Debbie Blacher and Samantha Gotlib were at a party in their Orlando, Fla., neighborhood when the subject of school lunches came up. Everyone began complaining about how bad the food was and how embarrassed they were that they didn't have the time or skill to make nutritious meals for their kids to take to school.
Blacher, a corporate HR professional, and Gotlib, a serial entrepreneur and former franchise owner (each pregnant with her third child at the time), thought they could solve the problem. They put together a business plan and, in 2007, Wholesome Tummies was born.
Back in 2004 when the two first began discussing the idea, "no one was franchising a concept like this," Gotlib says. "At that point, no one was even talking about the concept of healthy school lunches. There was no Jamie Oliver. We were trailblazers for sure."
The idea was simple. Many private schools were contracting with fast-food companies to serve lunch for their students, or had cafeterias that were vainly trying to balance what kids were willing to eat with what was cheap and healthful. (Public schools have their own government-mandated lunch programs.)
Blacher and Gotlib figured they could develop nutritious, tasty recipes and deliver them to schools. In 2009, they began franchising; so far they have seven units in Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Nevada and hope to open 10 more this year.
Gotlib turned off the food processor for a minute to feed our curiosity.
Are school lunches really so bad?
Private schools are much worse than public schools. There's a really wide gamut of options, but the most common is to bring in a variety of fast-food providers. They do that because they have no kitchen or they don't want to deal with running a kitchen. They just outsource it, so they're serving fried, high-sodium, high-fat restaurant food every day, with no nutritional mandate. They're out of the reach of government hands. It's crazy. We see kids who take Fritos and put nacho cheese on them, and that's their lunch.
How is your food different?
We want to meet and exceed [U.S. Department of Agriculture] guidelines for public-school lunches, so we have a nutritionist who creates our menus. Most important, we try to get rid of additives, trans fats and chemicals, and focus on freshness and food purity. All of our ingredients are meticulously chosen. There's nothing inherently wrong with macaroni and cheese when it's made from scratch with whole-wheat pasta and Asiago and Parmesan cheeses. Our menu is made up of kids' favorites that are secretly healthy.
Are schools eager to sign on?
We found that getting schools to participate has been one of the easiest aspects of our business. They were tired of hearing parents complain.
How have parents reacted?
Parents are so grateful. [They] like the convenience of going online and ordering their kid's meal. If we expose kids to [only] pizza, chicken nuggets, mac 'n' cheese and soda, that's what they'll want. If we give them a wide array of flavors and tastes, that's what they'll want. Parents tell us they can't believe their kid ate something on our menu, and they thank us for exposing them
to new things.
Do franchisees have to be culinary pros?
We make sure our franchisees are able to make the recipes, but they are written for kitchen professionals. Their first key hire, and the person they have to bring to our training sessions in Florida, is a chef. Our franchisees are passionate, hardworking people with business experience who like marketing. They receive menus with suppliers and national pricing, and they get a very tight and fast program with not a lot of wiggle room. They appreciate that.