School lunch. It's the bain of many parents' existence. While the cafeteria offering is often light on nutrition, packing a healthy alternative is a drag. Seeing a gap in the market, Red Rabbit decided it could do better. Here, COO Jackie Walters talks about how the company is transforming lunch in schools across NYC.
How did the idea for Red Rabbit originate?
In 2005, our founder, Rhys Powell was listening to his friend talk about the fact that he couldn’t find a good, quick, healthy solution for his daughter’s school lunch. As cafeteria food had been notoriously unhealthy, it occurred to Rhys that there was an opportunity to create a product that made school lunch easy for parents. This spawned the initial concept for Red Rabbit – offering convenient, healthy, fresh meals for kids at school.
How did the idea and brand evolve to what it is today?
The original idea was to offer a convenience item for parents who didn’t have time or didn’t want to cook. We partnered with schools, but parents opted in or not and covered the cost. The business model was one at a time – one parent, one child. We realized that we needed to reach a critical mass and the idea morphed into being a service that was available and affordable so that ALL kids have a healthy option for lunch. We wanted to get into the school system and change the culture to promote healthy and positive eating habits. Our first big break was with a private school in Manhattan and we worked with our suppliers and vendors to drive cost down.
Where did you get the financing?
The company was initially funded privately, mostly friends and family, and then a later round from larger investors. After 10 years, we are now profitable and self-sustaining.
When did you start seeing significant growth for the company?
Around 2010, schools started picking up the concept and in 2012 we began seeing real growth. That year, we expanded our staff from 8 to 50, and in the following year from 50 to 120. The majority of our employees (about 80%) cook, clean or deliver food. Currently, we are in all NYC boroughs except Staten Island. We are also in a few communities in Westchester and Long Island.
Who are your main customers and how do you reach them?
We are in charter schools, parochial schools, private day care centers and pre-k for all programs – working directly with school administrators. At this point, we are not in the public school system, but we have seen a change in the way public-private partnerships have been working and are excited to be a part of reaching an even larger population of kids. A big challenge is that people don’t realize that they have an option for better food so building that awareness is a huge piece of our marketing. Schools now use Red Rabbit as a selling point for parents.
How have you marketed your brand?
We have been really lucky. You need to have a great product and great customers to grow a business and most of our growth has been through word of mouth and awareness. We do limited traditional marketing, such as send cards to schools but more importantly we integrate ourselves into the community with regard to food policy and are part of the conversation around getting healthy food to kids. Rhys is an active spokesperson – he truly lives and breathes the mission and has a strong pulse on what’s going on with school food, nutrition, on the policy level, etc.
What has been most surprising as you’ve grown the Red Rabbit brand?
When you start a company, everyone is looking for tech firm type of growth. But, when push comes to shove, we are unique in that we make a tangible product and hand deliver it everyday. With the scalability of our product, the ability and opportunity to grow is different. At times, we’ve needed to put our foot on the brakes to make sure we can execute effectively. Looking ahead, we have the capacity and infrastructure to position ourselves for strong growth. We are currently in 160 schools and our target is to serve 300 schools total this upcoming school year.
Where do you see the company in 5 years?
We are ready to bring Red Rabbit to more cities. This summer we are doing a 10-week pilot program in upstate NY where we are partnering with the Schenectady Inner City Ministry to provide free food for kids under 18 at 20 different sites. NYC is Red Rabbit’s home, but there is so much need out there across the country. We would love to launch more pop-up programs in additional markets over the next several years.
What makes Red Rabbit unique?
From the start, it has been integral to our mission to help families apply the skills we are teaching in schools and use them in their everyday lives. We want to make sure our communities have resources to make better choices. We offer educational classes and materials where our students can touch, feel, smell and taste fresh foods so they really learn to connect foods they know (i.e., French fries) with fresh produce (i.e., potato). Also, our approach is innovative. While there is a general mentality of outsourcing when it comes to food, Red Rabbit is in the cooking business – for us it’s more about getting kids excited to try new and exciting things, rather than just feeding them a meal.