The Final Word: A fresh take on school nutrition

By Andy Hanacek, Executive Editor for The National Provisioner from December 2007

We’ve all heard it a thousand times — and I hate to use clichés, particularly one so prevalent and overused that it makes me cringe to even type it. However, when it comes to solving the puzzle of child nutrition in schools, it definitely pays to ... (cringe with me, everyone) ... think outside the box.

Case in point: In October, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an article about one unique approach to addressing the growing concern over school nutrition. That school happened to be St. Rita of Cascia, my high school. When I talked to Fr. Tom McCarthy, president of St. Rita, he expressed his overall pleasure with the relationship they’d developed and said it solved most of the previous challenges that the school had in trying to run the foodservice side itself. For the previous four years, the school provided foodservice to its students, which proved too much to handle at times.

“We’re in the education business,” Fr. Tom says. “We’re not in the food business, so let’s get the experts in here.”

So Fr. Tom and St. Rita turned to Paul and Dave Boundas and Country House Restaurant to bring a better foodservice program to the school.

“We liked that we’d be dealing [directly] with the owners,” Fr. Tom adds. “And we would be a big fish in a small pond, whereas with a big foodservice [company], we’d be a small fish in a big pond — nothing against those, but it didn’t fit our needs.”

Country House owns one restaurant in Alsip, Ill., and offers catering services as well as its foodservice program, which serves St. Rita and Chicago’s Morgan Park Academy as well. Dave Boundas runs the daily operation at St. Rita, and his brother Paul says it was a business decision to fill this void in the foodservice business.

“I know a lot of restaurants that cater, but not ones that are willing to take on a full foodservice operation like we do,” Paul explains. “The thing is, it’s going to change — school nutrition is a very hot topic. At another school, one day McDonald’s might come in, the next day Pizza Hut, for example. Well, that’s not going to fly. A couple years down the road, the parents are going to look at it and say, ‘We have to think of another option: We send them there to get a cheeseburger that was made three hours ago?’”

Country House handles menu development and makes everything fresh and from scratch, with most items made on-site. Breakfast at the school and food preparation for the day’s lunch begins at 6 a.m. in the kitchen.

"Our pride is in making our own food from scratch,” Paul says. “We don’t want to be the recyclers — we want to be original and unique.”

Country House introduced to St. Rita homemade soups, fresh salads, and ground turkey for use in the chili and tacos that are served in the cafeteria, giving students more healthful options. Pizzas and toppings are made on-site as well.

For its part, Country House also enjoys being a big fish in a small pond as well, as far as the way it procures its meat through an independent distributor in Chicago. Paul says the relationship works great, because Country House is among the largest of the distributor’s clients.

“A good example is the rib tips we offer here at the school,” he says. “[Our distributor] goes to an independent market that doesn’t use trimmings, so he’s going to get us a rib tip with a lot more meat, whereas if we go to a big distributor, they’re going to want the trimmings.”

A handful of lessons can be learned by businesses of any size here. First, the terms “healthy” and “good for you” obviously have very different meanings for different people. You must know your audience, no matter what level on which your company sits. What might be perceived as good for you at St. Rita on Chicago’s South Side might be shunned, say, in the heart of downtown San Francisco for its perceived unhealthy attributes. That said, kids can learn to like healthier options — as is the case with the salads at St. Rita, which, after a slow start, have taken off in popularity recently, Dave explains.

Second, St. Rita and Country House understand their core competencies and wisely strive to stay within the parameters of what they do well. Any business needs to understand this to succeed. Third, this relationship should be a signal to any business that sometimes you need to avoid having tunnel vision or you could miss a unique relationship that may offer a top-notch solution for your customers. St. Rita doesn’t have “customers” in the same sense, but they did find a foodservice supplier in Country House that shares their passion for bringing the best to their students. St. Rita supplies the education, and Country House supplies the sustenance.

It’s a win-win for those students since the food tastes great (trust me) and is made fresh. In terms of health and nutrition, it sure beats greasy, thinly pressed, slightly undercooked chocolate-chip cookies and fried steak sandwiches slathered in gravy that graced the menu during my time as a “Rita Man.”