Jonas Falk is an accidental activist. As a businessman with a vision to provide cost effective, nutritious, restaurant quality lunches to schoolkids, he has created a company capable of serving the needs and desires of many concerned parents and health conscious individuals. Falk is the founder and CEO of the Chicago based company, OrganicLife, currently the leading provider of healthy lunches for early childhood and elementary schools in the state of Illinois. They specialize in high end restaurant style food management for preschools to high schools, colleges, hospitals and other institutions.
“We all relate to one thing, which is we had really bad food when we were growing up in school.” Falk decided to do something about this. Growing up in a big family with an appreciation for his mom’s amazing home cooked meals, he later trained in Hotel and Restaurant Management at Michigan State and then received a degree in Culinary Arts from Kendall college. After working in the kitchen of five-star restaurants Les Francais and Le Lan under James Beard Award-winning chef, Roland Liccioni, he decided to apply the knowledge gained from his mentor to the business plan for institutional food preparation he’d devised in college.
Like many entrepreneurs, Falk started his company as a one man band, working out of his apartment in Chicago. He was fortunate enough to meet Justin Rolls, a long time restaurant and hotel food services consultant, who became the company’s COO. Five years later, with a strong foothold in Illinois and over 300 full time employees, OrganicLife is now expanding operations into Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, with New York well within its sights. Although originally bootstrapped, with some private investors to get things going, they have moved into more funding, and currently have some major food service backers.
The company’s main operating terrain is the highly competitive RFP process of the national school lunch program, which governs billions of dollars spent on providing free lunches for school children across the country. Illinois (along with New York) has a low bid policy for these contracts, which of course has fostered the mediocrity we have come to associate with public school lunches. Until changes implemented by Michelle Obama in 2012, this landscape had seen no significant changes in decades. The new regulations designed to support good health are part of a growing movement that has helped OrganicLife develop its considerable foothold in the industry.
In endeavoring to provide the best quality, low cost food to kids each day, Falk and Rolls have dedicated themselves to applying four star kitchen values and practices to their business. Some of the schools they service have amazing kitchens that have barely been used in years beyond reheating frozen foods! They have put real chefs and crews on site and run them as proper restaurants, serving, for example, high quality meat on wholegrain buns as opposed to grade C meat on processed white buns. In fact, their menus offer a welcome variety of healthy and delicious sounding options – a far cry from the tired offerings I’ve seen in my son’s cafeteria!
Despite receiving tremendous support, the company has also experienced some pushback. After all, when you disrupt a 50-year-old system, you’re bound to ruffle some feathers. There is much at stake. Last year alone, the federal government funded 31 million free meals a day to kids across the U.S., and the system contains many hidden regulations. Becoming comfortable in this environment has proven to be one of Falk’s biggest challenges.
Although the public schools operate under a budget of $2.85/meal, privately funded school districts and other institutions have enabled the company to offer options as diverse as a public shopping mall type food court, for a reasonable price. Falk’s mission is to bring this same quality to the federally funded districts, and OrganicLife has been able to provide amazing meals under these guidelines. They have had to be extremely creative and aggressive to fight the low bids of larger companies, but so far, their brand of innovation seems to be working. Growth of the company has been relatively fast, with more expansion on the immediate horizon. It would seem they are riding a rising wave of demand for healthy and nutritious food that is likely to continue.
According to Falk, the response has been overwhelming. “To build a company this large this fast, based on an uncomplicated premise of great food and great service, has been wonderful.” Indeed, he has been recognized for his efforts. In 2009, Jonas was named as one of the Top 5 Emerging Entrepreneurs in America by Entrepreneur Magazine. This year, he is a Forbes Magazine 2013 30 under 30 recipient for Food & Wine in the U.S.
Not surprisingly, Falk is an advocate of sticking to your beliefs and pursuing them with passion. His advice to others looking to scale their simple ideas? “Put the business plan down and go sign the lease. Make it real… [because] the first day you open your doors, your business plan is going to change… Put yourself on the line and put your business on the line, and you’ll see that great things will happen. if you never take that chance and you never have any risk, you’re never gonna see your business reach its full potential.”
Listen to the full interview here:
Deborah Oster Pannell is a writer who specializes in the arts, culture, special events and creative & innovative projects of all kinds. As Director of Communications for the tech start-up eventwist, she also manages their blog. Some of her favorite work is featured on modernlifeblogs.com, lizkingevents.com, and her own blog, shesaysyes.wordpress.com. Currently she is preparing to launch Project Mavens, a content branding firm. On Twitter @projectmaven.