As a mom, Christina Liva Diiorio was not satisfied with the lunches offered to her son at school. He wasn’t too crazy about eating them, either. And she realized she wasn’t alone, that many parents and kids viewed school meals in a similar light.
On the other side of the coin, she observed, “schools are not in the business of food, they’re in the business of education. Yet they have to provide food to hundreds of kids every day. This didn’t make a lot of sense.”
These observations inspired Diiorio and cofounder Derek Mansfield to launch Yay Lunch!, a firm that works with local caterers and chefs to supply healthy meals designed to be more palatable to students and parents. Parents order and pay for food directly with Yay, which handles quality assurance, ordering and delivery logistics. Students can bring lunch from home as well.
Yay’s school partners pay nothing for the program. “We say, ‘Let us do this for you, let’s make the community happy and take this off your plate,’” Diiorio says.
In recent months, Yay Lunch! Has morphed into The Yay Company, reflecting its expansion into snacks, breakfast, and grab-and-go marketplaces at its school clients. The company has also assumed cafeteria operations at some schools.
The company operates in seven markets: Atlanta, Chicago, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., metro Washington D.C., Philadelphia, central Virginia and metro New York City. The majority of schools working with The Yay Company are independents, but Diiorio says the model can work for public schools as well.
So far, Yay is not providing meals in schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program because it can’t accept reimbursements. “We can follow those nutritional standards if asked,” Diiorio notes, “but our standards go above and beyond.”
Cafeteria takeovers are generally a matter of convenience. Some school lunchrooms run a deficit or require a major investment to modernize. The Yay Company will take over, bringing in its own staff and food, which is still mainly prepared offsite. Simple assembly tasks might take place at the school.
“If a school is going to put money into something, they’re usually putting it into educational programs, as they should be,” Diiorio says. “The last space being considered is usually the cafeteria.”
The Yay Company looks for partner suppliers that share its vision to provide better foods for schoolchildren. Wellness is a focus, but so is taste appeal. Suppliers must follow guidelines to qualify, avoiding highly processed foods and excess sugar and leaning on locally sourced ingredients. Peanuts are a no-no, regardless of the school. Locally assigned Yay staffers ensure standards are met.
Operational efficiency is also a must. Caterers often get recruited as partners because, unlike restaurants or independent chefs, they are prepared to serve large groups at the same time. In addition, they often have untapped capacity to produce volume early in the day, since events generally occur later or on weekends.
The ordering website is structured like a traditional school lunch program, but one with more choices. Menus change monthly, with six to eight lunch options available each day, including a daily special. Certain core cold items are offered every day, and hot foods tend to follow themes. An algorithm prompts parents to indicate their child’s likes and dislikes, allergies, etc., then offers appropriate suggestions. Parents can order by the week, month or the whole school year.
That customization is a compelling point of differentiation, Diiorio says. “It provides another level of convenience,” It’s for people who say, “I don’t want to think, I just want to tell you what I like.” The company also customizes the services it offers to each school.
Parents can opt to order Yay meals and snacks for their children every day, or just on specific days. The marketplace option, which provides snacks, tracks purchases and charges the families once a week. Parents can control which products a child can purchase and impose a daily spending limit.
“Instead of going to a vending machine, kids can go there and grab everything from a nice protein bar to a sandwich or fruit cup. Fresh, healthy options are available throughout the day,” Diiorio says.
The Yay Company saw healthy growth in 2022, doubling in sales, and 2023 expansion is following the same trajectory. Going forward, Diiorio expects The Yay Company to continue growing at a manageable pace, mainly by expanding in existing markets.