The folks who deliver free meals to Sonoma County’s homebound seniors have found a way to make a buck with their expansive commercial kitchen.
The nonprofit Council on Aging is selling its own line of prepared meals at a growing number of North Bay grocery stores, including Safeway and G&G Supermarkets. This year, the Santa Rosa-based organization expects to sell about 75,000 refrigerated dishes under its brand, The Noble Spoon.
The sales will include purchases made from vending machines at San Francisco’s KQED television station and other Bay Area employers.
Five of the brand’s entrées were created by celebrated Sonoma County chef John Ash and feature his name on the label. They include such dishes as Spanish Cassoulet with slow-cooked pork, Chicken Melitzana with smoked polenta and Mexican Pot Roast with roasted corn and peppers.
It’s hard to know what is more noteworthy: a nonprofit turning a profit, or a program with a longstanding reputation for bland food devising a menu that is drawing increasing numbers of consumers to its version of ready-to-eat “Wine Country Dining.”
Marrianne McBride, the council’s president and CEO, said her organization received key help from both Ash and G&G, which was the first retailer to take a chance on the council’s consumer-oriented meals. The Noble Spoon brand has grown, she said, because of tasty food and its added sweetener for consumers, namely that $2 of every meal is helping her agency feed senior citizens.
“People know this is going back to this community,” McBride said about the profits.
The council expects to make enough money off the food sales in the coming year to require the payment of both income and property taxes. Charles Lindner, the organization’s chef and director of business development, said that will represent an exciting milestone, “a nonprofit paying taxes to the government agency that supports us.”
The venture is now producing about 10,000 meals a month and Lindner forecasts annual sales to grow to about 144,000 meals next year, compared to about 15,000 a year ago.
Diving into business world
Nonprofits have long found enterprising ways to make money, whether by opening a thrift shop or by selling tickets to an arts benefit.
But The Noble Spoon represents a deeper dive into the business world, one in which the nonprofit’s meals are competing directly with regular food manufacturers for space on supermarket shelves and inside vending machines.
That makes the enterprise relatively uncommon today among local nonprofits and among senior food programs across the United States. But officials that represent many of the nation’s charitable groups expect other agencies will follow suit.
“This is the future,” said Jenny Bertolette, communications director with Meals on Wheels America in Alexandria, Va.
For Meals on Wheels, the change will be driven partly by a growing need, Bertolette said.
Between 2010 and 2050, the number of U.S. seniors is expected to double. It’s unlikely that government aid can keep pace, she said, meaning local food programs will have to find other sources of income to meet demand.
The Noble Spoon can be found at 29 stores and other outlets in Sonoma and Marin counties. In any week, chef Lindner and his two cooks typically make 10 of 20 possible dishes. The suggested retail price of the meals varies from $4.99 to $6.50.