In normal times, ChoiceLunch serves some 300 private and public schools in California with preordered meals delivered directly to school sites from the company’s five central kitchens—three in the northern part of the state and two in the south. It contracts with the schools, and students or parents can then order off the company’s online menu, which typically offers a range of choices, including those that qualify for National School Lunch Program (NSLP) reimbursement.
However, since coronavirus forced schools in the state to shut their doors, ChoiceLunch has been at more or less a standstill. It is not doing summer school meal service, but to stay active and generate some revenue while waiting to see what fall brings, it has been contracting with social service agencies near where it operates, preparing meals for three homeless shelters in Orange County in Southern California and having its teams pack boxes of non-perishables for food banks in Alameda County in Northern California.
“Because there’s very little margin being generated, the goal really is just to keep our teams working,” offers CEO Justin Gagnon, whose parents founded ChoiceLunch in 2003.
“They spun it of their family catering business,” he explains. “They had been doing meals for eight schools since 1992 as a side business, so in 2003 they started a company focused exclusively on schools.”
ChoiceLunch’s core market is K-8 schools, along with some secondary schools that don’t have their own foodservice operations. About 70% of the business is with private schools.
The usual approach is to offer a fairly broad menu—up to 16 hot and cold entrée choices a day plus a range of sides—on a 10-day cycle, with some variance. Each meal is tagged with the name of the school and the individual student customer. NSLP compliance is managed through exclusions of options that don’t qualify for federal reimbursement.
“It’s interesting, but some of the ones we have most trouble with are some of our gluten-free entrees, where some of the grains used in the gluten-free tortillas, for instance, aren’t categorized as whole grain,” Gagnon notes.
In districts with students qualifying for free/reduced status under NSLP, meals are sold to the school, which collects the preorders, so students retain anonymity from ChoiceLunch.
“We took our [ordering] technology and separated it from our foodservice company, so now we have the same back end technology, but the school has a completely separate contract with the technology partner,” Gagnon explains. “We still have integration from the order aggregation standpoint, but the school is actually managing the customer interface where the students are ordering.”
Among the advantages of the preorder system are that it allows students to assemble customized meals and receive them with little or no contact with foodservice workers, a major consideration in the post-COVID world. And because the orders are known in advance—Gagnon is planning a midnight cutoff of orders for the following day for the coming year—there is no need for overproduction or danger of underproduction.
In fact, the waste rate is generally in the 3% to 4% range and only because the company does make some extras so there is something for walk-ups and those who forgot to place orders.
“We have an algorithm that forecasts how many additional lunches we should prepare for any last-minute ordering, which is where the waste comes in,” Gagnon explains.
As July turns to August, he is waiting to see what will happen in California when the school year begins. Per California Governor Gavin Newsome, a county has to be off the state watch list for 14 consecutive days before it can even consider in-person classes as an option and as of late July 33 of the state’s 58 counties were on that watch list, including all the major urban ones.
Gagnon says he’s explored meal service to students doing distance learning, but “our delivery infrastructure is not set up for it. We’re used to leaving our kitchen with our box trucks and delivering directly to the school. We’re just not set up for direct to consumer.”