Weighing the pros and cons of bringing a partner on board.

Operating a private school is full of business decisions that can have a big impact on your school’s financial health, school culture, recruiting potential, and future growth. You have goals and ideas you’d love to realize, and the decisions you make along the way can significantly impact the viability of those plans.  

When it comes to dining programs, custodial services, transportation, and extracurricular programming, knowing when to outsource and when to keep services in-house can feel like a juggling act. On one hand, maintaining control over processes and quality can sound appealing; on the other hand, operational headaches can feel like a burden. 

Dining programs—especially for growing schools—can be one of the toughest programs to assess. Dining services are a constant presence and energy in your school, operating all day, every day, and requiring both back-of-house efficiency as well as student-facing skills. 

Your dining program can also be a significant source of revenue for your school—or a substantial drain on your resources. The difference usually boils down to operational efficiency, buying power, and experienced leadership. 

If you’re considering bringing in an outside partner to help you manage and grow your dining program, here are a few things to consider: 

Do we have the expertise and resources to manage a successful program in-house?

Operating a healthy, efficient dining program requires a significant amount of time, effort, and expertise. Many in-house programs have been built “on the way up,” and often rely on processes and frameworks created “in the moment” and handed down over the years. Bringing an experienced food service partner into the mix can be a breath of fresh air when it comes to expertise and resources. The right company will contribute decades of dedicated experience from all corners of the school dining field, so your school can take advantage of the trends, processes, and efficiencies you need to operate a successful, profitable program. 

Can your school provide the food quality and nutrition your students and families expect?

You know your student population better than anyone. Managing your own dining program directly connects you to the specific needs and demands of your students and families, including allergies, preferences, and special extras that make your dining experience feel unique to your school. Managing your program in-house can mean that you’ll have more control over the program’s menu, ingredients, processes, and staffing, and more opportunities to be transparent with your students and families about how meals are made and how the program is run. 

However, bringing a seasoned partner into the mix can have its benefits as well. The ideal partner will work hard to become an integrated part of your operations, getting to know your student, staff, and family preferences so they can make decisions that will keep your customers coming back for more. An outside partner will likely bring a wider range of menu options to the table, with more buying power to access higher-quality ingredients at a manageable price. 

Can your school ensure proper food safety? 

Operating your dining program in-house means being responsible for managing all aspects of food safety, including proper handling and storage procedures. While it might seem like you’d have more control over food safety, the reality can be a different story. Food safety requires ongoing training and supervision, which can drain your resources and require additional time and skill from your staff, including keeping up with required training, supervising employees, complying with health department inspections, and setting day-to-day practices. The right food service partner will be a food safety stickler, bringing a strong safety track record and detailed, up-to-date knowledge of food safety practices. 

Can your school be as cost-effective as an outside partner?

This is the bottom-line question and one that’s more difficult to answer than you might think. Self-operation and outsourcing both come with associated costs, and each school’s situation is different. Where you might see potential savings associated with a company’s buying power, you might also see new expenses that come with upgrading your menu options. It’s important to carefully consider the financial implications of each option and weigh your options carefully. The right partner will be upfront about its pricing model and estimated operating costs before you sign on the dotted line and should provide a transparent financial partnership – including showing you an honest picture of their own profit on an ongoing basis. 

Can your school’s culture accommodate an outside partner?

Every school—and especially small, private schools—has its own culture and identity. Introducing an outside partner can feel like a risk: will they understand how we do things here? Will they treat our students the way we would? Will they become a part of us, or will the new dining program always feel like a separate entity? Can we trust this team to be an extension of our brand and values? 

The right food service partner will have a clear understanding of your school’s culture and expectations and will work to become a seamless part of your organization’s operations and culture. This is especially true for faith-based schools with specific core values and codes of conduct. 

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to dining programs. Only you know what feels right for your school and how a partner relationship could impact your organization’s culture, budget, and growth. As you begin weighing your options, make sure any partner you consider is willing to have honest, straightforward conversations with you throughout the decision process. A good partner will listen to your concerns and help you reach the best decision for your school – even if they don’t make the sale.