advertise the change, she worked with the hospital’s public relations staff to create signs and a display center at the servery entrance. The area highlights daily specials with signs and display plates of a sample of the featured entrée or sandwich. In addition, Kevak highlights “Lite Fare” dessert choices with signs showing the calorie and fat content at the grab and go section.
Jill Bachelder, office retail manager at MedCentral Health System in Mansfield, Ohio, has taken the marketing of healthy options one step further with a new logo. Called the “Bright Idea,” the logo is a chef with a light bulb and is placed next to the foods, making it easier for customers to find healthy items.
Construction offers a chance to implement new electronic signage.
A little more than a year ago the 454-bed facility at Salem Hospital in Salem, Ore., embarked on renovations and new construction, including a new kitchen and dining area to open in August 2008. Randy Calligan, hospitality services nutrition operations manager, and Joe Butler, hospitality services director, began exploring ways the cafeteria could better serve the geographically expanding campus. With the new circular design of the servery, which features several different stations and lines, they wanted to ease confusion and waiting time in the lines. Electronic signage looked to be the best fit for the project.
JB: “What we’re building is more of an upscale restaurant type of atmosphere, and we wanted to be high-tech. One of the interesting things, or the good thing, about computerized signage is that you get a much more consistent look. You can do more with the graphics, with photographs or just about any type of a background behind your menu board. And you are able to have that menu board located in many different areas throughout the restaurant.”
RC: “One of the other benefits of using these signs—at this point we are looking at five—is when you have a scatter system, or several different food stations. Let’s say [a customer] goes to the deli and he also wants to order something from the grill. In a normal scatter system, they have to get out of that line and get in the grill line. What we’re trying to create is the ability for the customer to go to the deli station and be able to order from the grill at that same station. So the electronic signage will enable us to do that [by telling the customers how the system works].
If we only want to do that during peak periods, we can have that signage come on and off or change whatever we need to do depending on the hours. We have a Starbucks island in the middle of the servery, and during the lunch rush and peak times, [the Starbucks station] will be putting together orders, but the customer will actually pay for those orders at the checkout stand and not at the Starbucks station. And during the slow times, that Starbucks island will become the anchor. Customers can go to the Starbucks island and order burgers, fries, pizza or whatever. So during slow periods, the sign would drastically change to fit our needs.”
JB: “It will also enable us to communicate things from the hospital to the employees. For example, if there is a birthday or a special event going on, we would be able to run it across the top or the bottom of the menu board.”
RC: “The final benefit to this is that we have an international station, where every day we have a different motif or cultural cook-to-order foods, and with electronic signage, we can change the look and feel of the menu board to fit that particular theme.
I don’t think I’ve seen this used anywhere the way we’re going to use it. Some companies will have a flat screen with the menu of the day on it or something like that, but this is a whole different animal.
These signs have a little miniature map computer for each sign, and they are large, say a 42-inch screen, possibly larger. And each screen has its own server and then it runs off a main server where you can make changes. Those changes can also be automated, so that at 2 o’clock the sign changes.
At the entrance to the servery—and this is still in the working stage—we have discussed the potential of having graphics showing the daily special. We can also have that as a place where we can run some of the information about events throughout the hospital.”