Schools and parents alike have always struggled to find the right balance between healthy meals and food that their students or children actually want to eat.
That challenge has been compounded over the last 50 years or so as school lunches slowly transformed from well balanced meals prepared onsite to an array of unhealthy junk like chicken nuggets and pizza, often prepared off-campus and delivered by a large food conglomerate.
Legislation aimed at improving the nutritional value of school lunches has met with mixed results. Students used to higher levels of sodium, sugar, and fats in their food often complain that healthier options are bland, leading to food waste and even an increase in unhealthy items brought from home. Recently, innovative companies looking to bridge the gap between students and healthy meals have sprung up around the country.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with George Madzhirov, CEO of HandCut Foods, a contract food service company looking to revolutionize school lunches and take some of the stigma out of being a “lunch lady.” Over the course of our interview, we touched on everything from George’s childhood in communist Bulgaria to efforts to improve school lunches to the challenges of opening a new school kitchen. Definitely check out the full interview to hear even more of Madzhirov’s insights into the challenges and opportunities school lunch programs provide enterprising entrepreneurs.
A PASSION FOR FOOD
Chicago may seem a long way from Madzhirov’s childhood home of Bulgaria, but the one thing that keeps George grounded is his love of all things food related. That passion for food was handed down to him by his grandma, who ran a government-controlled bakery before the U.S.S.R. fell. With the fall of communism, George leapt at the chance to travel and experience new cultures. After graduating from college in Bulgaria, Madzhirov had internships in the hospitality industry in Portugal and Austria before coming to the United States.
Rising up the ranks of Boston based Legal Seafood was the beginning of George’s path to citizenship.
It wasn’t until 2005 that Madzhirov set his sights on Chicago, where he found himself initially working with catering companies before helping to open Quartino Ristorante. It wasn’t for another 5 years, though, that he became interested in the contract food service industry.
It’s no surprise that it took so long for Madzhirov to discover the contract food service. In 2010, everything about contract food service, including the name of the industry, was unattractive to young culinary professionals. Always one to spot an opportunity for growth, George saw the potential for a new approach. Reaching out to people outside of the traditional contract food service companies was the first step. With a top down approach focusing on wellness and education, Madzhirov was able to attract talented people with backgrounds in fine dining, rather than traditional school lunch experience.
A BETTER APPROACH TO A BETTER LUNCH
As far as Madzhirov saw it, “this was never done by people who were true restaurant [people] and people with hotel and hospitality backgrounds.” With locally sourced ingredients and menus tested and prepared by talented chefs, HandCut Foods set out to differentiate itself from the standard lunchroom fare.
They received their first opportunity when the prestigious Latin School of Chicago approached the business with an interest in redesigning its lunch program with an emphasis on integrating food knowledge into the curriculum. Madzhirov knew that he had the perfect team and the right products to put together this custom program for the Latin School, but would it be enough to win over HandCut’s most important critics, the students and their parents?
Building trust with school administrators, parents, and the wider community might not have happened overnight, but Madzhirov and HandCut Foods were committed to the project.
“My team prepared the food, they served the food, they talked about the food. They hosted kitchen tours and got people excited about demos. They would run up to the science department and get a can of liquid nitrogen, make ice cream with the kids.” That commitment to community has paid off, and not just at the Latin School.
Using the experience gained at the Latin School, George was able to transform an ambitious experiment into a full-fledged business serving schools all across the Chicagoland area. After getting to know the wants and needs of diverse K-12 institutions, HandCut Foods looked around for opportunities to bring its new food service model to higher education.
When the Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois was searching for a new food service provider, Madzhirov knew that the only way to compete with the larger conglomerate was to speak directly to the community and address their needs.
“They ended up trusting us because we did a tasting and we opened the doors and were very transparent about who we are, and how we source, and about all the ingredients that come through the door, and what goes into the food, and what’s the process behind the food we create. So, for them, it was a win-win.” By reaching out directly to the community, HandCut Foods was able to win the contract, but more importantly, they were able to get buy-in right off the bat.
A RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
For George, HandCut Foods is breaking the mold in more ways than one. A veteran of the food service industry, he has seen the negative effect that late nights and high stress environments can have on food service employees’ health. HandCut’s focus on wellness extends to employees as well as its clients. “Attracting a heavy hitter in the culinary world to work with a contract food service company, you have to really open the door and get them to be part of the vision…it becomes a mission and becomes part of that activism that everybody should have when it comes to food and wellness.”
Be sure to watch the full interview to hear more about HandCut Food’s new projects, including corporate lunches, elderly care, and home food delivery.
Exposure to healthy food and food education are vital to a sustainable future, and that future starts in schools. Companies like HandCut foods can make a big difference in transforming the wellness of students and communities as part of the next chapter in the food movement.