Like many of his high-school classmates, Jonas Falk thought the lunch lady could do way better than mystery meat and tater tots.
"Everyone just seemed to accept the notion that cafeteria food was, is and will always be subpar, and I couldn't understand why that would be the case," says the now 28-year-old Falk. "I realized that with a little effort, things could be a lot better."
Before studying culinary arts at Kendall College in Chicago, Falk attended Michigan State where in a class he wrote a business plan for changing how school lunch is served. He didn't do very well on the paper, but the concept nonetheless became the seed for his healthy-lunch startup, OrganicLife.
That company, which he co-founded in 2008 with his business partner Justin Rolls, now works with hundreds of Chicago-area schools. With its pop-up restaurant-style stations, menu items include Memphis dry-rubbed BBQ chicken with herb- roasted potatoes, organic steamed veggies and fresh organic fruit. There's also the OLife Olé Taco Bar with grass-fed beef, all the fixin's and ancho-spiked brown rice.
Falk's company has seen explosive growth in recent years, as first-lady Michelle Obama and other celebs raise awareness about the import of healthy eating. With a staff of more than 300, Falk projects a staggering $20 million in revenue this year.
We think that kind of growth is pretty impressive, so for the month of February, OrganicLife is officially YE's Startup of the Month. With that comes bragging rights for life, along with a copy of Entrepreneur Press' latest book: Ultimate Guide to LinkedIn for Business and a digital subscription to Entrepreneur magazine.
We chatted with Falk about starting up, overcoming obstacles and his passion for transforming school lunch:
Q: You went to culinary school. Why cafeteria food?
A: Once we started the business and immediately began receiving calls, it was clear to us that this was a major area of need from the perspective of students, parents, teachers and administrators. Without much competition in the industry, companies had gone to the lowest common denominator for what they were serving kids. Because schools had few choices, they simply had to accept it. We want to offer a better option, remove the stigma from cafeteria food, and provide kids with a meal they look forward to eating every day.
Q: How did you startup and then expand so quickly?
A: We actually got our start delivering individual diet meals, which helped refine our cuisine, our production methods and our nutritional content. After that, we started serving smaller schools, day cares, pre-schools and other early childhood education centers. As word of our food got around, we continually added more schools, and older children, until we reached the point where we could take over entire districts. Now we've moved into secondary education and senior dining.
Q: What's been your biggest challenge?
A: Learning the unique characteristics of each customer. We operate several different divisions -- early childhood schools, elementary schools, high schools, concessions, senior dining, secondary education -- and they are all slightly different. Some of it has to do with taste and which items they will eat -- a 4-year-old, a fourth grader, and a senior citizen do not want the same meals.
Other challenges involve using the space we have, or determining how we will get the food to the location if they do not have on-site preparation available.
Q: Advice for other young entrepreneurs?
A: Don't worry about the things that could go wrong. In a new business there are so many things that could go wrong that it is easy to focus on them. Instead, focus on what you are doing right, and the problems you have will get resolved.