ROXBURY, MA – A team of young entrepreneurs here set out to do nothing less than transform dining options for schools, senior services, and other clients with nutritionally sound versions of traditional and ethnically diverse menus, freshly made each day.
City Fresh Foods, Inc., whose commissary foodservice model now serves more than two million meals a year, makes whole wheat pastas, whole grain breads, sugar-free cereals and low-sodium seasonings the order of the day as the 16-year-old foodservice provider settles into a new 11,000 sq. ft. commissary and headquarters which is expected to help it fulfll its potential. The motto is “fresh and hot.”
Committed to serving Boston’s urban community since it began, the company was recognized on Inc. Magazine’s Inner City list in 2002, 2003 and 2005 for programs offering “home-style” menus with Southern, Caribbean, Italian and Russian cuisine.
The mission, says President and CEO Glynn Lloyd, is “to create jobs in the economically distressed neighborhoods of Boston and to create opportunities for equity and local control.”
What began in 1994 as a small takeout lunch operation serving fresh home-style ethnic fare from a tiny kitchen where the ceiling caved in the frst winter in what Lloyd recalls as “a little problem,” is a thriving enterprise today with more than 35 clients and growing.
Lloyd and his brother, Sheldon, who serves as vice president of business development, were entrepreneurs from the get-go. Glynn began a landscape business at age 12 that earned him $10,000 by the time he graduated from high school, while Sheldon co-founded Ginger Kids, a gourmet cookie company that shared proceeds with the Starlight Foundation and had distribution at Macy’s, Barney’s and Bloomingdale’s.
In the beginning, as a startup takeout and catering operation, a story in a local newspaper about the fedgling business and its tough beginning led to contact from Central Boston Elder Services, and steady. We just moved to a space where now, we can really perform and it could more than double our business. We want to do it wisely.” Joining them this past year was JR Mercer, an original partner in both Boston Market and The Wrap (now Bolo-co), and now general manager.
Continued growth is on the horizon, Lloyd believes. Some 55 to 60 percent of current business is represented by educational facilities such as charter, public and parochial schools and summer school foodservice programs. Business clients also include elder services such as Meals on Wheels programs, daycare centers, detox centers and which wondered if City Fresh could cook Caribbean foods for Meals on Wheels. It was the start of a venture into foodservice management. Despite the struggles of the frst few years, the company eventually received venture capital and began to grow.
“We’d done catering,” Glynn recalls, “and I’d done teaching. We found a longtime chef who became part of it. We hired young folks from the neighborhood and went up against the big guys. We started with non-profts. This is about slim margins but slow shelters.
“We are looking,” Lloyd says, “at huge opportunity in the private sector too.” Catering continues to be part of City Fresh’s services and this year, Lloyd reopened its special events catering program teaming up with a local soul food specialist, Chef Lee of Chef Lee’s Famous Soul Food Catering.
Admitting that his passion is “urban agriculture,” Lloyd notes that the company seeks ‘farm to school’ opportunities and bought squash last year from a local farmer, a program expected to City expand to add cabbage and corn this summer. He’s also exploring the possible of doing some urban gardening as well.
City Fresh is also looking at doing a program to offer freshly made salads to school clients and is “working on a salad that will meet USDA requirements for reimbursement.” He’s excited by what he calls “the nugget story,” a tale of a school client serving bone-in chicken that the students found hard to eat. “The kids wanted nuggets but there were none available that worked, so we sat with Taking on “the big guys” in contract foodservice, City Fresh likes to “push the envelope” our purveyor and told them we wanted whole muscle meat chicken with no additives and lightly battered that we could cook fresh daily.” The goal was to show schools that hire City Fresh that “we could come up with healthy products without going deep into their pockets.”
The challenges presented by their urban clients keep the Lloyds busy and excited about their business. “There’s a model here that lets schools serve higher quality premium products within their budget constraints regarding reimbursement and this is allowing us to do the right thing.”
That meal delivered model, Glynn adds, offers a cost effective way to feed large numbers of people. Taking the tomato as an example, he explains that “there is nothing like a fresh tomato picked from your garden…it tastes better and packs a larger density of nu-trition…We implement the power and effectiveness of the garden tomato into our procurement systems and menu development. At every step… we seize the opportunity to make institutional foodservice meals healthier and tastier.”
Most parents of school age youngsters “get it,” Lloyd notes, referring to the need for healthy, nutritious fare, “but sometimes, the suppliers need to step up. We try to support local vendors.”
When students at school clients complained about the quality of the pizza being served, Lloyd came up with a plan for a contest that included fve different potential purveyors, one of whom was a City Fresh employee, Jose Ta-vares, who boasted about his pizza recipe.
“We asked the kids to sample the different pizzas and Jose’s was the winner,” says Lloyd. “Jose was one of our frst drivers and then managed deliveries. Now he supplies 6,000 or 7,000 pieces of par-baked pizzas that’s chilled and delivered.” Tavares remains the company’s logistics manager, but also began his own company to supply City Fresh with pizza.” “We try to get the freshest, healthiest food, and keep it in the neighborhoods.” Tava-res’ pizza is said to be keeping $85,000 worth of business local. Responding to customer needs, the company also developed a swipe card database system that lets schools electronically track meal transactions to create the necessary Department of Education reimbursement and billing forms for parents. Students get their own card customized to their reimbursement status to swipe through a POS terminal at breakfast, lunch or snack time. Information is instantly recorded to a secure data base server, accessible to staffers in the host organization, improving accuracy, tracking meal attendance with time and date stamps, and reducing paperwork.
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