The first term in the school year is seen as a plum opportunity to boost take-up of school lunches and capture new custom, as Rosalind Mullen discovers
When it comes to school meals, Vic Laws at AVL Consultancy has done his sums. According to his calculations, if a caterer can capture a child when he or she starts school, it's worth £5,000 during their school life.
So, how does a caterer go about winning this youthful market in a sector where the average meal price is about £1.93 across all schools?
Most see the September term as their main chance to drive school lunch uptake for the coming year.
"The first few weeks of a new school year are critical. It is a time when we have many new pupils coming into the dining hall for the first time and also a chance to capture existing pupils with new, interesting menus," says David Weller, managing director, Alliance in Partnership.
Neil Fuller, managing director, Caterlink, agrees: "School meals are habit forming, so capturing the market in September is essential if you want to make life easier for the rest of the year."
Laws says the most successful caterers tend to be those who are proactive in sending out menus before the start of term, giving parents and pupils taster sessions on induction days and even offering deals such as buy-one-get-one-free.
He stresses that it's also important to make it easy for children to actually have meals. For instance, by allowing them to choose which days they want to buy lunch rather than having to commit to a full week and by giving concessions to families with several children. This more flexible approach relies on the caterer and school working closely together, because the money collection tends to be done by the school.
Take-up varies between authorities and schools depending on factors such as the number of free meals, whether the school allows older pupils to go into town at lunchtimes and so on. That said, there has already been some general improvement in take-up since the dip following Jamie Oliver's campaign.
A recent report from the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) and the School Food Trust (SFT) showed a good increase in take-up among primary schools, with 44.1% of children opting for the school canteen over packed lunches, up from 41.4% last year. There was also a slightly lower but still good take-up on secondary schools, with take-up of 37.6% against 35.8% for the previous year. The good news is that this increase is among paid meals as much as free meals.
But it's all very well winning custom - the real talent lies in maintaining it. There are no statistics on the tail-off of uptake after the first few weeks, but word of mouth suggests it could be as much as 10-20% of new starters. According to Laws, this is often either because the children don't like the food, find they have to queue for too long or don't like the atmosphere. "The dining room has got to be warm and fuzzy," he says.
Primary school children need particular thought, for instance. Bearing in mind that many four- and five-year-olds can't read, it's crucial that menus are user-friendly. Laws advocates using pictorial menus, while at some primary schools the menu is read out in assembly.
As the term progresses, momentum can be kept up by maintaining standards and changing menus. The other great fillip, says Laws, is the National School Meals Week in November where children can participate in activities and theme days as part of the curriculum (see page 34). Again it needs school co-operation.
The one battle that is ever present is the spectre of price increases as food-cost inflation continues to bite. In a bid to increase uptake in Richmond this September, for instance, new contract-winner ISS Facilities Education has pledged to offer lunch at 29 primary and special schools in the borough at cost of £2.07 per meal, down from £2.45 under Sodexo.
Looking ahead, Laws warns that it is more important than ever for caterers to capture the market and maintain it. He suggests free meal entitlement is set to change in response to the universal tax credit shift in 2012.
The struggle against packed lunches is tied up with price, but it gets even tougher in the summer term when the weather improves and children want to be outside.
"The way round this is to catch them in the autumn and winter when the weather is poor and make it a policy that people with packed lunches eat with those having school meals," explains Law.
The good news is that while Laws concedes September is an important opportunity, he says it's not the only one.
"You get two chances," he says. "September is not necessarily the busiest time - January is often busier - but there is usually an increase at the start of term."
Carl Morris, national sales director at Elior, agrees: "With schools you get other opportunities during the year - unlike universities, where they say if you don't catch them in the first term you lose them forever."
the importance of feedback
Alliance in Partnership (AiP) places great emphasis on getting feedback on the school meals service from pupils, parents and staff before and at the beginning of the school year to ascertain ethnic food requirements and special dietary needs among new pupils. Questions are sent out on food variety, taste, cost, service and so on via online internet surveys, posted surveys and verbal one-to-ones - which continues throughout the year.
Similarly, when the caterer wins new business it ensures new customers are aware of what the service will be like by using teaser campaigns. "Our experience shows we have increased turnover by 10-20% on day one, while future years see double digit growth once we are established," managing director David Weller explains.
One of AiP's most successful investments has been in biometric cashless systems. Besides creating smoother administration processes and eliminating the need for pupils to carry cash, it now means meal choices can be monitored and queuing times reduced.
A number of other policies have proved equally successful. For instance, point-of-sale boards and display features are created for every new menu. Similarly, menus, PoS displays and newsletters are designed to be vibrant in colour with appetising images of the dishes shown to whet appetites.
focus on freshly prepared, healthy food
Titus Salt School, a new Building Schools For The Future (BSF) school, opened in September 2008, replacing the former Salt Grammar School. Innovate, which was awarded the contract to supply catering services in May 2008, collaborated with the contractors and suggested a number of changes to design and equipment in the kitchen, service area and dining rooms.
The Innovate team then launched into a consultation with the school, students and parents to understand their requirements and to find out what they wanted to see changed when the school relaunched. This resulted in a number of changes, including:
â- Improvement of service area to speed traffic flow and reduce queuing
â- Specification and commissioning of a fast tilling system with integrated EPoS, barcode scanners and cashless functions
â- Retraining of staff
â- Redesign of back-office systems, including product specifications, compliance, stock management, production planning and staff rosters
â- Redesign of the supply chain in terms of quality and sustainability
â- Set-up of an online student satisfaction survey and a communications system for students, staff and parents
The results were dramatic, with the caterer achieving about 2.5 times the uptake of the previous incumbent.
capturing students before they even join
Elior's education division, which accounts for 15% of company business, sets out to capture the new intake of secondary school pupils before they even join. So, between February and June of the previous year, the catering teams start offering taster days at pupil inductions and send them home with sample menus.
To reinforce this, catering staff are on hand to discuss menus at parent open evenings. They tackle the argument for packed lunches, for instance, by explaining how school meals are nutritionally balanced - with the added bonus that parents don't have to make them every day.
By the summer term, the teams are sending out information on how to sign up for school lunches and offering tempting deals such as sibling discounts.
However, the hard work really starts in September. As Carl Morris, national sales director at Elior explains, it's crucial to manage the new intake of secondary school pupils.
"It can be overwhelming for the new starters. The rest of the school doesn't wait for year seven, so we need to make signage clear so they can see what the meal deals are and keep the price rounded up so they speed up the queue."
In addition, staff are briefed in the importance of guiding the new arrivals and keeping the queues moving or risk losing custom. For instance, they explain foods and offer samples of dishes that many pupils may not have tried before.
"In primary schools they line up and are told what to do," says Morris. "In secondary, they expect more adult treatment - they are more in tune with the high street."
how can national school meals week help?
The school year may start with a bang, but can you maintain it? Arnold Fewell, managing director of AVF Marketing, says: "Take-up of school lunches tends to be high initially, then queuing and so on puts pupils off and there is a slow decline towards the summer when the weather is better, as they want to be outside."
National School Meals Week (NSMW) is designed to give school meals a fresh boost. Market research shows that after NSMW in 2010, 74% of the 17,000 participating schools recorded success, notching up an average increase in meal numbers of 6.3%. Some 62% said they continued to see an increase the following week and 55% said they had an increase a month afterwards.
The other good news is that the campaign, which is run by the Local Authority Caterers Association for primary and secondary schools, is free. It provides stickers, posters and suggested themed days from Monday to Friday plus lots of downloadable initiatives.
â- This year's NSMW is from 7-11 November.
slipping flyers into lunchboxes
"Our operations team are very busy in the summer ensuring everything is ready for September," says Neil Fuller, managing director, Caterlink.
Initiatives include offering primary school children six weeks' worth of lunches for the price of five and sending out lunch vouchers in school newsletters. A recent initiative in Maidenhead took this further, when a free newspaper featured a story on the provenance of the caterer's school lunches alongside a voucher. The result was that some 400 vouchers were redeemed.
And to win the packed lunch brigade, the caterers often slip flyers on the food's provenance into children's empty lunch boxes so mums will see it at the end of the day.
Secondary schools are approached slightly differently, with, say, two-course meal deals or vouchers sent out with induction packs in the summer before the new school year, as well as tasters at induction days. "We work with the school to fund a theme day and offer them a free lunch that may encourage them to opt out of packed lunches," says Fuller.
This is followed with a presentation at the parents' induction evening and the incentive of a 10% discount if they sign up that night.
Throughout the year, Fuller constantly looks for marketing opportunities. For instance, during a cold snap the catering teams might remind parents that children with packed lunches could have a hot meal.
"It's important to work with a school's technology," says Fuller. "The vast majority email and text parents weekly, so why not tag on a message saying ‘tomorrow is roast day'.
Success in primary schools is monitored in terms of take-up and Fuller says it is not unusual for the voucher and taster initiatives to generate a 30-40% increase in numbers.
Conversely, secondary schools are monitored in terms of the revenue generated, with initiatives seeing a 30% increase in spend.