RUNNING A SCHOOL CAFETERIA WAS SO MUCH FUN

Putting my restaurant experience to good use

One of my responsibilities as a high school business manager was to manage the cafeteria. I was already qualified to perform this task, but it was still an awakening. My background was also one of the reasons I got hired.


Privatizing of the cafeteria

The cafeteria employees were school board staff until the district decided to privatize the operation a couple of years into my career. Third party operators were solicited to provide quotes. The business interest from the major foodservice companies was weak at best. The hours of operation mirrored the school day (8:00–3:00 / Mon-Fri) and the minimal revenue stream didn’t entice any decent commission offers.

I had already catered many school events in my current administrative position, utilizing the cafeteria and staff volunteers. The only cost to the school was the food, and I was able to put my restaurant experience to good use. Then the entrepreneur in me surfaced and I realized that “I could operate the cafeteria as a contractor.”


Since I didn’t have a part-time job or hobby

The school principal welcomed my plan and then I received approval from the district superintendent to avoid any conflict of interest. My involvement with the cafeteria had to be on my personal time. Not a problem as I was allowed some flexibility in my business manager position which benefited the school in the long run. Besides, I was on salary and already working extended hours. I now added Saturdays to my work week.


Staffing is the first priority

I employed two really good staff with foodservice backgrounds. The hours were better than a restaurant or fast-food. The women loved the hours and school holidays allowed them to be with their families. I paid them a bonus before each school break (Christmas, spring break, summer). They took care of me, and I took care of them.

Students worked the lunch hour and were paid in food and drink.  I would spend my lunch working the cafeteria as well. It got me off my ass and out of the office. I also enjoyed a free hot lunch. I hated bringing lunch to work.


Taking it up a notch

We served pretty good food for a school cafeteria. It wasn’t difficult to prepare better food than my predecessors. I always used quality products as there was still a lot of pride involved. We even had a vegetarian chili as a special before plant-based meat was even popular.

I tried some healthy options, and they went nowhere. Even the staff weren’t interested. Fries & gravy was our biggest seller by far. Welcome to the school cafeteria business.

Prices were quite reasonable too as this was a sideline for me and making a few extra bucks was more than adequate. 


Slurpees to the rescue

Early on I invested in a slurpee/slush machine (over $12,000). I realized how popular this frozen beverage was at a previous high school when I saw so many students drinking them in the dead of winter. It was one of the smartest things I ever did; it was paid off within a year.  Slurpee floats with ice cream were really popular, too. I couldn’t believe some of the combinations that students requested (e.g. – Rocky Road ice cream with lime, orange, or root beer).


Outside of school hours

Catering school functions was a bonus for the school as staff assisted in the prep, cooking, serving, and clean-up; and I only charged for the food. Without a profit to consider, I was able to offer chicken breasts, ribs, or steaks for a much better cost than an outside caterer. Any leftover food went to the staff volunteers.

Sports tournaments on weekends was another revenue stream. They ran on Friday night and all-day Saturday and were busy with students, coaches, and parents from the metropolitan area. I staffed these functions with my brother and my kids. It was a family bonding event.


Many thanks for the opportunity

The energy level of 900 young adults was something to behold. Add in the school staff and it was a dynamic group to feed. I had to be sharp and engaged to maintain control. It was an excellent encore to my foodservice career and fun beyond belief.

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