Some people, mostly people who ate at school, say good cafeteria food is a contradiction in terms, like military music or jumbo shrimp. Not Rick De Burgh, director of food services for the Glendale Unified School District.
"I'm very pleased with the meals we serve," said De Burgh, 44, whose cafeteria program is rated A+ by both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Education. Nonetheless, De Burgh is realistic about school food. He is the first to admit: "I never worked at Perino's."
Indeed, De Burgh has had what cynics might describe as the perfect background for overseeing cafeteria cuisine. Earlier in his career, he worked in Army mess halls and airline flight kitchens. He also supervised food service for the USC Olympic Village during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
De Burgh runs Glendale's biggest fast-food operation. Every school day, he serves 3,000 breakfasts and nearly 11,000 lunches to students who have less than an hour to order and eat. He must meet strict nutritional guidelines, which are often "written in government," he noted. And he must make enough money in the process to keep his operation afloat.
Sales Are Up
As evidence of the success of the program, De Burgh points to the fact that more Glendale students are buying food at school. Last year, the program brought in slightly more than $3 million. This year, cafeteria sales are up 18%, although the student body has increased only 10%, to about 23,000.
Sales are rising despite the fact that high school students may leave campus at lunchtime and eat at home or at nearby restaurants. De Burgh is especially pleased when he sees a student buy school food, then head off-campus with it. Occasionally, he says proudly, he gets calls from local eatery owners who complain, "Your students are bringing your lunches in here and using my ketchup!"
It was while working for American Airlines that "I learned that the nine most important words in our business are: Satisfy the customer, satisfy the customer, satisfy the customer," De Burgh said.
At least once a year, De Burgh meets with the student councils of the district's three senior highs and four junior high schools to learn what the students would like to see on the menu. He also visits at least one elementary school class to find out what the younger students hunger for.
"If a kid likes steak and lobster, he's not going to get it on the school lunch menu because it's not cost-effective," De Burgh said. "Fortunately, kids like cheap things." Specifically, he has found, they like hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza.
If students request a particular food, De Burgh tries to field-test it at their school. His experience tells him that today's students won't eat the mystery-meat casseroles that were the cafeteria staples of yesteryear. But the students don't always know that. One student council requested macaroni and cheese. De Burgh shook his head but served it anyway. He sold two portions. Turkey with gravy and mashed potatoes also proved unpopular. A fish patty with cheese was another culinary bomb.
Mexican food is universally popular in the Glendale schools. Students don't think of it as ethnic food any more than they think of pizza as ethnic food, De Burgh said. Ten-year-old Rubie Tarverdian is from Armenia, but when the fourth-grader at Mark Keppel Elementary School was asked which cafeteria foods he likes best, he answered, "My favorite is burritos and tacos!"
De Burgh said the cafeteria is a melting pot for most youngsters. "I get a kid in from Southeast Asia who has never seen cheese before in his life and, within a month, he likes pizza because his friends like pizza and it's cool to like pizza."
Ironically, De Burgh experimented with a spiced-beef-in-a-pita sandwich, thinking that it would appeal to the district's growing number of Armenian students. "It didn't fly," he recalled. "The Armenian students didn't think it was authentic, and the others didn't know what it was."
In March, De Burgh plans to bring an elementary school class into the test kitchen for a nutrition lesson and to develop a month of menus for their peers.
De Burgh is outfitting a test kitchen next to his office in La Crescenta where he will develop and test new recipes and where he will be able to sample and analyze new products offered to him by commercial vendors. As he explains, American schools, like American mothers, are doing less and less of their own cooking. He buys about 75% of his foods already prepared.
Sometimes the cafeteria chief is confident that a new food will succeed long before the students taste it. Such was the case with chicken nuggets, which flew immediately. "Am I a genius?" he asked of his decision to add the item to his menus. "No. McDonald's had just spent millions of dollars telling the kids, 'You will like chicken nuggets.' " There are times, De Burgh said, when "I do my market research by driving down the street and seeing which fast-food outlets are still open."