Indian Prairie School District 204 in the towns of Naperville, Bolingbrook, Aurora and Plainfield just west of Chicago has seen a student participation increase in its high school meal program this year of around 18 percent. A primary reason, according to students, is the new station options deployed this year by the district’s new foodservice management firm, OrganicLife.
The stations are fully developed branded concepts with distinct menus that nevertheless meet federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) requirements.
Among stations operating in Indian Prairie 204 school sites is Nuoc Nuoc (pronounced “knock-knock”), which offers a Vietnamese street food-based menu that has apparently found great favor among district students. The concept offers diners a base of lo mein noodles or brown rice that can then be customized with either all-natural chicken chunks or crispy popcorn chicken bites and a variety of vegetables (broccoli, mushroom, spinach, red and green pepper, purple and green onion, peas, corn, carrots and pineapple) and topped with garlic or crushed red pepper.
“The target market for this concept is the millennial high school student with an interest in ethnic cuisine, healthful eating and food made with high-quality ingredients,” says OrganicLife Chairman/CEO Jonas Falk. “In our research, we have found that today’s teens are both interested in and vocal about what they are eating, and Nuoc Nuoc hits a sweet spot of meeting their needs.”
OrganicLife has a dozen concepts in its 4-Star restaurant-style NSPL cafeteria management program. Beside Nuoc Nuoc they include such concepts as O-Pa (Greek/Mediterranean food), Flying Pig BBQ, Mia Pasta, Luigi’s Brick Oven Pizza, Viva Burrito and Le Patisserie Roland (bakery/ice cream selections). Each was developed by company culinarians, many of them veterans of the high-end Chicago area culinary scene—Falk himself is a graduate of Kendall College culinary school and has worked at such high-end local establishments as Le Lan and Les Francais—and incorporate premium ingredients, much of it obtained from local organic purveyors.
“We’re restaurant people at heart,” Falk says of the company’s culture. “When I started this company about 10 years ago, the whole premise was to bring restaurant-style operations to the institutional foodservice world.”
In fact, one of the concepts, Mixed Greens, has two successful street locations in Chicago, a highly unusual distinction for a K-12 station concept.
OrganicLife, which also operates in the early childhood and corporate dining markets, is a growing presence in the K-12 foodservice management area, with $40 million in contracts in Illinois, and expansion into the neighboring states of Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin on tap.
Cooks at each operating site are trained by company chefs to ensure they use the proper techniques when preparing the scratch-made dishes typical of the concepts. Those concepts are deployed based on what each school site prefers in terms of cuisine. Some are more traditional, such as the MMM…Burger grill concept or the Nish Nosh Deli, but others like Nuoc Nuoc—which was created as a tribute to the French-Vietnamese heritage of Falk’s mentor, Roland Liccioni—were designed to appeal to today’s youngsters, says Falk.
“[Nuoc Nuoc] was initially created because we realize that the palates of today’s teenagers are far more complex than those of their predecessors,” he explains. “Whereas microwaved burgers and ham sandwiches on Wonder bread may have been sufficient for previous generations, this generation of eaters knows far more about food and nutrition. They demand innovation, freshness and flavor. Nuoc Nuoc is the perfect fit with these three ideas with its whole-wheat grains, fresh veggies, subtle sauces and in-person wok-cooked preparation. We market Nuoc Nuoc the same way we market all station concepts: We let the food speak for itself.”