Michael Rosenberger is a man with a vision when it comes to his job. Director of Food Service for the Irving (TX) ISD, he is overseeing a total overhaul of the way meals are served in the 35,000-student district southwest of Dallas.

“Traditionally, as at many schools, we made the food in the back in the kitchen out of sight of the kids and then brought it out to be served,” he says. “I want to take that wall between the back- and front-of-the-house down and I want the food to go directly from the oven to the serving line with no separation.”

After all, it’s what kids see every day in the commercial restaurant world, from the custom-assembly model of quick-serve chains like Chipotle and Subway to the open kitchens now prevalent even in upper tier restaurants.

To that end, Rosenberger has led a comprehensive renovation program at Irving ISD that is slowly transforming kitchen and servery layouts to make them more open, efficient and responsive. To date, eight sites have been completed while others have been partially modified while awaiting full renovation.

Bringing production to the front also makes service easier by facilitating replenishment, and it allows staffing to be utilized much more efficiently.  Instead of servers calling back for restocks or production staff guessing because they can’t see what’s moving up front, serving bins are replenished quickly.

Rosenberger compares it to a Just In Time (JIT) factory production approach, where components are delivered to the factory floor just as they are needed so nothing sits around. In factories that costs money, while in school foodservice that costs customer satisfaction as well as productivity.

“All labor is up front when the customer is here,” Rosenberger offers. “That’s where it should be because the customer is the most important thing.”

Keep the Line Moving

Why do school lunch lines stop or slow down? Reasons range from operational issues like insufficient staff readiness and product shortages/outages to student indecision, fumbling with cash, forgotten IDs and the taking of incomplete meals.

While kids will always be kids, Rosenberger says many of these issues can be addressed with improved processes driven by better kitchen/servery design and modern equipment.

He lists the following kitchen design goals:

• Solve the “running out” issue
• Improve work and food flow
• Implement a near-JIT “oven to serve” model using rapid cooking technologies
• Minimize hot and cold food holding times
• Focus staff efforts on critical areas at the critical times
• Implement an open kitchen design
• Maximize customer flow
• Improve cost and operating efficiencies

“Technology has made a dinosaur of the traditional two-person serving line,” he explains. “Now, one employee can do both jobs as long as the back-of-the-house supports them.” Hence, servers stay at the stations.

“We deploy runners who keep each line replenished directly from equipment just behind the service area so customers see that everything coming out has been freshly made. There is nothing appearing from the back kitchen areas.”

As a consequence of these changes, food cost dropped from 42% to 37% at one renovated site, and from 33% to 28% at another. The latter was also able to save nearly $30,000 in labor through staff reductions even as it expanded serving lines from two to five. (Reduced staff is generally reassigned in lieu of new hires, resulting in overall district labor savings.)

In fact, the renovated kitchen/servery layout has been so successful that it has cut 15 minutes from the elementary school lunch schedule (and 10 from middle schools). “You can bet that the school administrations and teachers were happy to get the extra time for education activities,” Rosenberger says.