The $75,000 Smile: Encouraging Customer Service in the School Lunchroom


In retail, customer service is paramount.  Research has shown that in customer service, a smile is contagious, leads to a better experience for the customer, and can generate purchases.  It also positively influences the employee experience.  Let’s face it–everyone likes a smile.

Figure 1: A Smiling and Friendly Lunch Lady Corresponds to School Lunch Purchase

In the school lunchroom, what would happen if the staff smiled as they served the students?  Would this have the same impact as in other retail settings?  Researchers at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs set out to answer this question using survey data in which school age children were asked if the school lunch staff always smiled, often smiled, sometimes smiled, or never smiled.[1]  Then, based on these responses, they calculated the percentage of students purchasing school lunch.

Results show that 73% of students who said the lunch service staff always smiled were recorded as purchasing a school lunch.  Contrast this with the 66% of students that bought lunch and said the staff never smiled (see Figure 1).

Let’s consider this in the context of school lunch revenue.  Consider a school district with 2,500 students.  Based on the results from these data, if the school lunch staff always smiled, 73%, or 1,825 would purchase school lunch.  If the staff never smiled, 1,650 students would purchase lunch.  If school lunch costs $2.50, this would be a difference of $437.5 in revenue, in one day.  Over the course of a 180 day school year, this equals, $78,750 in revenue, a substantial amount of money!

At this point, we must recognize that these results are purely correlational.  In other words, we are not able to determine if the demeanor of the school lunch staff led students to purchase lunch, or if kids who purchase school lunch view school lunch staff as friendlier.  In addition, the hypothetical example simply illustrates the point and might not hold true for an actual district with 2,500 students.  But, based on research in retail settings, we know that a smile is powerful and can improve the customer’s (student’s) experience and ultimately increase revenues.

At the end of the day, it pays to smile.  School service managers can encourage their lunch staff to smile and treat their students as valuable clients.  As suggested by the results here, this can increase school lunch sales and lunch staff might enjoy their job more.  How can lunch managers encourage friendly faces?  Here are a few simple tips:

  1. Train employees to greet students with a smile.
  2. Encourage staff to speak in a pleasant, encouraging (smiley) voice
  3. Encourage staff to make eye contact with the students when they greet them with a smile.


Drew Hanks, Ph.D., Ohio State University


[1] Data were taken from the USDA School Nutrition Dietary Assessment III Survey public use files.