The Great Oak meal program is the “glue” that holds our community together, providing optional, shared meals, five nights a week in our Common House dining room. The meals are served with shared labor and costs for the households at Great Oak and periodically to our neighboring communities of Sunward and Touchstone. We’ve logged over 600 meals and although we’re still working on our technique, it is good enough to be instructional to other communities!

Great Oak shared meal in the Common House dining room

One of the most important and not-often duplicated features of our meal program is that the labor is integrated into the Great Oak work system so those who don’t want to do kitchen jobs can still eat and those who do have snow cleared from their paths or the grass mowed.

Cooking a shared meal in the Great Oak Common House kitchen

To reduce the amount of labor involved in tracking the signups and billing for so many meals and jobs, we’ve invested in a fair amount of automation, including online, web-based meal signup that feeds directly into our billing program. Click on the thumbnail image for more detail on how to signup:

Thumbnail of Great Oak online meal signup

The nitty-gritty about how it all works

  1. meals scheduler person works out a schedule for 2 months in advance (can be
    less or more, up to you) and enters in the meal shifts for that period online, including information about meal date, cook, asst cooks, cleaners
  2. once (1) happens, cooks can edit their meal online and add their meal name,
    menu, how many diners they will accept and when the online meal signup is
    closed (optional)
  3. diners can signup (anyone in their household) for meals anytime after (1)
    but typically will do so after (2) so they know what they can expect to eat
  4. ooks will get nag emails if they don’t update the menu 2 weeks before
    the meal date and then 1 week before and every day till they do or the meal is
  5. anyone with a meal shift will get email reminders about their shift in
    advance (2 days for cooks and 1 day in advance for everyone else)
  6. diners can opt to have email reminders sent to them about when they are
  7. when the meal is closed, the cook has the responsibility of printing out
    the signup sheet, and attached to it is the reimbursement form, and no more
    online signups are allowed
  8. the cook takes the numbers from the signup sheet and shops accordingly, and
    brings the sheet to the dinner
  9. if there are spaces for late signups, they are recorded on the sheet (there
    is spot), or if there are any drop-outs or other changes, they get recorded on
    the sheet at or right the meal
  10. the cook attaches their receipts to the reimbursement form and signup sheet
    and puts it into a meal biller person’s cubby
  11. the meal biller person goes online to note any changes to the signups for
    the meal, enters in cost of the meal (we separate out meal purchase and any
    staples purchase, but that is again optional) and the program figures out the
    cost per diner based on the signups — then the meal biller person marks the
    meal as “complete” meaning that it is ready for billing
  12. if the cook has requested a check, then the meals biller writes them a reimbrusement check, otherwise records the reimbursement as a credit against
    the cook’s household account
  13. at the end of the billing period, the meal biller person simply hits the
    “bill now” button and lineitems are generated for all the meals in the last
    billing period and attributed to the diners’ household accounts
  14. at preset times (currently the 6th and 19th of the month), statements are
    generated and emailed to all dining households. The meals biller in some cases
    prints out the statements for those who require them
  15. the meals biller collects checks and then records payments and any other
    adjustments online. Once all received payments are entered, we require
    payments to be made by the 20th, the meals biller hits the “charge admin fee”
    button and the program figures out who is in arrears and charges them an admin
    fee (5% currently)

The meals billers record money activity in and out of the bank account in a
check register separately — my program does meal signup and billing, NOT
accounting — so if you are happy with Quickbooks to manage the accounting,
you can continue to use that, but we’ve found that a check register works fine
for the few bank transactions we do.

This is the workflow we’ve now used for over 600 meals at Great Oak and I
think it has worked pretty well.