By Jane Applegate

Like many busy mothers with young children, Debbie Blacher (pictured left), pregnant with her third son, was worn out after making and serving three meals a day. Adding school lunches to her daily to-do list prompted the classic ‘light bulb’ moment. Why not start a business preparing and delivering healthy lunches to kids at their schools?

“Trying to juggle everything was just too much,” says Blacher, who co-founded Wholesome Tummies, an Orlando-based school lunch delivery business, with a neighbor about six years ago.

At first, they considered making and delivering baby food, but quickly realized there was more money to be made selling school lunches.

Meet a food prep member of the Wholesome Tummies team.
Meet a food prep member of the Wholesome Tummies team.

“Many pre-schools and private schools didn’t have healthy options for meals,” explains Blacher, who conducted her market research by asking parents she knew if they would pay for school lunches delivered directly to their kids’ schools. The answer was “yes.”

“So many parents are tired of packing school lunches,” says Blacher, who manages her company from home with a team of about 10 full and part-time employees.

Based on their success in Orlando, Wholesome Tummies started franchising, and has sold 18 franchises across the country. “Our plan is to double in size every year,” says Blacher, adding that the company has been profitable for the last two and a half years. “We think the market will bear serving about 300 communities,” says Blacher, adding that the company projects $3 million to $5 million dollars in annual system-wide sales.

Qualified franchisees pay about $100,000 to buy a Wholesome Tummies’ franchise. Franchisees spend two weeks in Orlando learning how to set up the business, market to schools and secure a commercial kitchen. Once the basics are in place, they return to Orlando for another week of operational training. “Some franchisees are very aggressive and start by hiring 10 to 15 people,” says Blacher. “Others start small with 200 lunches a day.”

applegate_report_headerThe franchise fee includes an initial fee of $35,000, another $30,000 to license the concept for 10 years and $5,000 for the customized software program that manages the streamlined ordering and payment process. The WT online platform allows parents and kids to select menu items and pay by credit card.

Pre-school lunches cost about $3; elementary school lunches cost between $5 and $7 each.

“We focus mostly on providing lunches to private schools—the lowest hanging fruit,” says Blacher, adding that the price of their lunches has not been a big issue. Some families order lunch every day, others just a few days a week. Many schools have kitchens were Wholesome Tummies’ staff can prepare the lunches. If no kitchen is available, the lunches are delivered.

“Parents want a break,” she said. “If it’s a good lunch, they can’t feel guilty about (buying) it.”

Blacher, who has a background in human resources and was working as an executive coach when she decided to start her own company. She admits starting the business was “an absolute nightmare” due to their lack of experience. She and her partner invested about $150,000 of their own money to get the business off the ground. They relied on a nutritionist to help create menus and select portion sizes. They initially hired a local catering company to prepare the lunches. She said parents love that they can order customize menus to accommodate their kids’ allergies, gluten-free diets and other dietary issues.

“Kids are kids,” said Blacher. “Our number-one best-selling item is pizza, but we make it healthier with whole grain crust, low-fat cheese and we add pureed veggies to the marinara sauce.”

Other popular entrees are macaroni and cheese with pulled barbeque chicken and a variety of ‘breakfast for lunch’ options. Chicken tenders made from hormone and antibiotic-free chicken are also a best-seller.

If her success inspires you, Blacher, who bought out her partner and is now the sole owner, says “go for it.”

“Find something you love and build it from the ground up,” she says. “Running your own business is probably the most rewarding experience other than parenthood and motherhood,” she says. “It’s intoxicating. My brain does not shut off.”

And, like many small business owners in the start-up phase, she still relies on her husband and his full-time job to provide the family with benefits and “keep the lights on.”

Jane Applegate is the national correspondent for SmallBizDaily.com, author of four books on small business success and co-founder of the FabulousFemaleNetwork.com. The Applegate Group is a multimedia production company.