Jonas Falk isn't swayed by the fact that he's competing with long-established, $50 billion companies. The young entrepreneur co-founded his company Organic Life to bring healthy, organic foods to the schools in the Illinois region, and it's a business idea that is working. In just seven years, he has grown Organic Life to become a $20 million company by serving great-tasting, healthy food to students at more than 400 schools.
It's an achievement that earned the 28-year-old CEO a slot on Forbes' magazine's annual "30 under 30" list. "It's a huge honor," Falk says from his offices north of Chicago. "You work hard every day, so to be recognized like this is overwhelming."
Falk first came up with the idea for what would become Organic Life in high school. He wrote up a business plan in college, but his professor wasn't impressed at the time. The paper earned a D, but that didn't stop him. Falk founded the company anyway and started cooking up menu ideas. "We didn't know any better," he says. "We just went ahead, signed the lease, went into a kitchen and started selling."
The company may not have had experience in food service when it started, but Falk says it did have three key principles: "serve great food, provide great service and make people happy every day." Their goal was to provide healthy food for school cafeterias that would still be tasty enough that kids would want to eat it. They hire top-of-the-line chefs for each school and buy only the best ingredients that they can find.
"You don't have to do a lot to change food services," Falk says. "We're going to take grass-fed beef and whole-wheat buns from a bakery that we love and that's going to be our cheeseburger, instead of taking grade-B meat and a processed hamburger bun." This is a big change for school cafeterias, where pizzas more often than not come to the schools frozen in cardboard boxes. Organic Life still offers pizzas, but they're made from scratch with fresh ingredients. "There's nothing wrong with pizza as long as the chefs are making the dough and tossing them in the air and cooking every day."
Falk says Organic Life stands apart from other companies in food service management, which control 98 percent of the market. "Being the new face on the block is what's most difficult in this business," he says. While schools may not always be completely happy with their current vendors, making a switch to a relatively new company with a different business model is seen as risky. "That was our biggest barrier at first getting into the business."
But the once-derided "D-grade" business model has proven successful. Falk says his company's food is not just healthier — it tastes better. More kids buy it, allowing them to use more expensive organic ingredients while still earning a healthy profit. "If we serve this food that's remarkably better than our competitors, we're going to do twice the amount of sales," he says. This helps them grow what would have been a $1 million contract with a school district into a $2 million contract, "because 100 percent of the kids are going to come and eat every day instead of 50 percent. If we can serve 200 meals a day instead of 100 meals, we can have that same $3 price as our competitors."
Organic Life, which also provides organic catering services, continues to grow. Over the next two year the company plans to expand to neighboring Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. "We've gone from zero to $20 million," Falk says. "We want to make sure we're serving the same great food at $200 million. It's a tiny, tiny number for food-service management, but it's exciting to see the response and serve people good food every day."
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Inset photo of boy eating in cafeteria: Shutterstock