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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Q&A with Jamie Feuerman of School-Lunch Bagger KidChow

Posted By on Thu, Mar 10, 2011 at 8:15 AM

Jamie Feuerman is not the lunch lady you grew up with. - REMI FEUERMAN
  • Remi Feuerman
  • Jamie Feuerman is not the lunch lady you grew up with.

Jamie and Rob Feuerman started KidChow in 2003 as a school-lunch delivery service targeted at busy, health-minded San Francisco parents. The company started out serving three local schools and daily deliveries of 100 lunches, made from mostly organic ingredients. KidChow now delivers over 3,000 lunches each school day to 40 schools, from Palo Alto to San Rafael, and caters for various summer camps.

The company operates out of a 6,500-square-foot facility in Dogpatch with 20 employees. Like many working couples we know, my wife and I use KidChow a few times each week, both to give ourselves a break (there's no better feeling on a Thursday night than knowing that Friday's lunch is taken care of) and to mix up lunch options for our daughters. They love KidChow's Indian food offerings, Caprese sandwiches, and hummus- dipped vegetables far more than than the turkey sandwiches, baby carrots, and fruit strips my wife and I usually pack.

I recently sat down with Jamie to discuss the challenges of managing a business that deals with perhaps the most difficult of all consumers: Bay Area parents and their kids.

SFoodie: Parents are often pickier about their kids' food than the kids themselves. What complaints do you get?

Feuerman: We're set up to order online as if you're in your own kitchen, so that minimizes the complaints. We can cut crusts, do gluten free, whole or refried beans, offer lots of bread choices, lots of condiments. The complaints usually tend to be things like, "Your tomato sauce tastes different than mine so my son isn't used to it," or, "My little girl likes the breadcrumb type of mac 'n' cheese and yours is creamy." If we see that something is seldom ordered, we'll just yank it off the menu. We average roughly five food complaints per day, which, when you consider our volume, is pretty amazing.

So what's been taken off the menu?

A lot of our Asian dishes. I think that they taste much better a la minute. Our chow mein was gummy. We tried an Asian-style apricot chicken but, for health reasons, I wouldn't put enough sugar in to make it taste sweet enough to be a a sure-fire hit with kids. Also, for some reason, our chilis and beef stews never resonated so we've given up on those. Challah French toast was popular but simply too expensive to make. We received many complaints when that came off the list.

What are some of the most popular items?

Mac 'n' cheese, pasta, taquitos, really anything Mexican.

Does that bug you, that some of your more sophisticated stuff doesn't sell better?

As much as I love seeing "sophisticated" foods succeed, like our butternut squash tamales or chicken tikka masala naanwich, I'm a business owner. I stopped proselytizing and acknowledged that I have to be pragmatic. Kids are kids. If a kid orders one sophisticated item each week, then I've raised the bar. Also, it's a misconception that older kids are healthier. Once they get a little autonomy (like they can order from our website on their own) they'll order what they want. At least with KidChow it will be organic or local or both.

What are some of the challenges in preparing kosher meals? [Ed. note: KidChow prepares 200 lunches daily for four Jewish schools.)

The laws of kashrut are very difficult. A rabbi came to our facility and spent a whole day with us going through the rules. The food is pre-sealed, kept separate from our other lunches, stored in a kashrut-only fridge, and delivered in warmers that never mix milk and meat. A rabbi regularly checks on us to make sure that we're doing it right. He even tries to get Rob to daven [pray] with him!

With all of the customization that you offer and then dealing with the kosher schools, how do you make a profit?

If you build it, they will come. If we took customization away, then we'd be like every lunch vendor out there. It's our defining characteristic and we think that it actually adds to our business. Also, we run this like a lunch company and not a food business. My role as the food purveyor is to figure out what kids like to eat. Rob runs the business side. Our kitchen runs like an assembly line and our success really lies in the details.

Your lunches cost between $5 and $7. Do you cater only to the rich?

That offends me. The food we serve is really no different than Trader Joe's and we're serving it at Trader Joe's prices. Local, organic food for $5 is quite a value. Try packing the same kind of three-to-four-item lunch at home and see what it adds up to. I'd imagine that many of the people who would complain about the cost of our lunches wouldn't hesitate to spend $3.75 for a latte at Starbucks.

Follow Alex Hochman at @urbanstomach. Follow SFoodie at @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.

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Alex Hochman

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