It’s so important that as an industry we understand consumer behaviour if we are to come out the other side of this pandemic stronger. So much has changed in 2020 that you can’t just continue doing what has worked for you over the last few years and school meals are no exception.

Children have been through an experience that will potentially change their entire futures and it’s vital that as an industry we listen to their views. Following on from their primary school focus group in the summer ABDA director, Claire Smith spoke to secondary school pupils from across the UK. ABDA wanted to learn from this focus group how lunchtimes had changed since they returned to school in September; discover the places students like to eat out and seek some ideas on how schools could increase sales with improved experience, food offering and design.

Changing behaviour

The focus group included students aged 12 to 18 years old and before the first lockdown every pupil was having a school meal. Many of the pupils have changed their lunchtime behaviour since returning to school with the majority now taking their own food in from home or buying it from the high street. The main reason for this is lack of time to queue and eat food as the time in the dining hall has been greatly reduced. This really highlighted how important it is for schools to get the customer journey right so waiting time is minimal.

Safety first

This group of pupils were very aware of safety when both eating at school and dining out. One of the 12-year-old pupils had decided to stop having school meals because she didn’t feel confident in how well shared items were being cleaned. This is an important marketing message for caterers to get right.

Safety was also a factor in where this group had been choosing to eat out with their families and friends. McDonald’s was defined as somewhere they felt safe due to “being better at social distancing” with self-ordering, screens in-between seating and the fact you could be completely isolated if you chose to use the drive-thru.  The use of apps in places like a local pub, Wetherspoons and Nando’s also proved popular as they felt they could reduce contact with others.

Experience matters

Whilst the students accepted that their experience wasn’t going to be the same as dining outside of school, they felt that improving the customer experience was important for schools. Pre-ordering was felt to be a good idea for the majority of the pupils as this would speed up the process and give them more time to actually enjoy eating their food. Some members of the group explained they only had around five minutes to actually eat their food before the next bubble were allowed into the dining hall.

Explore outside dining

ABDA talked to pupils about the fact that some universities are using food trucks to enable catering to take place in outside spaces. Everyone on the focus group agreed they would like to see this style of dining in their own schools. They wanted to see street food with an emphasis on tastes from around the world.

Design inspiration

Pupils were asked to share feedback on restaurant designs shown to them on screen. The look and feel of Nando’s was a big hit with pupils feeling it was light and bright and they liked the colours of the restaurant design. They also felt it was inviting, relaxed and comfortable. A less uniform seating arrangement, good choice of colour and the use of images on the walls proved popular in the Wahaca design. A Dodo Pizza concept was also discussed, and they liked the fact that this concept enabled them to quickly get food from a counter and then go.

Commenting on the focus group, director, Claire Smith said: “What was most evident from this session was just how dramatically what they are doing for lunchtime dining has changed. They are craving quick dining solutions to enable them to have as much time as possible to eat. The dining experience has been lost in a bid to get pupils through the dining hall quickly. Whilst the process will have been taken out of the hands of some caterers, there are clearly some ideas that could be brought in. This includes pre-ordering, looking at ways to reduce queues and even offering outside dining. We’ll be sharing this insight with our education clients and considering the pupil’s input and current behaviour when creating future education designs.”

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