Robert Kelly: Spirit Builder

When Bob Kelly decided to leave Rochester, NY, to accept Chartwells' offer to be resident district manager for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in North Carolina, he expected the weather to be warm. He also realized that his reception, at least in some quarters, might not be. The district was moving from self-op to contract, with only four employees, including Kelly, on Chartwells' payroll; Kelly thought it wouldn't be surprising if many of the 560 full time (non-union) employees harbored uncertainties.

Creating a better team environment and making the district's foodservice program self-supporting have been his primary objectives since his arrival two-and-a-half years ago. "Building team spirit is an ongoing project," Kelly says. "In going from self-op to a contract environment there were a lot of insecurities. You had to prove to them who you are and what your objective is."

He realizes his objective is to serve the students: about 50,000 of them in 70 schools (40 elementary, 18 middle and 12 high). "As a director, you need to be visible," he adds. "You need to know what's going on out there and to see what the staff is dealing with regarding the children, the parents, the equipment, etc. We're all heading in a positive direction. They know they just have to pick up a phone if they need me. I'm reachable. But it takes time and it's constant."

All of the department's employees are employees of the district, covered by its pay scales and benefits. But the policies and procedures, new recipes, how items are presented, personnel issues, etc., are managed by Kelly. He also has the authority to discipline and promote, but, for the most part, he follows district policies.

Boosting reimbursable meals: Kelly determined early on that the reimbursable numbers for breakfast and lunch needed improvement. "We took those items and developed more grab-and-go ideas, extended the beverage selections, created more hot and cold offerings, and put them together to make a reimbursable meal," he explains.

He was also intent on developing more points of service. "At one high school that was built in the 1950s, we were losing a lot of the 2,500 kids because there wasn't enough room in the cafeteria," he says. "So we developed food carts to intercept them on the outside crossover between buildings. With the warm climate here, it's only too cold to run the carts during December and January. We stocked the carts with chips, assorted drinks, ready-made salads, a selection of subs, fresh fruit and milk. A sandwich, milk and a piece of fruit is a reimbursable meal."

In some locations there are theme bars, perhaps a Mexican concept, with an ever-changing menu. In one high school, students can make selections from a grill special bar with a rotating menu including a Make-Your-Own-Burger Day. These programs are supported by Chartwells, the K-12 division of Compass Group, and it is the contractor's Outtakes program that serves as the foundation for the grab-and-go points of service, while its Fresh Grill concepts lie at the heart of the rotating grill station. The carts, along with appropriate marketing and merchandising materials, are purchased from Chartwells, but it is up to Kelly and his staff to determine how the marketing is conducted.

Tangible success: Success has been tangible for Kelly and the rest of the team. Meal participation has increased by about 7% overall, while supplemental (à la carte) sales are up by 2%, and easy access is a big driver of that, Kelly points out.

"But the merchandising of our regular menu has also been newly emphasized. There's been intensive staff training including such aspects as what size pan to use, what the finished product should look like and what utensils should be used with it." In addition, labor costs have decreased by 9% and food costs are down 2.8%.

Leaving little to chance, Kelly's marketing manager goes from building to building to conduct training and periodic marketing audits. He admits it's a long process, but knows this is what the client was looking for: a greater variety of food selections and improved food quality, and integral to both is the polished presentation of the finished product.

Providing choices: Kelly and his team have set standards in place, with an eye toward providing a variety of choices from which managers can select items they know they can market to their demographic at each school.

"We try to give managers as much flexibility as possible" he says. "Especially at the high schools, students are very vocal and many are looking for branded items like Chik-fil-A. We provide a comparable, foil-wrapped item."  Chartwells calls it Klux-Delux.

"But some of our schools aren't interested in that product at all. Perhaps they want a spicy chicken patty on a bun, so they market 'hot and spicy chicken,' while other schools offer both or rotate hot and spicy chicken with Klux-Delux several times a week."

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