5 restaurant trends showing up in K-12

kids lunch

From Kellogg’s.

Just like commercial foodservice operations, school cafeterias must entice students to make the choice to buy breakfast and lunch in-house. Students often respond positively when restaurant trends trickle down into foodservice operations, so directors can proactively seek out trends and best practices to implement within their own programs.

Here are a few trending ideas K-12 operators can steal from restaurants to boost excitement in their own programs.

Increasing grab-and-go

K-12 operators have an opportunity to increase focus Smart Snack options for students wanting to enjoy snack foods between meals—a trend that’s poised for continued growth, according to NPD’s November 2016 Foodservice Performance Update. Consider increasing offerings of prepacked, ready-to-go items that students can choose from and easily take to go.

Utilizing DIY options

Generation Z not only appreciates the ability to customize their meal, but they often expect it in the age of Chipotle, Subway and other fast-casual, make-it-your-way restaurants. In fact, according to Technomic’s recent Generational report, 50% of Gen Zers say that the ability to customize their meal is an important factor when choosing where to dine. To boost excitement during lunch, give kids the chance to create their own meals via a taco bar, build-your-own sandwiches and salads. Operators can take it a step further with other innovative “bar” ideas, such as waffle, parfait, soup, mac and cheese, hot dog or pasta bars.

Creative promotions

One of the top ways restaurants drive traffic is through topical, fun promos, such as football games or major awards shows. Kids love taking part in these fun promotions, and it’s an easy way that schools can increase participation. Consider some of these promo ideas:

  • Upcoming movie openings: Offering specialized dishes that take inspiration from new releases can be a way to entice kids—think a Harry Potter-inspired dish at Halloween or a Grinch menu favorite during December.
  • National Days: Every day of the year celebrates something, whether wacky or serious. Create promos surrounding National Linguine Day (September 15), National Waffle Day (August 24), National Pickle Day (November 14) or any of the other myriad fun holidays out there.
  • Sports: Olympics, The Big game or local teams —the options are endless. You can even promote school spirit at the same time by creating a promotion around your own district’s winning sports teams and their big games.

Lounging potential

Teens often go to a restaurant and stay for hours, simply hanging out with their friends. Entice students to stay in the cafeteria for this, rather than seeking out another option, by updating seating and other options. For example, 80% of millennials note that they have used free Wi-Fi in a restaurant in the past year, according to the NRA State of the Industry, 2017, a trend that school meal programs can capitalize on. Students might also enjoy comfier seating areas, such as sofas or armchairs and outdoor seating options that feature recharging stations for their devices.

Digital innovation

Many of the restaurants that students frequent are up on the latest technology, including digital signage, use of tabletop tablets or kiosks and video content. K-12 operators can draw on that appeal by updating their cafeterias to feature some of the latest technology, such as interactive menu boards and apps.

At Ankeny Community School District in Ankeny, Iowa, for example, the app SchoolCafe helps parents track their children’s daily cafeteria spending, view and add to lunch account balances, view itemized details about what kids are eating and much more. By helping bring the school cafeteria into modern times, Digital options such as this can help increase participation in lunch programs.

When considering the K-12 cafeteria, it may seem like adapting ideas popularized in restaurants isn’t feasible, but that’s not the case. By increasing grab-and-go options to make eating more convenient, upping the number of customizable meals and marketing around creative promotions, schools can get kids interested in eating breakfast and lunch there. Additionally, ensuring the dining spaces are comfortable and welcoming can increase participation in lunch programs, while modernizing and digitizing the cafeteria experience can help parents stay connected to what their kids are eating.

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