Sue Bettenhausen: Economically Innovative

Sue Bettenhausen, nutrition services director in the 27,000-student Scottsdale Unified School District, has a tough job. Scottsdale is an affluent Phoenix suburb; only 16% of students qualify for free or reduced meals. Enrollment is stagnant or, in some schools, declining as charter, private and parochial schools are attracting more students. Those facts, compounded by the current economic climate, have challenged Betten-hausen to put her business prowess to work in order to create not only a financially stable operation but also an innovative one. Now in her fifth year, there are few aspects of the program that Bettenhausen hasn’t tweaked. Those changes have accounted for a nearly 100% increase in the number of yearly transactions, from 5.5 million in 2004 to 10 million this year.

Renovations: The cafeterias in the district’s five high schools underwent renovations in 2007 to go from a traditional serving concept to a self-serving food court. After only four months in school foodservice, Bettenhausen says she was asked to meet with the architect, “to tell him what to do with the cafeterias.” She followed her instinct and decided to go with a food court concept.

In addition to the physical changes, Bettenhausen made a time change. Now between 40 and 50 students at a time are allowed in the servery to keep congestion to a minimum. Lunch options, all of which are self-serve, include deli sandwiches, entrée salads, burritos, pizza, pasta and ethnic dishes such as a teriyaki chicken rice bowl.

Another change at the high schools was adding an additional lunch period to better accommodate large student volumes. Bettenhausen says the net effect of this addition will be a savings of $200,000, the result of lower labor costs—fewer cashiers are needed—and increased sales—students have more time in the servery.

Since the switch, sales in the high schools have increased 18% to 30%, in part, Bettenhausen says, because students can get through the lines quicker. “I also think it’s a more adult way for students to get their lunch, as opposed to having to stand in endless lines with a lady who is simultaneously handing out food and handling money,” she adds. “That’s not the most sanitary approach, and it’s not the most efficient or productive.” Bettenhausen says the only downside has been the amount of material needed to package items individually. She is currently looking for more eco-friendly options.

After the success of self-service at the high schools, Bettenhausen implemented a similar serving style at Ingleside Middle School in 2007. The servery is now split into two, U-shaped serving lines, with students selecting items out of hot wells or coolers.

The self-service style at Ingleside was implemented in conjunction with a renovation made possible through a $100,000 grant from the National Dairy Council, which updated the 50-year-old cafeteria with colorful signage and posters, sparkling booths and silver tables with detached chairs. Cashier stations made from recycled milk bottles add an environmentally friendly touch.

Since implementing the new service style at the middle school, sales have increased 18%, and Ingleside’s principal estimates that students have an additional 10 minutes to eat because wait time has decreased. Three additional middle schools will change to self-service style this year.

À la carte innovation: “The foodservice department had been financially strapped for five years before I was hired,” Bettenhausen says. “I said we had an opportunity to make it better by operating the department like a business to give great customer service to kids and parents.” For example, Bettenhausen saw an opportunity to increase customer service in the elementary schools by adding a snack cart off the main serving lines. In collaboration with a local, well-known chef, Bettenhausen created another point of sale to decrease wait times. [See August 2008 issue p. 39.]

Ingleside Middle School foodservice The popularity of the snack cart has brought about another new program this fall, called Natural Options. The line was created to provide natural and organic choices for students and will be sold at the snack carts. This fall three elementary schools are piloting the Natural Options line, which offers two entrée choices and one side dish daily.

“We are trying to diversify the menu,” Bettenhausen says. “When we have a relatively sophisticated entrée, the second entrée choice will be relatively simple.” For example, one day’s entrée pairing might be a spicy salmon dish and an all-natural turkey sandwich. Other entrées include sweet and sour shrimp sticks, Asian style lettuce wraps and baked macaroni and cheese. Side dishes include edamame and snow peas and a jicama romaine salad. “I think this is in tune with the times,” she says. “Our children are becoming very sophisticated about foods.”

Bettenhausen says the Natural Options menu, which will be 80% organic and natural, is in response to some parent requests. “The level of commitment varies,” she says. “There are some parents who want this because they consider it a fresher product because it’s scratch production. Others are really serious about all-natural foods. Other parents just want their children to stay away from some things like nitrates. I feel like I have to make sure the menu is exciting and, yet, still meets their needs.”

The cost for Natural Options items reflects the higher price of the food products used in the selections—entrée dishes are $3 and side dishes are $2, while regular lunches in the elementary schools cost $2.25. Because the ingredients in Natural Options items cost more to procure, Bettenhausen developed an online ordering system to accurately forecast the number of each item that needs to be made each day. Parents can go to the district’s Web site and log into an ordering system to place orders. Orders must be placed one month in advance.

There were 742 orders placed during the first two weeks of the program, which  Bettenhausen says was higher than expected, in part because the parent-teacher organization ordered items for parents to try. “We don’t need a high volume,” she says. “I’m trying to expose kids to different things than they might see at home. If we expand and we get 20 meals purchased a day at 20 schools, I would be thrilled.” Bettenhausen says the biggest hindrance right now is getting parents accustomed to ordering meals in advance. She also learned the portion size was a little overwhelming for some students, so the portion size and price might be decreased as the program expands.

To cover the labor involved in operating the line, Bettenhausen uses 15 floating managers, who have traditionally covered for sick employees or other vacancies. These managers do prep work and then deliver the menu items to the schools before lunch service.

John Baracy, superintendent for the district, says Bettenhausen has met the high expectations of the district’s parents with innovations like the Natural Options line. “Sue has brought us many things, not only in dollars and cents, which she has clearly done, but she has the ability and passion to provide exceptional healthy choices.” Baracy adds that Bettenhausen’s many years in the private sector—she worked for several airlines and Amtrak, among others—have helped her to manage a fiscally responsible program of 159.5 FTEs serving 22,036 daily meal equivalents. “Sue’s business acumen combined with her wonderful sense of nutritional balance is a tremendous asset.”

Growth and changes: With enrollment flat, Bettenhausen has looked to other areas to grow her business. One such area was catering, which began last year and brought in $604,000 in sales. The nutrition services department provides meals to 13 charter, private and parochial schools each day, and through the Adult Catering program, the department provides meals for district and non-district events. In addition, staff members at one high school and the district’s central office can order lunches online, which are delivered to a central location for pick-up. Bettenhausen expects the service to expand to all locations soon.

Another pilot program this year is a new vending program at Desert Mountain High School. The staff prepare and package items such as cold sandwiches, salads and wraps each day to be sold in machines. The items are not part of a reimbursable meal. “Eighty percent of meals at the high school are à la carte,” Bettenhausen says. “I wanted another point of service and the machine is convenient.” Another plus, Bettenhausen adds, is that students can pay with either cash or their ID cards.