Noble Spoon lets the hungry feed the hungry.
There’s a wonderful alliteration to the phrase, “the silver tsunami,” but its meaning is a tad less lyrical. The metaphoric tsunami at hand is that of the 10,000 Americans who turn 65 every single day, 365 days a year. A full one quarter of those who celebrate this milestone will live to be well over 90 years old. It’s a terrific testament to the strides made in health care, nutrition, and quality of life since WWII. But who can afford to be that old?
Not many, which is why some 2.5 million Americans participate in the national public-private Meals on Wheels program that delivers to them a hot, nutritious meal each day, relying mostly on government funding to do so. It’s estimated that the cost of one years’ worth of service provided by Meals on Wheels is the same as seven short days spent in a nursing home. But private monies must support and, even when times are flush, development officers must ask: Who can afford to feed the hungry?
According to an innovative and entrepreneurial program launched in 2013 by the Sonoma County Council on Aging (COA), which administers Meals on Wheels here, it’s simple: Let the hungry feed the hungry.
Enter the Noble Spoon, a for-profit business housed under the nonprofit arm of the COA and doing very well for itself, thank you very much.
A suite of chef-prepared meals that suffer under none of the demands that restrict the typical flavor profile of Meals on Wheels dinners, Noble Spoon entrees are full of plain old yumminess. Not meant to keep an elderly person alive per government standards, they’re intended to provide a busy professional a meal that can be thrown into the microwave and called good. Actually, they’ve been calling it delicious.
With some 15 different entrees in rotation available at 37 grocery stores in California and with a development deal in the works to stock all Safeways in the state at prices ranging from $5 to $7 per serving, the Noble Spoon was born from the COA’s anticipation of that very scary silver tsunami. Noble Spoon sales support Meals on Wheels deficits, the for-profit floating the nonprofit.
Marrianne McBride, COA’s president and CEO, could literally see the tide turning back in 2006, when she led the capital campaign to move her nonprofit to the large facility it now occupies in Southeast Santa Rosa. COA was trying to feed 70,000 people from a 1,000 square-foot kitchen. McBride knew that, given the metaphoric tsunami awaiting her, her client base was set to double and that even with $3 of each $7 meal offset by government inputs, her program would run a $1 million-plus deficit each year.
So she invested in the future, moving the operation to a massive new complex that includes a 10,000 square-foot-kitchen and trusting that she’d figure out a way to pay for it.
Thank goodness that Charles Lindner’s wife decided to start applying for jobs on his behalf.
Not that Lindner wasn’t already employed, but the chef was at a company that wanted him to move to San Jose. His wife was none too pleased. Seeing a COA job description she thought her husband might like here in Sonoma County, she quietly sent in his résumé.
Lindner came on in 2012 as the director of kitchen operations and business development, tasked with growing the nonprofit’s financials.
Meals on Wheels clients are encouraged to donate for their meals, but it’s not a condition of service, and the average tithe is $1. Lindner thought that perhaps those with more access to income might be willing to pay a flat rate for an additional meal. As he soon discovered: Perhaps not.
But there might be a person who would appreciate a delicious grab ‘n’ go gourmet entrée that is housemade, free of additives, and ready to eat.
A great idea but, Lindner admits, “We didn’t have the market to do it. We didn’t have any name recognition for this type of a product at all.”
But TJ Lowe, the CEO of G&G Market, did—and does. Moreover, Lowe had tried in the past to work with the COA and had been unable to find a fit. This was perfect. The COA provided the labor, he provided the know-how. Their first products hit store shelves in the autumn of 2014.
Reaction has been terrific, mostly because the food tastes good. “Our food is created by chefs who know how to cook,” Lindner says. “We’re not over-salting things to provide a longer shelf life. If you were to get our food at a restaurant, there would be no difference.”
Vegetarian meals flopped until it occurred to Lindner to place a sticker on them pronouncing them vegetarian. Then they boomed. Local celebrity chef John Ash offered to develop a set of recipes just for them. They learned, they grew, they got good at this for-profit thing.
“It’s an entrepreneurial approach to funding a nonprofit and increasingly, it’s best practice,” she says. “However, nonprofits have been slow to jump on board. You hear about nonprofits that are going out of business and on the front page of the newspaper saying that everyone needs to bail us out. We just didn’t want to be there.
“This,” she says with evident satisfaction, “is part of that strategy to not be there.”