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Health-Healthy Concession Operations
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Healthy Concession Operations

Concessions operations can be very profitable for park and recreation agencies, but the often sell unhealthy food. Concession managers may be nervous about including healthy items on their menu because of fear of it affecting their revenue. However, there are way to provide healthy concession options while maintaining, or even increasing, your revenue stream.


Determine current profitability of your operation

First, you need baseline data about your operation. Go through every item on your menu and calculate your wholesale cost of the items. Then add in any labor costs from running the concession operation. Add up your revenue, then subtract your total costs from your revenue to get your net profit. Finally divide that total by the cost and multiply the quotient by 100. This will show you the percentage of costs in your sale price.

For example, say that you own a french fry stand. You buy a bag of frozen french fries that cost you 1 dollar per serving. You pay 1 person $10/hour to cook the french fries, and it costs $50/day to have the concession stand open. On Saturday you sold 60 servings french fries during an 8 hour period, which you sold for $3 each.

  • Cost of food: $1/serving x 100 servings = $100
  • Cost of labor and operations:( $10/hour x 8 hours) + $50 = $130
  • Total cost: $100 + $130 = $230, or $2.30/serving
  • Revenue: $3/serving
  • Margin ((cost / retail price) x 100): ($2.30 / $3) x 100 = 77%

To maximize profit in your operations, your cost for each menu item should be less than 35% of your sale price. As you can see, the french fry stand could be more profitable. If there are items on your menu that are greater than 35%, there are five ways to recoup that money:

  1. Lower food costs
  2. Lower labor costs
  3. Raise retail prices
  4. Increase number of sales
  5. Remove underperforming items from the menu

It is difficult to increase number of sales, and trying to increase sales while lowering your retail prices will decrease your profit further. Lowering food costs may end up with an inferior product, or a decrease in portion size. Labor costs are difficult to lower (especially if your concession stand is run by volunteers), so raising retail prices or removing unprofitable menu items are likely the most feasible options.

Raising prices is easy to accomplish if you increase the quality of your menu items and make them to order. This can be changes to current menu items, or an increase of healthier, more cost-effective items.


Adding healthy items to your menu

There are dozens of standards that define "healthy” food, and none of them are the same. There are varying degrees of healthy, and finding the right items to maintain profitability and increase the health of your menu is tricky. The Institute of Medicine recommends the following guidelines:


  • ≤200 calories per portion as packaged
  • No more than 35 percent of total calories from fat
  • <10 percent of total calories from saturated fat
  • Zero trans fat (less than or equal to 0.5 grams per serving)
  • ≤35 percent of calories from total sugars, except for yogurt with no more than 30g of total sugars, per 8-oz. portion as packaged
  • Sodium content of 200mg or less per portion as packaged


  • Water without flavoring, additives, or carbonation
  • Low-fat (1%) and nonfat milk (in 8-oz . portion), including lactose-free and soy beverages
  • Flavored milk with no more than 22g of total sugars per 8-oz. portion
  • 100% fruit juice in 4-oz . portion as packaged for elementary/middle school and 8-oz. (two portions) for high school
  • Caffeine-free, with the exception of trace amounts of naturally occurring caffeine substances

These guidelines will not be met by every item on your menu, but they are good to keep in mind as you add new dishes (or replace more unhealthy food) to your concession operation. Below are ideas for menu additions:

  • Bake items that you usually fry (chicken nuggets, french fries, etc.). Not only is baking healthier, the kitchen equipment needed for baking is much cheaper than what is needed for a fryer. If you are renovating or building a new kitchen, forgoing the fryer will help you recoup your cost more quickly.
  • Use leaner meat. Chicken breast or leaner beef are healthier options that few people will notice. You can even try mixing mushrooms into your beef for a healthier hamburger or nachos. It has become a popular option at some school districts.
  • Switch out your buns and other bread from white to whole grain.
  • Try serving baked potatoes. Use salsa for a healthier topping than sour cream and butter.
  • Use real low-fat cheese instead of packaged cheese sauce for your nachos, and add more veggies.
  • Ice cream is a fun choice on a hot day, but can easily be replaced by frozen fruit and/or low-fat yogurt bars. Just make sure to check the amount of added sugar before you stock up on them.
  • Low-fat string cheese is a high protein option that keeps for a long time. Yogurt is also a healthy choice, either alone or in a parfait or smoothie.
  • If you sell prepackaged chips, try baked chips and pretzels. For a sweeter option, use animal crackers, graham crackers, or granola bars with a low amount of sugar.
  • Popcorn with a low-fat topping is low-cost, tasty treat.
  • Some people may be wary of using fresh produce, given its shorter lifespan, but there are fresh fruits that can last weeks if they are properly stored. Fruit like grapes and apples are fine to sell uncut, but with a bit more effort, fruit can become a profitable menu item. Try selling fruit kebabs, or sliced apples with peanut butter or yogurt sauce.
  • Preserved fruit is a great option for those who want to provide healthier options with a longer shelf life. Unsweetened applesauce or canned fruit (packaged in juice- not syrup) are good options. Frozen fruit can be used in yogurt parfaits and smoothies).
  • Oatmeal and/or soup are warm options that don’t cost a lot to prepare. Stay away from dairy (since it shortens the shelf life) to keep it low-fat.
  • If you have an oven, quesadillas with a lot of veggies and low-fat cheese are a lot of fun. Vegetables can be sauteed ahead of time and frozen until needed.
  • Fresh veggie concessions do not have to be limited to hamburger toppings. Veggie sticks with a low-fat dip like hummus is a fun snack.

While you may have fewer beverage options on your concession menu, there are plenty of drinks that you can add to provide an alternative to your soda machine:

  • Hot apple cider
  • Juice with no added sugar. Keep the serving to 8 oz or less
  • Low- or non-fat milk
  • Smoothies made with low-fat dairy and unsweetened fruit
  • Water


Marketing healthy food

You have added healthy options to your menu, but how do you sell it? Setting the retail price is only one strategy. To promote healthier options, marketing is key. Here are some ideas to increase interest and sales of healthy menu options:

  • Set a retail price that is less than 35% of the cost to increase efficiency and maximize your profit. Consider pricing more healthy foods lower than unhealthy food.
  • Don’t use the word "healthy” to market your healthy choices. While some people may be attracted to choices branded as "healthy,” they are already health-conscious. There is a large group of people (overwhelmingly male) who do not care about the nutritional content of what they are eating. Instead, find more subtle ways to showcase healthy menu choices.
  • Highlight healthy food on your menu. Use color and larger fonts to call attention to healthier choices that are the most profitable for you.
  • Instead of serving unhealthy side dishes, make healthier sides the default. Instead of fried french fries, use baked chips, baked fries, or fruit as a side. Most people will not miss the fried food.
  • If you are making food to order, highlight that in your marketing materials. Most people are willing to pay a little bit more if they know that their food is of high quality and is being prepared fresh.
  • Revamp your signage, especially your menu board. Make sure people can read the menu before they get up to order. If they have a chance to examine their options, they will be more likely to try something new.
  • If you are having an event where you are charging an admission fee, consider giving a coupon or voucher out to attendees for your concession booth to drum up business.


Other tips for improving healthy concessions:

If your agency is looking at overhauling your current concession operation, here are some ideas to consider:

  • Incorporate healthy eating into your equipment purchasing decisions. If you are going to add more baked items, more ovens would be cheaper and more useful than purchasing a deep fryer. And if you are utilizing fresh produce, make sure that you increase your refrigerator space for storage.
  • Adding made-to-order menu items could increase your wait time. One way to reduce long lines at your concession stand is separating grilling from the rest of your operation. In addition to traffic control, someone ordering something off of the grill will be able to watch their food being prepared, which can increase their perception of the food’s quality.
  • If you have contracts with distributors, ask them to supply you with healthier food. If you do not do so already, try to negotiate future cost increases in your contract, so that any increases in price are not unexpected.
  • Keep a close eye on your sales when you are making menu changes. Be ready to pull or add menu items quickly if something is not working out.
  • Try to streamline your operation by placing order and pickup at the same window, so that orders do not get lost in the shuffle from window to window. To keep lines from forming, utilize multiple cash registers, and make sure that your staff is trained on all parts of the concession operation, so that they can switch between jobs as needed.
  • If your agency’s concessions are run by volunteers, have them sign a contract that outlines all of their responsibilities, and train them on all parts of the concession operation- just like paid staff.
  • Consider downsizing your portions if they promote overeating of unhealthy food and/or you observe that many people are not finishing their meals. You do not want people to feel ripped off, but a modest decrease in portions can cut costs and reduce overeating.
  • Is your concession only open for special events? Your concessions can still be profitable, but staff training and adequate purchasing is critical. Consider a limited menu with low costs to maximize profitability, and to not overwhelm less experienced staff.


Next steps

Once you have healthy concessions implemented, try improving healthy eating policies in your facilities in other ways:



Healthy Concession Guides

Financial Impact of Healthy Concessions

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