When he’s not leading the nutrition services team at Greenville County Schools in Greenville, S.C., you can often find Director of Food and Nutrition Services Joe Urban jet-setting around the world. This time off allows Urban to explore new places and gives him the chance to get some menu inspiration.
“Any time I’m traveling, I’m always trying to get inspired by the authentic dishes from that country,” says Urban.
His last trip to Mexico City, for example, provided a wealth of menu ideas, and his team is currently testing tacos al pastor, tamales, esquites, charro beans and churros with the hope that they’ll soon be added to the permanent menu.
Taking a dish from the idea phase to the lunch tray can be a process, however, and Urban has come up with his own approach to make sure that new dishes have a successful launch.
Getting staff and student buy-in
When inspired by a new idea, Urban works to create a recipe he thinks will be able to stand up to the district’s high-volume demand. (The district currently serves over 13.5 million meals each year, according to its food and nutrition services website.) The new recipe is then piloted in select schools as a limited-time offer (LTO).
The Mexico City-inspired dishes are currently in this pilot phase—and have been met positively at two schools so far. Urban plans to test these dishes at two or three additional schools before deciding whether to officially add them to the menu.
In addition to soliciting student feedback, the trial runs allow staff to share their thoughts, too.
During pilots, Urban gets in the kitchen with staff to hear their opinions. “[Staff] all know that they can be very honest with me. They don't just tell me yes because they know I want it on the menu,” says Urban. “They understand and appreciate that I know that some of them are asked to feed 2,000 kids in a couple of hours, and if I throw a concept on them that's going to have them prep for two days and, you know, require twice as many prep cooks, it’s just not going to work.”
If both students and staff sign off on a dish, it’s then integrated into the menu. The time it takes for an item to come into fruition varies, Urban says, and depends on its complexity.
“If it's easy, I can get [a new dish] out there in a couple days sometimes,” says Urban. “I've had something on a menu on a Monday after I came up with the idea the Monday previous.”
A balancing act
Supply chain issues have mostly receded at the district and no longer have much effect on menu planning. according to Urban.
Inflation, however, is a different story, but Urban remains aggressive when it comes to menuing dishes with a higher price tag.
“I do menu a good number of menu items that most would think are outside the cost range of a K-12 program,” he says.
When planning menus, Urban first focuses on what he thinks students would want and then tackles the cost and school nutrition standards aspects.
Creating a menu that will excite students and also be cost effective is all about balance, Urban says. To that end, Urban took a page from his family’s experience in the restaurant industry and created his own menu development program that helps him track costs and other data.
"I understand very clearly, through the data that I collect, the percentage of students who will take every item on my menu every day in each grade level,” Urban says. “And so, I'm able to balance that out through menu engineering to get the cost down to a number that works for my district.”
Urban also uses the program to determine if his menus will fit school lunch standards. After compiling his menus, he sends them to his staff dietitians, who double check that the dishes meet regulations. If not, they get sent back to Urban, who makes adjustments as needed.
What’s next on the menu
As testing wraps up on the Mexico City-inspired fare, Urban is looking at what the team could tackle next.
His current plan is to increase the number of build-your-own bars offered, and he’s looking at introducing a build-your-own pizza concept where students could customize different pizzas with their own toppings.
A build-your-own burger bar that would offer three or four different patty options may also be on the horizon.
For now, though, Urban is taking things one step at a time.
“Those are the two that are coming pretty soon that we’ll start rolling out,” he says, “but again I’m in the middle of this one LTO and I want to finish this one up first.”