Creating menus for more than 170 client sites is a major undertaking, especially in the fall when a new school year begins. We could simply dust off the previous year’s menus – lots of food service companies do that – but we know that affects long-term participation in meal programs. By refreshing our menus every year to incorporate new food trends and recently released products from manufacturers, we keep returning students interested in school meals and participation high.
The process for updating menus, which begins nearly a year ahead of time, includes:
CEO Nancy Close, Recipe & Menu Development Coordinator Brandon Porter and Ambika Senthilvel, Senior Director of Technology and Menu Planning, discuss changes suggested by client partners, food trends, expected commodities and new foods introduced by manufacturers. Nancy and Brandon also consider their personal recipes from years as chefs for a possible fit on our lunch menus. Several entrees introduced in recent years are actually adaptations of Nancy's popular recipes used in her restaurant, Caravan Serai, more than 30 years ago.
Using his culinary training, Brandon creates new recipes or adapts existing recipes that will work within the limitations of school lunch food service. He considers the flavor profile, spice level, scalability, labor intensity, transportability, use of commodity foods and whether it will remain desirable after being held at temperature for extended periods. He also refines the recipes to comply with USDA guidelines for sodium, fat, calories, whole grains, etc. He enters it into nutritional analysis software to generate nutritional data and confirm the recipe will generally fit within the weekly nutritional requirements and limits of the USDA guidelines. He repeats the process for each new offering.
These new recipes are then served to our team in the central commissary for lunch before they are tested more extensively at our spring taste tests with groups from client schools. Brandon oversees the taste tests and gets direct feedback from those consuming our meals. The menu items that appeal to most of taste-test participants advance to the next step.
With the new recipes loaded in the nutritional analysis system, Ambika, with support from Brandon and Nancy, builds the 6-week menu rotation template from the available recipes in the system. She shuffles the entrees around based on USDA weekly minimums for vegetable subgroups and whole grains and limits on sodium, fat and calories. She also considers availability of commodity products, distributor deliveries, products in inventory, entrees that are most conducive to being prepped on Friday for Monday delivery and labor intensity from one day to the next, all the while trying to vary the entrees within a week to keep it interesting. Whew! It’s like a puzzle – moving entrees and sides from one week to another to get everything to fit together.
From the initial template, Ambika and Product and Data Analyst Annapoorna Meyyappan create menu versions for each age group: childcare, K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12 and adult; and different versions for private programs versus public. They further iterate the templates for each client based on delivery schedule, cooking capabilities, staff levels, cultural composition of client site, pizza or no pizza, and other factors. Each menu iteration is confirmed for compliance. If one value is off, the entire menu week needs to be re-worked. When guidelines change, such as this past summer's reduction in sodium content, the domino effect is extensive. This past August, Ambika and her team created over 200 different versions of the 6-week menu rotation! WOW!
While technically not a part of the menu development process, CKC Good Food's proprietary "tagger" system is critical to producing the menus created.
Once the menus are finalized in the nutritional software, Database & Business Analyst Teja Adapa adds and codes them in tagger, the custom-built system that ensures we can produce and deliver about 30,000 meals and snacks daily to the right client sites throughout the metro. Tagger also helps the procurement team plan distributor orders and the warehouse team to manage inventory. Ambika meets with the procurement and warehouse teams regularly to head problems off before they happen, like when commodity shipments don't come in or there may be excess inventory. Once in tagger, PDF and Excel menus and food production records are generated and uploaded to the website.
A few days before the day of service, Prep Tag Coordinator Tyler Lowry (or soon, the newly hired Daniel Schultz) creates tags for each client based on the day’s menu. As a checks and balances measure, Prep Tag Coordinator Xeng Yang prints and organizes the tags for the kitchen team, which preps the food one day prior to when it is to be delivered to client sites. This is a greatly simplified view complicated by special circumstances and substitutions that arise.
The tags tell the kitchen prep teams how much of each meal component needs to be prepared for every client site. A tag indicating the client’s name, delivery route and quantity of each item is placed on every pan, box, bag to be delivered the next day. By labeling everything 1 of 10, for example, it’s less likely for something to be left behind.
As another set of checks and balances, the tagger system generates driver checklists for each route, indicating how many pans, boxes, bags, etc., need to be loaded for delivery. They retrieve their items for delivery from the ovens and coolers marked for their respective routes, count each item, do temp checks and verify items against the checklist.
With this extensive system, making one seemingly small menu change or a substitution can trigger a major domino effect. If a client requests chicken tenders be replaced by a chicken sandwich, Ambika must refigure the nutritional values for the entire menu week and may need to change other days’ planned meals to comply with USDA’s weekly guidelines. Everything has to be reprogrammed in tagger and new tags generated, if the change comes in the 11th hour.
With menus being published 6 weeks in advance of the first day of the month on the menu, changes begin well in advance. Our normal policy is 40 days’ notice; however, at the beginning of the school year, even more time is needed. We recommend serving a meal at least twice before determining whether it should be replaced by a more popular item. Sometimes kids need to see new foods multiple times before they let down their guard. Or if you receive feedback that a menu item is too spicy or salty, for example, we may be able to adjust the recipe prior to the next day that meal is served rather than swapping it out entirely.
If you have suggestions for menu changes, please share them with your Client Services Manager or contact Ambika Sentihivel.