The K-12 sector — like others in the foodservice industry — has had a rough go this past couple of years as the pandemic continues. During the height of school closures, foodservice directors have had to think through big-picture changes to improve the safety of their operations, while aligning with future goals to offer the students of tomorrow a wider variety of delicious, nutritious food.
Equipment, naturally, plays a huge role in these goals.
Take it from Chef Jessica McKinney with Lexington Independents, a division of Elior North America, which manages the foodservice program at Bulloch Academy, a private K-12 school in Statesboro, Ga. The school went through a dining hall renovation last year that involved some new investments in equipment. McKinney lists the top five pieces that she says have made a world of difference in the culinary team’s ability to not only offer a wider, more regularly updated menu, but also one that can meet volume demands with less labor.
1. Combi Ovens
The addition of the combi oven was a “game-changer” for McKinney. By replacing multiple ovens and steamers, the combi oven is able to do more in less space. McKinney uses the combi oven for a variety of cooking and baking needs, including steaming and roasting vegetables, cooking pasta, baking cookies with extreme consistency, “frying” hush puppies and “finishing fried chicken without losing crispiness,” she says. “We can even cook bacon much faster, in just about 8 minutes versus 15 minutes in a traditional convection oven. The combi has definitely helped us do more with a smaller labor force.”
2. Mobile Food Storage
In the past, the foodservice team used just two hotboxes kept in the kitchen to hold cooked food that had to be brought out by the tray. “We had to go back and forth constantly,” says McKinney.
Now, with the investment of multiple temperature-controlled, plug-and-play hot boxes on casters, the team can set up the boxes directly behind the serving lines, which allows staff to serve without having to retreat to the kitchen for replenishments.
3. Interchangeable Hot and Cold Food Wells
These flexible wells allowed McKinney to introduce a customization station where she introduces many global flavors as well as offers familiar comfort food creations. The tater tot bar is the most popular, with the hot and cold wells holding different toppings like chili, shredded cheese, onions, tomatoes and jalapenos.
“This is a new station for the students this year and they really love it,” says McKinney, who adds that she’s also featured a waffle bar, nacho bar, taco bar, pasta and more. There are also a couple of undercounter induction plates available for any a la minute cooking needs.
“The menu changes daily so the ability to keep certain wells hot and turn them off to serve cold items is really helpful,” she says. McKinney has also used the bar to serve holiday meals, such as Thanksgiving dinner, using the induction plate to keep gravy hot.
4. Refrigerated Salad Bar
“Many of the students will grab a sandwich and add toppings from the salad bar, like tomatoes and peppers, and this limits us having to prep a lot of additional toppings separately,” she says.
5. Grab-and-Go Merchandiser
As part of the renovation, grab-and-go options were expanded to keep the students moving through the dining hall space quickly and efficiently and to reduce labor.
A new refrigerated display case holds an expanded variety of bottled drinks as well as individually prepackaged desserts, fruit cups and yogurt for easy access.
This one particular piece, McKinney says, “has allowed us to offer a much wider variety of healthy items to choose from.”