“No one ever asked us!”

That’s what a group of students replied when I recently conducted a K-12 focus group. Yet in my experience, , I’ve found that Focus Groups provide the most honest—and sometimes startling responses from the students K-12 directors and their business partners are trying to reach. So I take them seriously and as a result have been rewarded with useful insight time after time.  I don’t know of a more reliable way of tuning into the student mind-set.
 
After all, knowing  in advance of menu planning what your customers like, hate and really want is valuable information for anyone in the K-12 foodservice world.
 

Many school districts use canned fruits to provide variety and reduce food costs. But is there a better alternative? We asked our team, “What can we do differently to increase student consumption of fruits and vegetables?” Then we set out to  discover what our customers were willing to buy and to get creative in finding ways to offer it. 
 

Our goal was to make it fun to eat fruits and vegetables in the cafeterias. We started by looking to offer a new fresh fruit option. That led to our working with a manufacturer to develop “spears”—three-inch sections cut from honeydew, cantaloupe and pineapples. These were packaged in clear bags that students could easily open and from which the fruit could be "pushed" out, allowing eating on the go.
 
The schools where we offered the new product went from serving 125 portions of canned pineapple tidbits a day to over 700 portions of the various fresh spear products a day, with pineapple  the number one seller. And it was the direct result of focus group communication with our customers followed by bringing the final product to them for approval before the big launch. 
 
Here's another example: most students do not eat the typical apple as it is served in a cafeteria. At one school with an enrollment of almost 2000, only about 25 apples were served daily. In many situations, the majority of the apples taken on the line end up in the trashcans. These are the healthiest trashcans you've ever seen! 
 

So we sat down with some students and asked them what was the best way to eat apples. Not surprisingly, the resounding answer was “apple slices.” But we were looking to add more “fun.” So we worked with a supplier to create diced cinnamon apples tossed in cinnamon, with no sugar. These were an immediate success. That same school went from serving 25 portions of apples a day to over 800 a day. There was only one problem. The trashcans were angry because they did not get their servings of fruit anymore! 
 

Given K-12 budgets, it is often important to streamline offerings due to limited funding. We recently developed a product in partnership with a national manufacturer and a national commodity council. We married two existing products and created a new best-seller. The product consisted of yogurt, cereal and diced cinnamon apples. The average breakfast participation increase was between 10% and 20%. The incremental sales that the manufacturer experienced ranged from 50% to 303%. Not bad for an investment of a little creativity and a willingness to the customer.

 

You don’t have to second-guess what works or doesn’t in your market. Just ask. Formulate the right

questions and present them to the right sampling of students and you will have a wealth of input—including some pretty savvy suggestions—from which to build new products and/or systems that fit your needs and budgetary parameters. You’re sitting on a gold mine of resources ready to set you straight and filled with customers eager to enjoy the fruits of their participation. Why not go for it?

 
 

Kern Halls is Chief Innovator of Ingenious Culinary Concepts, a training and consulting company for the K-12 foodservice industry. You can learn more about his ideas at www.ingeniouscc.com.