Create Your Own Back To School Catering Program

August is a month of transition between vacation season and getting back to school.  For many it is also a time to prepare for the fall which for many brings an upswing in catering sales as meetings begin to ramp up. 

Schools represents an opportunity that you may not have fully tapped into, but with some school specific offers, a little leg work and persistence you can build a program that not only brings in additional sales but also creates brand & location awareness while demonstrating an interest to participate in your local community.

Working with schools is not exactly a high margin business, but like breakfast it adds revenue and helps offset other fixed costs.  Schools by nature are nonprofit and are looking for inexpensive options to feed their students and faculty.  Not all school districts are the same, some are strapped for cash and others have well-funded budgets or parents willing to support off site food purchases, it helps to know which is which.  Also, not all schools are public and you may find that private or religious based schools a better bet when making your pitch.

Before you get started and start reaching out to your local schools lets go over a few things that will help you make sense of the education landscape.  Just as a disclaimer, I am going to cover what has been my experience, yours may be different or I am sure there are things I am not covering. 

Also, please share your experiences and ideas, hopefully we can learn a little from each other, isn’t that the real point of sharing info?

I generally break schools down into three simple groups, this is straight forward and done based on grade.  Primary and Middle Schools, High Schools, Colleges and Universities.  This is helpful since each school has different opportunities.

Now, what are the programs needed in order to ensure you have the right food offering and pricing for each type of school.


Primary and Middle Schools

Here are the main opportunities I have found with school’s K through 8th

·         Fund Raising – I refer this as my “Foot in Door” program.  It is a great conversation starter because it is about how you can help the school, not the other way around.  Once you have explained this, then you can talk about how they can help you.

·         School Administration & Teachers Meetings – I focus on my primary corporate menu as much as possible.  If I need to give something up, I use my standard set of promotions that I use in my email outreach to corporate customers.

·         School Lunch Program – This is going to vary by school, they all seem to have a slightly different expectation but a few things are always in common.

o   Low Price Point – $3.50 to $5.50 with higher price for larger meals needed for 6th – 8th graders

o   Nutrition – Meets some general nutritional guidelines, some school follow strict state or federal guidelines and others are just looking for some general balance.  There are specialty businesses that work this end of the market and you can almost never compete with them on price

o   Simple – Margins are thin and meals need to be easily distributed, so either bag it, or make sure it can be self-served from a simple set of containers

High Schools

The older the kids the more opportunities you have.  Focus on these for your best chance of engagement.  Fundraiser also apply for this group as described above.

·         Athletic Program – Most schools will have anywhere from 10 to 20 different teams when you include both boys and girls sports.  I focus on portable, individual meals, that stay safe and fresh for several hours.  Visiting teams can equate to as much opportunity as home teams, work with Athletic Director or coaches to find ways to get this info so it is a win for you and them, think kick back on how to approach.

·         Student Clubs, Organizations and Activities – This covers a lot of ground, including things like the music department, educational clubs, after school events, back to school events, teachers meetings and conferences, the list is a long one.  Focus on getting to know some of the key players, assistant principles seem to be that middle person that is involved in a lot of extra curricular activities and knows who is in charge of others.

Colleges and Universities

Many of the above programs and activities apply equally with this group, but here are a few things that are unique.

Student Housing – Contact the residence manager for each group of student housing and make sure you get as much promotional materials into their move in kits.  You can also, work on setting up some partnerships during the school year to host or participate in other events that may be scheduled.  This is great exposure for all parts of the restaurant.

Fraternities/Sororities – Location is key here, need to be close by or do delivery to the houses.  Focus on frequency programs where you will keep track of all the food they order and give them a percentage back at the end of each semester.  Tracking can be challenging but there are several simple ways to manage their ordering based on the type of POS system you use.

Freshman or Back to School Starting Events – Getting in front of 1,000 of students all at once can have benefits all year long, bring everything you have on promotional materials, coupons, flyers, etc.  I like to bring something interactive as a draw to my table, with prizes that they can win.  Current favorite is cornhole toss.

There is a lot more to go over but I think this is a great quick overview, don’t let the lower margins scare you, getting engaged with the schools has many long term benefits.  Community engagement is important to build awareness & goodwill within the community, and if you are in the suburbs there is no better and more central place to interact with local families.


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