The easy prep meal business just isn't what it used to be.
Laura and Daniel Bezden opened the Studio Kitchen in Round Rock just before the idea of a business that hosts groups of people to assemble meals in bulk really took off. That was in 2004, and within a few years, there were more than a dozen similar stores in the area.
"We had so much business, we didn't know what to do," Laura Bezden says. "I would be a millionaire if I would have franchised it."
But, as with many hot food concepts, the excitement eventually fizzled as the novelty wore off. (You'll still find a few franchise outlets of Super Suppers and Dream Dinners in Central Texas, but fewer than half the locations of what there were before.)
The Bezdens had to get creative. They started cooking and freezing meals that customers could either pick up or have delivered, but even that started to taper off when the economy turned south in 2008.
"There's nothing wrong with the model of helping busy families eat better food at home," says Daniel Bezden, but as fewer people attended the cooking classes and meal preparation sessions, the Bezdens eventually dropped that part of the business altogether.
They still offer prepared meals for delivery or pick-up, but as the Bezdens' own children grew — they are 18, 16 and 12 now — they saw opportunity in the renewed interest in improving school lunches and reducing childhood obesity.
It just so happened that one of their customers was involved with the Meridian World School, a public charter school that opened last year just a few miles from the Studio Kitchen's longtime home off Sam Bass Road.
The Bezdens started researching school lunch requirements and how to prepare healthy, from-scratch lunches for less than $4 each. Last summer, in competition with a number of well-established caterers and lunch providers, they pitched their proposal to the school, and, to their surprise, they were selected. Just weeks later, they served their first meal to more than 100 elementary and middle school students.
"As founders, we wanted to do something spectacular," says Eileen Kuhn, business manager at the Meridian World School. "It was so important to us to have fresh, unprocessed healthy meals available to the kids. We felt so lucky that they were interested."
As parents, the Bezdens had always had an interest in improving the quality of what their kids ate, but now they were in charge of doing so while still meeting strict U.S. Department of Agriculture standards and the expectations of both students and their watchful parents.
Laura Bezden realized pretty quickly that her idea of "child-friendly food" wasn't exactly the same as many of her fellow Williamson County parents.
When the Bezdens had their three boys, they were living in South Africa, where Daniel is from. After spending 13 years abroad, Laura Bezden says the food landscape in America — especially for kids, who were suddenly subsisting on chicken nuggets and quick-heat foods like pizza bites — was almost unrecognizable from the one she left in South Africa, where convenience foods aren't as common.
At first, she was enticed by the convenience. After all, they had three kids younger than 8 who fancied chicken nuggets as much as any other kids. But when she started looking more closely at the labels, her conscience butted in and she set out to cook real food for them and, by extension, the families they wanted to serve through the Studio Kitchen.
Through her experience and those of her many customers, she's realized that kids' palates change rapidly right around the time they start spending more time in day care and preschool, where caregivers often serve "cheap, easy food" for the lowest common taste bud, which tends to revolve around super sweet yogurts and salty, pre-cooked finger foods.
Parents, understandably, would rather see their kids eat some food rather than not eat at all because the kids aren't familiar with the food.
But the Meridian food policy dictates that the food served to the kids can't have any artificial flavors, transfats or partially hydrogenated fats, and Kuhn says the board wanted to serve kids fresh, unprocessed foods made with high-quality ingredients, not the fillers and non-foods found in most heat-and-eat products.
Last year, they served between 160 and 200 students a day, and now they are serving closer to 300 of the almost 800 students who attend the school. Every day, they offer four options: a vegetarian and meat entree, plus a salad and baked potato or salad topped with some kind of protein. They also provide breakfast, such as the cinnamon apple raisin biscuits on this page, for the students.
Unlike a typical public school cafeteria, you won't find pink or brown milks at Meridian. White milk is the main choice, with juice as an optional "extra," and on a recent visit during lunch with a roomful of kindergartners, no one was complaining about the lack of sweetened milk. Nor did you hear whining about the salad on each of the trays, the sauce on the lasagna or the fact that the children had to peel orange slices instead of fish around for syrupy mandarin oranges out of a plastic cup.
Carmen Garudo, who was the Studio Kitchen fan who first connected the school with the food company, says her two boys, ages 6 and 8, have become more adventurous eaters since eating the school lunch. "As parents, we have had to encourage our kids to be risk-takers because the pizza or chicken nuggets might not look like what they are used to," she says. In August, the Studio Kitchen served chicken wings, and Garudo knew exactly how much her oldest son, Ismael, loved them because of how much sauce ended up on his shirt. "It's been a real growing experience. ... That's not necessarily what I would expect from a school lunch."
Karen Day's two kids have been known to argue over who gets to tell mom about what they had for lunch that day. As for the $3.50 per day price tag? Day says it is pricier than a regular school lunch, but not that bad when you compare it with what you get in a fast food meal.
After a year, the Bezdens, along with Studio Kitchen chef Kyle Burgess, have found a happy middle ground of foods they feel comfortable serving and dishes the kids are excited to eat. This year, they've served crispy beef tacos, sweet potato french fries, hummus wraps, chicken teriyaki with rice and, yes, even pizza, but pizza with homemade sauce and hand-rolled dough.
They haven't found an economical way to incorporate local and organic ingredients into the meals just yet, but that's one of the goals for coming years. The school, which is open to the public but whose students are selected through a lottery, has plans to take over the rest of the former assembly plant off Interstate 35 north of Round Rock in coming years. The Studio Kitchen hopes to grow with it.
"We took a chance on them and they took a chance on us," says Kuhn, the school official. "It's a very happy partnership."
Contact Addie at 912-2504.
Cinnamon Apple Raisin Biscuits
3 cups diced green apple
1 cup raisins
2 Tbsp. cinnamon
3 Tbsp. brown sugar
9 cups buttermilk biscuit mix
2 3/4 cups of water
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place all ingredients in mixing bowl. With a wooden spoon or a stand-up mixer, mix together until well combined. Turn dough out onto a floured surface. Roll and fold in half. Turn one quarter. Roll to 1/2-inch thickness with a rolling pin. Cut with biscuit cutter and place side-by-side on ungreased sheet pan. Bake for about 14 minutes. Makes about 30 biscuits. (You can freeze these on a cookie sheet, store in freezer bags and thaw on the counter overnight before serving.)
— Studio Kitchen chef Kyle Burgess
Texas Companies Focus on Reduced-Sugar Drinks for Kids
In an effort to reduce the amount of sugar in kids' diets, several drink companies expanded their reduced-sugar products. The Dallas-based Borden has new chocolate, vanilla and strawberry reduced-sugar flavored milks that have 18 grams of sugar instead of the 21 grams found in most flavored milks. Three fewer grams of sugar and 20 fewer calories aren't that much, especially considering that 18 grams of sugar is equal to four and a half teaspoons of granulated sugar, but a half pint of one percent, unflavored milk has 12 grams of sugar by itself. These new milks are being served in Round Rock, Bastrop, Dripping Springs, Elgin, Hays, Manor, Pflugerville and San Marcos school districts.
The Austin-based health drink company Genesis Today has released a new line of low-sugar juices that have 5 grams of sugar per 6.75 fluid ounces, which is easily less than half the amount of sugar found in most kids' juice boxes. My kids didn't mind the "lack" of sweetness in the berry and blueberry-flavored Power Blast drinks, which are available at Walmart and H-E-B for about $3 a six-pack, but I'm not a fan of the taste of Stevia, which is easily detectable to adult palates.
— Addie Broyles