Aramark: Three years ago the third of the industry's Big Three began a comprehensive project to research what kinds of things would encourage older students to stay in their schools and eat lunch instead of exercising the "open-campus" option that allows them to leave the grounds for awhile and eat fast food somewhere.
In answer, Aramark developed two entire new dining brands with which to lure and keep kids eating at school, including a big component of more healthful menus. The 12 Spot is Aramark's brand for middle-school kids, and the U.B.U. Lounge is the brand for high-schoolers.
For each, Aramark provides a variety of menu items that retain tastes kids enjoy but which also include some new component that boosts their nutritional value as well. For example, yogurt parfait is a new entry, as is chicken Caesar salad and spinach salad. There's also a special emphasis on grab-and-go merchandising so students can get through the line quickly.
"We wanted to create a refuge for them during the very short period that they get for lunch, usually under 30 minutes," Dixon says. "Kids at this age are trying to figure out who they are and are getting ready to go to college. This is a place where they can come and be themselves—but that will give them nutritious items too, and quickly."
The U.B.U. Lounge in each high school is actually that: a space decked out with environmental touches such as couches, special paint, and lighting, even overhead music—à la Starbucks outlets that so many teenagers gravitate to after school.
Students have responded very positively. Dixon says that meal participation has increased from 10 percent to 45 percent in the 150 school districts so far where the 12 Spot and U.B.U. Lounge have been broadly implemented. In its third year of rolling out the concepts, this school year Aramark is reaching about the last of the 400 total school districts that it serves across the United States.
East Side Entrees: Breakfast consumption in schools is way below that of lunch, yet the federal government is encouraging more with subsidies. So Woodbury, New York-based entrepreneur Gary Davis created a grab-and-go kit called Breakfast Breaks that packages various combinations of brand entities already well known to kids and their parents. Each Breakfast Break contains a single-serving package of a favorite kids' breakfast brand, such as Cheerios cereal or Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, as well as Minute Maid juice and another bread- or grain-based treat, and either a serving of shelf-stable milk or milk served on the side. They come in seven different menu varieties and four different packages.
Davis's East Side Entrees company expects this year to reach $100 million in annualized sales of Breakfast Breaks, which are purchased by the US government and school districts for distribution to school kids.
"We make sure we work with the best brands in each category, because they drive the sales," says Amy Josephson, vice president of marketing. "Usually kids make their decisions about which Breakfast Breaks kit they want based on the cereal that is included."
So successful has the company been in creating a brand around the Breakfast Breaks phenomenon, in fact, that it also has introduced Meal Breaks, meant to penetrate the lunchtime school business. The popularity of Breakfast Breaks has helped lure other big brands into the school-breakfast marketplace, such as Kellogg's, which has introduced a breakfast box called Morning Jump-Starts.
Juice Stop: Made-to-order fruit smoothies are increasingly popular with high-school kids. As their off-campus availability increases through the growth of major chains including Jamba Juice, Planet Smoothie, and Smoothie King, some brands and their franchisees are spying opportunities to provide smoothies in schools as well. School officials are only too happy to consider the idea because of the sterling nutritional value most of the beverages offer.
A franchisee of Juice Stop, for example, a Denver-based chain with 43 units so far, is talking with administrators in Nebraska about setting up a branded outlet on the campus of one of the state's largest public high schools. Already, some Juice Stop franchisees accept faxed orders from school cafeterias and then bring the drinks to campus.
"This is a big push lately for some of our store owners," says Will Glennie, president of Juice Stop. "They recognize the opportunity to expand our sales demographic, and the kids love having a smoothie brand that they know from the local store available during the school day."
Sodexho: Sodexho may be the most aggressive of the Big Three at adapting and deploying outside brands to increase its share of kids' stomachs. Besides Fizzy Fruit, it also is purchasing Breakfast Breaks for distribution in many of its accounts.
"They're fast, easy, and convenient," Callahan says. "And they're in a cute package that's attractive to [elementary-school] kids. We can distribute these anywhere from the traditional cafeteria settings, to hallways, or even in classrooms."
At the same time, Sodexho is home-growing some brands. Its new cafeteria brand is Crossroads Cafe. New signage at each school has been erected, giving local managers flexibility to use school colors—or at least avoid using a key rival's. Menu boards and other signs bear the Crossroads Cafe logos.
Under the new brand banner, Sodexho is trying to pull off the very difficult dual trick of fielding much more healthful fare—but doing as much as possible at the cost level of the federal subsidies that are supposed to make nutritious school lunches available to students at all income levels. It's in attempting this feat that company executives realize the tremendous hold that fast food and consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands have on young consumers.
"Some say you've got a captive audience in the schools, so you ought to be able to do well," says Steve Cooney, Sodexho's national executive chef for school services. "But my captive audience will expect to get in our cafeteria, for $2, what they get down the street for $6."
So, in trying various approaches, food, beverage, and foodservice brands are making significant inroads in the previously foreboding environment of the school cafeteria. And they're doing so by not only working around but also, in some cases, leveraging the simultaneous trend toward healthier fare on campus.
It is emerging as a case where strong branding helps achieve goals that are as socially desirable as they are commercially beneficial.