Business branches out from younger customers
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Evann Remington has never accepted the notion that children prefer food that's shaped like a dinosaur or dyed a loud color.
"We've bought into this concept that food is different for kids," she said.
In 2007, Remington decided to turn her belief that gimmicks aren't need to sell children's food into a business.
After the birth of her daughter, Remington noticed there was an abundance of organic baby food but fewer organic options for older children.
"There's no next step for toddlers," she said.
Thus was born the idea for her initial product: "Organic Fresh Fingers," a healthy convenience food for youngsters.
She began making the snacks by herself in a leased commercial kitchen and selling the brand through specialty stores.
Roughly a year later, however, Remington began to grow dissatisfied with the business model.
Due to retailer markups, the product was selling for about $5 to $7 a meal, which meant it was only available to kids from affluent families.
To reach less wealthy children, she decided to fundamentally change her strategy by aiming for the broadest possible audience.
"The way to do that is through schools," Remington said.
The early days of the business were akin to an intensive sales course, trying to establish connections with schools and other programs that fed children.
"I was always making cold calls," she said.
Instead of organic food, Remington focused on using locally sourced ingredients in its "Wholesome Bakes" brand of frozen pot pies, enchiladas and other dishes.
"The entree goes from the freezer to their oven, and that's pretty much all they need to do," she said.
The new product line gained traction when Remington landed a nonprofit client that runs crisis relief nursery program for families in trouble.
She also began working with individual private schools, charter schools and non-profits.
Public school districts also began buying the entrees as her production capacity increased.
The business, Fresh n' Local Foods, has been profitable for several years and in 2013 is on track to double last year's revenues of $1 million, Remington said.
The Salem, Ore., company has grown from Remington working alone in a building under 2,000 square feet to 16 employees in a 14,000-square-foot facility that's shared with another firm.
Remington continues to stay close to the action rather than sit in an office. She works from a makeshift desk that consists of a door laid across the top of two wooden apple bins in the food production area.
Aside from making entrees, Fresh n' Local Foods administers the school food program for many of its customers, providing them with fresh fruits, vegetables and milk.
The company also tackles the bureaucratic hurdles they need to comply with the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program.
To receive reimbursements for lunches served to low-income students, schools and non-profits must show the families are eligible for assistance and prove the meals meet nutritional and portion size standards.
"There's a lot of documentation to be able to do that," Remington said. "We really are managing their whole program."
The company's success has been greatly aided by federal legislation that requires school lunches to be naturally nutritious -- rather than simply fortified with vitamins -- and increases reimbursements for using local food.
Food processors have an important role in connecting farms with students, as schools seldom have the resources to dice onions or peel carrots, she said.
"We can do this, but it will be growers, processors and school districts working together to do it," she said.
There is one major drawback to having schools as the company's core customers -- a prolonged stretch in summer when they don't need food, as well as shorter breaks in consumption around Christmas and early spring.
Remington plans to mitigate these lulls in demand by diversifying her customer base to include corporate cafeterias, hospitals, retirement homes and in-store delis.
She's currently trying to land a client by modifying the company's recipes to fit the hospital's "cardio" menu, which requires less sodium.
"Because we are doing things by hand, we can put some level of customization in these things for people," she said.
Occupation: Founder of Fresh n' Local Foods
Education: Associate's degree in farm management and nursery from Chemeketa Community College in 1997
Family: Husband, Gavin, and seven-year-old daughter, Oona
Hometown: Salem, Ore.