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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.

What makes this enterprise possible is the $3.5 million kitchen that the Council on Aging completed in 2007. The 10,000-square-foot facility has the capacity to make upwards of 14,000 meals a day.

In addition to The Noble Spoon, the council makes about 285,000 meals a year for its senior food program, plus another 90,000 for seniors served by another agency in Marin County.

The move to better utilize the kitchen got a big boost in 2011 when the council turned for help to another longtime local chef, Josef Keller. McBride recalled Keller’s initial thoughts about Meals on Wheels: “You’re not known for good food.”

But the chef, who had run such white tablecloth restaurants as La Province and Josef’s, accepted the challenge to help. He threw out the old menu and devised a new one. He also stopped the practice of serving hot meals, which because of food regulations inevitably resulted in overcooked food. Instead, the program switched to refrigerated entrées that can be reheated.

To oversee the production of the new menu, the council turned to Lindner, who had experience not only as a chef but also in training business people to run culinary companies. He soon began experimenting with ways to bring in extra income, including catering and renting space in the kitchen to food companies.

Catching a break

A big break occurred when Lindner began talking with G&G CEO Teejay Lowe. Lowe was looking for refrigerated meals for his store deli cases in Santa Rosa and Petaluma. He agreed to work with Lindner, a move the chef said was crucial to getting the venture off the ground.

“We were able to make all the mistakes with him,” Lindner recalled.

The first meal was sold in September 2012 under the name Stage. The brand was switched this spring to The Noble Spoon.

Lowe said getting involved was an easy choice. G&G customers like the meals and appreciate the idea that their purchase is helping to feed local seniors.

“This is the best example of business and nonprofits working together ... to help our community,” he said. The introduction of the John Ash selections makes the brand even stronger because the chef’s cuisine is “real food that people really want.”

The council originally turned to Ash to see if he might recommend a chef to help develop more menu items for The Noble Spoon. When Ash himself offered to tackle the project, McBride said, “we all picked ourselves off the floor.”

Reached by phone last week in Ketchikan, Alaska, where he was the featured chef on a KSRO radio culinary cruise, Ash said he has been impressed with the local meals program ever since he went along with a volunteer delivery driver and saw the personal touch that occurs when homebound seniors receive the free dinners.

“Often the only person these people ever see is the person who drops off meals,” he recalled.

Ash, who in 1980 opened John Ash & Co., said he sought to develop entrées for the for-profit menu that would compare with those found in good restaurants.

“What we’ve tried to do is make the quality of the food really interesting,” he said.

He also suggested the timing is right for offering quality prepared meals in both retail outlets and vending machines.

“This is the next great revolution in getting food to people,” Ash said.

The brand’s meals are now in seven Safeway stores in Sonoma and Marin counties, and the council is working to get them in 21 more in the region.

Getting into Safeway is making it easier to get space in other stores, Lindner said. Now, he’s even had a grocer call and ask to have the entrées placed in his market.

As well, officials with a San Rafael vending machine startup saw the meals in a Marin County coffee shop and chose to put them in their Internet-connected kiosks. The months-old company, Byte Foods, has 28 kiosks in operation around the Bay Area and plans to add about 15 each month through the end of the year, said CEO Megan Mokri. The kiosks are located or soon will be installed at KQED, San Rafael’s BioMarin Pharmaceutical and Chevron’s Richmond oil refinery.

Workers today are looking for healthy food made from quality, local products, Mokri said, but they also like knowing that the companies they support are a force for good. The Noble Spoon, she said, offers “the trifecta of good food, thoughtful sourcing and impact on the community.”

Serving a growing need

The Council on Aging already receives about 15 percent of its budget from “entrepreneurial” efforts, including fees it charges to act as trustees and conservators in financial affairs of elderly clients.

It hopes the for-profit meals venture can help meet the growing need for the Meals on Wheels program in a county where an estimated four out of 10 seniors living alone don’t have the minimum income needed to live in rental housing.

Over the past decade, the average contribution received for a Meals on Wheels dinner has declined to 62 cents from $1.65 earlier, McBride said. Some of that change may reflect the loss of seniors from the World War II generation, whose ethos wouldn’t allow them to accept a meal without paying something for it. But she suggested other factors also are at play.

“Honestly, our seniors are getting poorer,” McBride said.

Estimates are hard to come by for the portion of nonprofits that engage in for-profit ventures. But officials at two national organizations suggested that many do so at some level by operating thrift shops, food catering operations or sponsoring arts benefits.

Jennifer Chandler, a vice president with the National Council of Nonprofits in Washington, D.C., predicted more nonprofits will start money-making enterprises in the years ahead. One reason is that three out of 10 nonprofits now receive government funding, but many state and local public agencies are still strapped for cash years after the last recession.

For the nonprofits, Chandler said, “it’s just a very challenging environment for them to be operating in.”

Necessity and innovation are prompting new types of ventures dubbed social enterprises, which mix making money with efforts to improve society.

Kila Englebrook, a spokeswoman with the Social Enterprise Alliance in Nashville, Tenn., pointed to for-profit eyeglass maker Warby Parker, which donates a portion of its profits to nonprofit groups that sell affordable glasses to the world’s nearly 1 billion people who otherwise would lack access to eyewear.

She foresees more nonprofits will look to start money-making ventures, as well as more businesses wanting to include social advancement as part of their bottom line.

“It’s kind of the convergence of these two ends of the spectrum,” Englebrook said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit

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