Council on Aging making money, filling bellies with meal business
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.