The Five Senses: Every Touch Point Matters in Food Service
Updated: Jul 23
Leaders who want to give the best customer service in their school's food service have a lot of factors to consider. Creating happy customers (the students) isn't just about serving foods they like. It's about understanding every point of contact that your students have to form an opinion about your cafeteria (these are called touch points) and making sure you are delivering a quality product. I discuss this concept in detail in my new book, Feed Our Students Well. I believe the best dining experience cannot be crafted without a deliberate focus on how your service can wow your students in each of the five senses: smell, hearing, sight, touch and taste.
When we think about our customers' experience through the five senses, we can get a holistic view of how they form their opinions. While serving the foods they like is great—chicken fingers and pizza are big winners for all schools—it's only a part of students' satisfaction. I've certainly experienced bad pizza, whether it was too cold or too old. But it's not just about the pizza. Eating a great slice can be ruined by a foul odor or a sticky table. Have you ever eaten at a restaurant where guests were being unruly and ruined your relaxing vibe? These are all big factors for restaurants and students alike.
Below, I've broken down a student's dining experience by each of the five senses. As you read, transport yourself to your own school's cafeteria and imagine these scenarios occurring. I encourage leaders to take the time to do this--what I call walking in the shoes of the customers--to see just how a bad impression can affect students' experience at each of these five touch points.
The Sense of Smell
I've started with the sense of smell because this touch point radiates from a school's cafeteria throughout the entire building. We've all walked down the halls and been able to guess what was on the menu for lunch that day. Sometimes that smell is fabulous, mouth watering, other times it is. . .not. Certain vegetables like asparagus, broccoli and cabbage can overpower the olfactory glands. Fish is another culprit. When you're strolling past the cafeteria you don't want to be transported to a fishing dock, do you?
The other big offender is garbage. This is a big pet peeve of mine. Cafeterias should be cleaned not only throughout the day, but throughout lunch periods. If you're finding that your students are filling up the garbage bins to the point that they need to be emptied in the middle of a lunch period, consider adding more bins. Nothing kills an appetite like garbage wafting through the air.
You'll also want to make sure odors from bathrooms nearby do not seep into your cafeteria. Who wants to think of a toilet when they're sitting down to eat? If you know students smoke in the restrooms, neutralizing those odors should be critically important as well.
These malodorous offenders can turn off your students from halfway across the school. Can you think of any other foods that you've smelled at your school that were an instant turn-off? You can bet your students had a similar reaction.
The Sense of Hearing
The next sense that can accost a customer even before they enter the cafeteria is the sense of hearing. When visiting unfamiliar schools, I've sometimes been unable to tell if I'd just walked by a gymnasium or a cafeteria. Too-loud, out-of-control students can ruin a dining experience. We've all heard students screaming from the lunch room. What if a member of the community walked by and heard? They might get the impression we're poisoning our students in there! There's a fine line between letting students unwind over a meal and having an out-of-control cafeteria. Be sure to let them know there are rules and order to follow while eating.
On the flip side, you don't want to be too strict and have students nervous they will get in trouble for being too loud at lunch. I remember as a student we had to be silent and while I'm sure the cafeteria staff were happy, we certainly were not!
I love piping relaxing music into the cafeteria. It sets the right tone for the space and has a way of bringing some great ambiance for a meal. Consider airing school-appropriate content on televisions mounted on walls to enhance the experience.
Food and conversation have gone together since the beginning of time, so embrace the communal atmosphere only a cafeteria can create and make sure that the noise you hear is happy, yet under-control students.
The Sense of Sight
Sight is the next sense that comes into play in a school cafeteria. How does the space look? Are tables and chairs mismatched? Is there paint chipping off the walls? I sometimes find that looking at the cafeteria when it's empty, assessing how the colors and condition of the furniture affect the visual appeal, can bring some clarity on what needs to be spruced up.
Food presentation is the other big visual touch point. When I think of the stereotypical "lunch lady," I envision them plopping food onto plates. What a fitting term for an uninspired act. Consider how food is offered to students and how it is delivered to their plates. While cafeteria servers may not have the time or ability to give serving and plating the grace that a master chef may, taking a few pages out of the books of restaurant chefs may help. Next time you go out to eat, take note of the food presentation. Instagram and Pinterest are great resources as well. Food service employees can collect great visual ideas to inspire them to go above and beyond the typical and go from plopping to eye-popping.
The Sense of Touch
Touch is a sense that eludes many leaders and cafeteria workers. However, it can be just as vital as the other senses. When I think of the sense of touch in a school cafeteria one word comes to mind: sticky. Floors, chairs, tables, garbage bins, condiment stations—there are so many surfaces with which our students' sticky hands and foods come into contact. Who wants to use a sticky ketchup bottle? Or touch the sticky hinged door on the garbage bin to throw their food away? What about this mashup of food service touch points: the cacophony of sticky feet on linoleum floors? I cringe just thinking about that! I'm sure your students could tell you all about the sticky spots in your cafeteria.
Leaders need to be sure all surfaces are cleaned quickly and thoroughly. Of course, ensuring your cafeteria does not run out of napkins for those students who want to make sure their hands are clean is a must. But that's just the start. Don't take it for granted that employees thoroughly wipe down surfaces like tables and chairs after each meal period—make sure it's done. The same goes for floors and other areas prone to stickiness. Avoiding these tactile turn-offs can be a huge win for a touch point you may not have considered a problem.
The Sense of Taste
Last, but certainly not least, is the sense of taste. Growing up, I recall being forced to sit and finish a nauseating parmesan cheese sandwich in my school cafeteria. To this day, I get a little green when I think of that gross meal. I'm not the only public school kid with a memory like that and there's a good chance some of yours have one too. Foods that are too mushy, too salty, too bland, too sour or too bitter can ruin an appetite. That first bite of a bad dish can turn a person's stomach. This is not the experience we want our students to have in our cafeterias!
School food doesn't have to be bad food. Nor does it have to be unhealthy food. While chicken fingers and pizza will always be crowd favorites, try challenging students' palettes with unique, diverse cuisine.
The bottom line is if you can't get your food's taste right, all your effort to appeal to the other four senses becomes moot. You've built up your audience to wow them by delivering on the other senses, now it's time to close it out. I like to encourage food service employees to be creative with menu selections. Offering small-scale tastings can be a great way to find out if students like a food before putting it on the menu and seeing it go to waste because no one likes it. I believe inspired employees cook great meals, so do what you can to motivate and encourage their creativity!
Wrapping It Up
As leaders, we need to think critically about the environment in which our students eat. While it is critical that we get the food right—good food creates happy students—we need to do a lot more than that in order to wow our customers. If we start by thinking of the five senses, we can evaluate our service at all the important touch points students experience during a lunch period. Improving each of those touch points can take time. Remember, it’s a process, but at the end of the day, knowing that you’re taking steps to improve your cafeteria's customer service to students is all that matters.