Nancy Close started catering lunch to a 150-child daycare facility back in 1990. Today her company CKC Good Food provides more than 30,000 nutritious meals and snacks to students in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area. A major part of that growth was made possible with the development of a brand new corporate headquarters and central commissary.
"We had outgrown our previous space quite a few years ago. There was no place to expand, and I turned away so many RFPs," says Close, CKC's founder and CEO. The new 42,540-square-foot facility allowed CKC to more than double their meal output and vastly increase their storage capacity, not to mention create new menu items that previously had proved impossible to execute. "Now we can reach into other areas where we feel there's a huge need for better food," says Close.
Since its inception, CKC Good Food has offered high quality foodservice programs for charter schools and private childcare centers. The company offers a variety of age-appropriate menus that incorporate the latest food trends and are designed to meet the USDA's guidelines for the National School Lunch Program. Current favorites include beef nacho bowls with brown rice, Louisiana chicken sandwiches, chicken biryani with yogurt sauce, and Mongolian meatballs with Asian sesame sauce.
Close had been searching for a new site for four years before finding a space in the Eagandale Center Industrial Park. Formerly home to a printing company, the facility called for a custom build-out that took six months to complete. "Our broker gave me tracing paper and told me to start drawing out what I wanted," Close says. Culinex, the general contractor, "took those kindergarten drawings of mine and started to manipulate them in the correct way."
Photo credit: CKC
Photo: An CKC Good Food employee preps a tray of roasted carrots.
Outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, the new commissary allows CKC Foods to produce more food on site in less time while improving meal quality. Trays of macaroni and cheese that took an hour and ten minutes to cook in the old kitchen is now ready in 45 minutes. Chicken tenders and patties that used to need 17 to 25 minutes can now be finished in less than 10 minutes. And because the new ovens introduce and remove steam as needed, the final products come out with a better texture. The mac and cheese is creamier, while the chicken retains more moisture. "I was stunned to taste the difference," Close says.
The equipment upgrades have allowed CKC to introduce new menu items too. A Rational Ivario Pro heats up in less than two minutes and allows for large quantities of wok-frying or stir-frying. "Being able to make a true stir-fry for 30,000 meals, it wasn't possible before. But now it is," Close explains. "So the recipes we're working on for the 2022-2023 season, they're off the charts."
One such dish that's in the works is a healthier version of fettuccine alfredo. In keeping with the USDA's school lunch guidelines, the pasta dish needed to be whole grain and lower in fat. "We've made it before at schools on-site, but now we can make it in our commissary," Close says. "It will be an exciting time for us to make multiple menus and meet the flavors and tastes kids want."
A large increase in storage space - the new facility boasts 12,000 square feet of total storage and 3,000 square feet of cold storage - means that CKC is better equipped to weather pandemic-related supply chain issues as well. "We're very, very close to our distributor Upper Lake Foods. Because we were willing to spend the money, I just bought huge quantities of food at the beginning of the year and put it in our cold storage so our lunches would be consistent," Close explains.
The move to the new facility has had its share of stressful moments. Build-out delays meant that CKC had to move into their commissary over winter break - and be ready to go again as soon as school was back in session. "We had two weeks," Close recalls. "If I wasn't up and running and didn't get my approval from the health department, I wouldn't have a business."
Thankfully, the team was able to begin operations in the new facility on January 3rd - and all the hard work has been worth it. "This week I had four phone calls from new schools," says Close. "Instead of having to write them a gentle note saying we couldn't bring any more schools on, we've been having exciting conversations."