Learn the ABC's of selling pizza to schools

Marketing pizza to schools can be a rewarding investment for pizza store owners looking for additional sources of revenue. There are several factors to consider if you want to penetrate the school segment. Additional labor costs and equipment are two factors along with the investment of your time in getting the contracts with the cafeterias and contacting other school organizations. Once you are in the schools there is great potential for sales to the kids, parents, teachers, athletic departments and other school organizations.

There are several avenues you can take when targeting this segment. You can go after contracts with the cafeterias, target the teachers or aim for selling to school organizations such as athletics, band, PTA groups or classroom demonstrations and educational tours of your store. Any way you slice it, sales opportunities can be found here.

Anthony Booth, who owns two Pizza Market stores in Illinois and Kentucky, says it is worthwhile for small guys. "It's great if you don't mind working. One of the biggest problems you have if you cater to the cafeterias is to open your store earlier and work right through lunch in order to make the pizzas you are going to deliver to the schools. You spend until 10:30 making the school's lunches and then it's time for your regular lunch rush." He says that they make 250 to 300 pizzas along with about 200 cheese sticks and 75 ham or turkey sandwiches in an average week for the two schools he serves.

Considerations for Selling to Cafeterias

There are a couple of things to consider when selling to school cafeterias. Anthony says that you will need warmers, slicers and transportation if you are going to get into this area. He had to purchase warmers to make sure the pizzas, cheese sticks and subs were hot when the kids purchased them. Anthony said he needed about seven warmers for the two schools he serves. He bought used Hatco warmers (800-558-0607, www.hatcocorp.com) that would fit in the back of a minivan for about $500 to $700 each. He rolls them into the school cafeteria before lunch and picks them up that evening. If you do provide pizzas to the schools, check with their cafeteria to see if they already have warmers to prevent an unnecessary purchase.

Tom Lehmann, director of bakery assistance with the American Institute of Baking (www.aibonline.com), says that pizzas will be reheated by the school and need to be held at a minimum temperature of 140F and maximum of 145F. Another very important factor is the quality of your food. Pizzas cooked for school lunch programs may be held in warmers for as long as two to three hours. In this time, the quality may deteriorate and leave students with a bad association to your pizza.

In most cases, you will have to get the nutritional content of your pizza analyzed. This requires that you send a list of ingredients to a company that can do the breakdown for you.  Tom Lehmann says they can do nutritional content analysis and assist in developing nutritional labels. The fee is $50 for the analysis (contact Don Pickering at 785-537-4750 extension 171 for more information) and you just send them the formula and a list of ingredients. It usually takes two to seven working days to get the analysis back. Stefano's owner, Bob Valentino added that Alliant, his food distributor, helped with the nutritional content.

If you are going to deliver to the schools, you will need additional drivers during the same time you need employees to handle lunch crowds. Anthony says he uses mini vans to carry the food to the schools and adds that slicers (look at the Equalizer by Lloyd Industries, 800-748-6251, www.pizzatools.com) are needed to insure the nutritional content is relatively the same.  You also need to make sure every student gets exactly the same size as the others so kids don't fight over the biggest slice.

Anthony said that there were no specific requirements for packaging or listing the nutritional content for each individual order. "When you sell ala Carte, no nutritional content is needed because they print this information on banners and post them in the cafeteria." Anthony added that he did provide packaging.

Another consideration is the rules for selling to schools. Some states require government officials to oversee the production of food for schools, but many pizza operations get around this because they sell to the cafeterias as if they were normal customers. Anthony said he got around this rule and the nutritional content thing because the rules do not apply if you sell ala Carte. Check with the school board or food service director in your area about this before you get a contract.

Pat Richardson, director of food services for the Oxford School District in Oxford, Miss., says that many states must abide by HACCP regulations for food served in school cafeterias. She recommends that any pizzeria operator who gets a contract with, or sells to, a school should contact the local health department or food service director for the school to get a list of the rules and regulations. She adds that Mississippi, like several other states, operate under state purchasing. This means in order to sell to the school cafeteria the pizza operator must go to the school with a proposal. If the school decides to purchase pizza, there is a request for bids and the lowest bid is accepted, but not all states are set up under this system. She recommends that you contact the director of food services for the school district you are targeting.

How to Get Your Foot in the Door

Anthony said that he took his pizzas to Marriot Foodservice, who was the company who operated the school cafeteria. He sold them 12 inch one topping pizzas for $5 each. The pizzas were cut into eight slices and the school sold them for $1.50 for two slices (make sure to ask if you can provide a sign or banner to let students know whose pizza they are eating). He recommends going to the school's district office that handles the cafeterias or foodservice provider to find out how and to whom you can submit a proposal. He first went to the principal at one school with his proposal and then talked to the district school board. He had a contract with that school, but purchased a used catering truck for about $6,000 dollars and parked across the road from the other school where he sells pizza. Students at that school are allowed to leave the campus for lunch and he gave one free pizza a week to the guy who owned the vacant lot across from the school to let him park there. Now that is cheap rent.

Selling to School Organizations

Bob Valentino says that he got into the schools when he was contacted by a local PTA group and sold them 25 to 30 pizzas. Getting involved with organizations such as this can get your foot in the door and lead to other opportunities. He said that he got many referrals after supplying the PTA with fresh, hot pizzas.

Other people who have seen success in getting their pizzas in schools say you need to become involved with the schools and the organizations that have several meetings or functions, such as the band or athletic teams. Billie Pruitt, owner of The Pizza Shoppe in Crisfield, Maryland, says the basketball coaches and players come in before each game and she gives them a free spaghetti dinner. The coaches like this because it loads the players up on carbohydrates before the game. The catch is they have to purchase their drinks (coaches usually pay), which cost $1.29. They usually have about 25 people, sometimes up to 40 with the junior varsity and varsity, which helps Billie break even on the pasta. In return, she gets to hang a banner in the gym that says, "The Pizza Shoppe supports the Crisfield Crabbers." This, essentially free, advertising really paid off when the team became state champions last year and coaches and players mentioned The Pizza Shoppe to the media when talking about community support. She expanded her offer of a free meal before home games to the softball and baseball teams and has a banner at their games, too.

Nancy Michels, who operates The Pizza Ranch in Independence, Iowa and worked as food service manager for a public school system, said that she sponsors the "Shot of the Night" at local basketball games. At halftime, a fan whose name was drawn earlier gets a shot from the free-throw line. If the fan makes the shot, he or she gets a free item from her store.

Another school strategy Billie Pruitt's The Pizza Shoppe uses is donating around 18 pizzas for students taking a major exam that determines if they are allowed to proceed to the high school level. The Pizza Shoppe's name gets in the paper and she says the teachers remember her pizza store over the other pizza places in town when catered events take place. Pre K through the third grade have pizza parties and other things the middle and high schools don't. She contacts the teachers and brings out pizzas, balloons and discount cards the kids take home to the parents (the kids are now distributing coupons for her). Nancy says it is good to send a letter to teachers two to three weeks before a holiday outlining specials you can offer and if you are willing to deliver. She said she either offers a large single topping pizza for $8 with a slice of dessert pizza or charges $2 per student for two slices of pizza and a slice of dessert pizza.

One way to get in to the schools, according to Nancy, is to offer a designated "School Night" and pass out flyers to the students stating that you will donate 15 percent of the sales to the school. Then offer a pizza party to the class with the most participation. Billie says there are several ways to get into schools. "I got in by giving stuff to the school," she says. "Donations turn into requests for catered events. I recommend pizza operators send the school a letter reminding them that they cater soon after donations are made." One idea is to call them and find out when they are having in-service meetings or any faculty meeting where lunch is catered and offer them a super deal on lunch. She says she caters about 30 lunches each year for about 300 teachers each time.

Offer Classrooms Pizza Demonstrations or Store Tours

Another approach is to offer to come to the school and do a demonstration or seminar on how pizza consists of all five food groups. Yes, they have added another food group in the few decades since we were there.  Also, show them how pizzas are made and hand out pencils with your store's logo, magnets or coupons for students and teachers to carry home. Nancy says they give slices of pizza to the class when they do these seminars.

Offer Discounts and Freebies to the School to Give Out for Birthdays, Star Students and Merit Awards

Few pizza operators know that you can purchase mailing and email lists just for students. Companies like the Student Marketing Group, Inc. (516-593-8877, www.studentmarketing.net) have list of students' email addresses you can buy. They provide up-to-date email lists that you can have broken down into any number of categories. You can select their class year, GPA, birthday, student interest, sports the student participates in, income, ethnic background and more. You can use these lists to send buy-one-get-one-free offers to students on their birthdays, when they maintain or obtain a superior GPA or simply offer coupons for the school to hand out to over-achieving students. Birthdays are the number one reason people dine out and targeting students on their birthdays with an email offer or sending them a card is a great way to bring them, and their friends into your store. By awarding students who have superior GPAs a free meal you will probably be eligible for some free publicity if you contact your local newspaper because you are supporting the schools and promoting education. The key is to be creative, don't overlook any opportunity that may provide free publicity and squeeze everything you can get from the free offers and discounts you give away.

Target the Teachers, Coaches and Athletics

Nancy also sends a fax to the teachers each morning with daily specials and prices, which she tries to keep between $2.95 and $4.50 because most teachers are on a budget, or try to be. Usually, there is a trivia question at the bottom, which allows one teacher to win a free lunch. This is used in conjunction with a lunch card (she uses a buy six get the seventh free to avoid giving away free lunches every Friday) as an incentive. Nancy says she faxes coaches before games inviting them to come in before or after the game for a special discount. She says a list of coaches fax numbers can usually be obtained in a booklet from the Department of Education in the state where you live for a small fee.

Join the PTA, get to know the people on the school board, introduce yourself to the bandleader and find out who is in charge of providing food at the concession stands at football, basketball and other sporting events. Frank Masciarelli, with Bella Pizzeria in Bellaire, Ohio, said he gave free pizza to the football players. They are usually the most popular kids and the other kids go where they go. He also uses popular students as employees because high schools kids tend to travel in packs.

Use Catering Trucks

Billie said she is about to purchase a catering truck and is talking to school officials about selling pizza from it at games. Anthony Booth said his catering truck paid for itself after about six months of selling to the schools and going to various industrial and construction sites. Check with Hotshot Delivery Systems (800-468-7478, www.deliveryconcepts.com) for information about catering trucks. A catering truck can easily be pulled into parking lots of high school sporting events along with any other festival or special event that is taking place in your town or one near by. One pizza operator said that he sells pizza at football games through the school's concession stand and provides soda cups with his store's name and logo and the school mascot on the cup.

As you already know, kids eat a lot of pizza, especially high school kids. To get their business, and their parents and teachers, target your efforts. The results can lead to massive sales. For other ideas on marketing to schools, read the article "Pizza's Version of David vs. Goliath" from the winter 2001 issue of PMQ. You can find in at www.pmq.com in the PMQ Library. PMQ