Around lunchtime, scores of students head out on foot and in vehicles from Durango High School to grab a quick bite. That traffic may lessen with the options available at the new Demon Deli, which began serving breakfast and lunch this school year.
“We wanted to offer a healthy choice and keep kids on campus,” said Krista Garrand, supervisor of student nutrition for Durango School District 9-R. “We have such low participation in the cafeteria, we wanted to capture more kids and generate more revenue for the nutrition program.”
The deli is in large part the result of efforts by two recent DHS graduates and DECA Club members, Mason Stetler and Jared Webster. They won second place for creative marketing with their 30-page business plan for the deli at an international DECA conference in the spring.
“This is a wonderful place,” said David Dillman, business teacher and DECA adviser at Durango High, during the ribbon-cutting last week. “We wanted to deliver something quickly and yet have it be nutritious. And by the way, it has excellent Wi-Fi.”
Stetler and Webster surveyed 220 students, finding that 40 percent of students leave campus for lunch every day, and another 35 percent go off campus from two to four times per week. With a student body of 1,100, that’s a lot of kids on the street. The cafeteria serves about 120 lunches daily. The students also researched attractive price and menu options.
“I’m under the impression kids like to get off campus, feel like they’re away from school,” said Chris Block, the owner of Three Peaks Deli and Grill, which is across Main Avenue from the high school. “It’s like a tornado from 11:40 (a.m.) to 12:15 (p.m.) every day.”
Having students conduct the research should make the final result more attractive to their peers, Garand said.
“As students age through the school system, their participation is less and less in our meal program – even if they need it – because of a perceived stigma of eating in the cafeteria,” 9-R spokeswoman Julie Popp said. “We wanted to increase participation by serving food they like in a separate dining option.”
Garand worked with the students and her staff to make sure offerings meet state and federal nutrition guidelines.
Located in a sunny corner on the second floor, the deli offers breakfast items such as yogurt, oatmeal and muffins along with sandwiches and salads for lunch. For teenagers keeping a hectic schedule, Durango Joe’s coffee is one of the most popular items on the menu, along with the coffee cake, which, Garand stresses, is made with whole grains and meets nutrition guidelines.
“It’s more expensive than the cafeteria but less expensive than off-campus,” she said. “We’re offering high-quality everything, including farm fresh and local. Our goal is to add more tables (in the hallway outside), because there aren’t enough cool gathering spots in the school for students. We want people to be able to walk the hallways and not have to step over students.”
Keeping the price $1 to $2 less than what students will pay for food off-campus is part of the marketing strategy, Garand said.
“We have to make some money,” she said, “but we also have to be an attractive alternative and affordable.”
The deli, which began as a student project, is an example of the kind of learning the 9-R school board prefers, said board President Andy Burns.
“We encourage a combination of theoretical learning and hands-on skills use, and this is a perfect example,” he said. “We spoke with business leaders recently, and these are the skills they wanted to see: ingenuity, collaboration, working together.”
While offering a healthful nutritious alternative and increasing nutrition-services revenue were the main objectives of opening the deli, student safety was not far behind.
“We always have concerns about safety with so many students walking, driving and bicycling,” said Popp. “And we see a lot of students returning late for class, particularly at the beginning of the year, when students are still adjusting to their schedule.”
Opening the deli is just the beginning.
Nutrition services will depend on current DECA students for one more component needed for the project’s viability, mounting a social media campaign, Dillman said. The school district is considering installing a second deli at the other side of the school’s large campus if this one succeeds, Garand said.
The deli’s impact on off-campus food purveyors has been negligible in the early days of operations.
“I wasn’t even aware the school had opened a deli,” Block said. “Gianni’s (Oven and Grill), which is just down the street and offers $2 slices of pizza, has affected us more.”
In keeping with 9-R’s healthful nutrition guidelines, the deli does not offer soda of any kind.
That’s not likely to change, even though the Colorado Department of Education voted this month to allow high schools to offer diet soda, a move that several groups have denounced.
“Diet soda is the worst for you with all those chemicals,” Garand said. “I’d almost rather offer the regular soda with all that sugar. But we won’t; we stick mostly with flavored waters and coffee.”
There is one off-campus attraction the school will never be able to compete with no matter what it offers, she said.
“We’ll never get the student who goes over to the gas station,” Garand said, “and buys the giant soda and the big bag of chips for lunch.”
As for the students who started it all, they’re off to college, where both are studying business: Stetler at Baylor University and Webster at the University of Arizona in Tucson. They watched the grand opening via cellphone.