With competition for diners’ stomachs—and dollars—coming from all sides, especially as a new era of delivery options enters the market, noncommercial operators aren’t just sticking to the tried and true. This year, FoodService Director’s Besties, a collection of strategies and ideas from operators across the country, focuses on taking a chance and finding success. We hope you’ll find some smart solutions—and a little fun, too.
The best crazy menu ideas—that worked
From flavor combinations sounding too gross to be good that resonated with creative K-12 students to leftover mashups that saved waste while pleasing palates, here are the ideas that found success.
“Brunch for Lunch creates great student excitement and participation.”
—Joanne Kinsey, Chesapeake Public Schools; Chesapeake, Va.
“Making lasagna to order in ramekins.”
—Virginia Ohanian, Acts Retirement-Life Communities; Boca Raton, Fla.
“Pizza salad, made from leftover pizza [with] ranch dressing. Kids love it!”
—Mary Hill, Midwest Central School District; Manito, Ill.
“Tikka masala burritos.”
—Clayton Smith, Williamson Hospital; Philadelphia
“A 6-inch round Mexican-style pizza that is folded and called a pizza taco.”
—Michael Clark, Crane Elementary District; Yuma, Ariz.
“Hummus in Western Kansas ... they told me it would not sell.”
—John Fitzthum, Hays Medical Center; Hays, Kansas
—Aaron Neilson, Cal Poly Pomona Foundation; Pomona, Calif.
“PB&J bar with a variety of toppings like fruit and marshmallow.”
—Vincent Beltrone, Lyons Central School District; Lyons, N.Y.
“Purple and gold Belgian waffles.”
—Kim Terry, River Road ISD; Amarillo, Texas
“Salmon quinoa patty.”
—Brittany Lynch, Parkhurst Dining at Bucknell University; Lewisburg, Pa.
—Arletha Banks, Holland Public Schools; Holland, Mich.
“Papa’s Ranchero, a tater-tot casserole meets nachos supreme. Kids loved it, and it had veggies they normally wouldn’t eat because they were disguised under the cheese salsa, like bell pepper, onion, black olives, mushrooms and tomato. It also featured ham instead of hamburger and low-fat cheese.”
—Renee Castor, Desert Center Unified School District; Desert Center, Calif.
“Chicken Schnitzel Salad with green beans, mustard potatoes and a greens salad.”
—JP Krause, Children’s Hospital Colorado; Aurora, Colo.
“Duck confit pot pie.”
—Jeremy Fry, Menno Haven Retirement Communities; Chambersburg, Pa.
The best spotlight on international
While many FSDs highlighted great ways they’re using trending international cuisines on their menus, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, is taking the definition of a global campus to new heights. Here are some examples from Michele Gaillard, associate director of dining operations.
The best idea from a restaurant
“The charming owner of a popular Eritrean [a northeast African country] restaurant in Portland helped us create an Eritrean dinner display table. Students sampled injera, a fermented sourdough-risen flatbread made from teff [a native grass] that is used to scoop up berbere-spiced meat and vegetable stews. The students had a blast!”
The best use of international cuisine
“A meeting with several West African students prompted a discussion about the friendly rivalry among Ghana, Gambia, Nigeria and Senegal as to who makes the best jollof, a spicy tomato-flavored rice. We have featured several versions of the dish in head-to-head competition at our display cooking station in the dining halls, but so far there’s no clear winner.”
The best DIY station
“Our weekend congee [Asian rice porridge] station was created by a student dining employee who missed his grandmother’s congee from home. It started small, but soon became one of our most popular brunch items.”
The best crazy design ideas—that worked
As more diners step away from the traditional three square meals, options like mobile ordering, grab-and-go, convenience stores and snacks are becoming attractive additions for noncommercial operations.
“In an attempt to reduce congestion at our dining hall hot beverage stations, we segregated the tea operation to another area of the servery. The new station has a stand-alone hot water dispenser that maintains a perfect tea-brewing temperature and allows us to provide a greater variety of teas and condiments. Our tea drinkers appreciate the special attention, and having their own space.”
“We have more than 2,500 students at the high school, so to help offer a variety, we took over a little alcove and started the 325 Corner Cafe. All meals offered are $3.25, and every day is ‘lunch my way’; the line is set so students can customize their dishes.”
—Linda Eichenberger, Oak Hills Local School District; Cincinnati
“Transforming a school bus into a mobile nutrition education learning lab.”
“Changing our high school’s cold food section over to a market fresh deli.”
“Converting a coffee shop to an operating educational brewery with a ‘pieology’-style pizza/salad/sandwich concept.”
The best in menus
The best spin on a classic menu item
“Nondairy avocado chocolate mousse”
The best salad bar addition
“Our new 1*5*3 restaurant allows the customer to select one green, five vegetable/fruit toppings, and three proteins to create a salad bowl. It is fun and appealing!”
—Julaine Kiehn, University of Missouri; Columbia, Mo.
The best menu versatility player
“Turmeric has been increasingly popular—not only for health benefits like decreasing inflammation, but also to help with resiliency and stress relief. Hospital staff are always looking for items to help cut stress in their daily jobs.”
The best grab-and-go menu idea
“A walking Philly cheesesteak. We use reduced-sodium Philadephia cheesesteak, top it with cheese and serve it in a Funyuns bag.”
—Diane Pain, Troup County Schools; LaGrange, Ga.
The best idea borrowed from a restaurant
“The Range Cafe in Albuquerque serves oatmeal with strawberries and cinnamon ice cream. So when we serve oatmeal, we add cinnamon to the oatmeal and serve it with vanilla ice cream on top with commodity dried fruit.”
—Angela Haney, Los Lunas Schools; Los Lunas, N.M.
The best in design and operations
The best budget-balancing trick
“Using overripe fruit in the smoothie bar.”
The best pop-up
“Game day specials for events like home openers. Fun items like footlong hot dogs and Cracker Jacks go very fast.”
The best ‘oops’ moment
“A mistake with the counters in a new renovation turned into our first trayless location.”
—Dawn Aubrey, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
The best upgrade
“We now have a wood-fired pizza oven in our high school, making it the only high school in the state with this piece of equipment.”
The best unorthodox kitchen tool
“A paper cutter. Once cleaned and sanitized, we use it to cut tortillas into strips that are sprayed lightly with oil and baked for crispy strips that we add to salads.”
The best zero-waste solution
“Using the pulp of vegetable shakes to make vegan burgers or meatballs.”
The best ways to put together a great team
Operators can have the best menu and design ideas in the world, but nothing can happen without a strong workforce to bring it all together. And with labor woes looming large, many FSDs are keeping one eye out at all times for great talent.
“Our department always struggled with staffing during the first few weeks of the academic year before returning student employees figured out their class/work schedules, and our new
first-year student employees were trained and ready to work. The college’s director of student employment had the great idea to offer an extra dollar per hour to returning dining student employees, on a temporary basis, if they worked at least 12 hours per week during the hectic first weeks of school.”
“By engaging students in dietetics school, culinary schools and the [American Culinary Federation] apprentices, we have been able to find great staff right out of school.”
“Some of my staff are actually trying to recruit new help through their Facebook pages.”
—Cyndi Roberts, St. Joseph Memorial Hospital; Murphysboro, Ill.
The best in human resources
The best idea borrowed from a restaurant
“Hiring restaurant line cooks to work on our room service production line.”
—Gina Sadowski, Seattle Children’s Hospital; Seattle
The best unorthodox job
“Our Food Pilot Lab Manager—he processed our campus student sustainable farm produce into items like pizza sauce, hot sauce, etc.”
The best community collaboration
“I auctioned off a four-course grass-fed beef dinner for $9,200, which is humbling.”
The best example of teamwork
“There are just two of us on the team, and we do 125 meals a day. On homecoming and at Spring Fest, we feed the whole school—300-plus people—with some teachers who jump in and help.”
—Trina Lull, Gunnison Watershed School; Gunnison, Colo.
The best job perks
“Complimentary meals for full-time staff and meals for [66 cents] for student staff when they are working.”
“Getting to go to conferences, speaking with other schools about our jobs and finding out what problems they have to come up with ideas that work.”
—Debby Bouton, Jefferson West Schools; Meriden, Kan.
“Lunch on the house, uniform and shoe allowances, and employee wellness program to include pharmacy discounts.”