This company is pulling in $125 million in sales by cooking up a solution to sad school lunches

Revolution Foods founders largerCourtesy of Revolution FoodsRevolution Foods cofounders Kristin Richmond and Kirsten Tobey.

After tasting oven-roasted butternut squash for the first time during a demonstration at her high school in Inglewood, California, one student loved it so much she took her mother to the farmer’s market so they could load up on the vegetable at home.

Kristin Richmond, whose Oakland-based company Revolution Foods is trying to upend the status quo in school lunches, was serving food at the veggie tasting, and the story remains one of her favourites — it’s a healthy reminder of the impact her company can have on real lives by exposing children to nutritious, tasty food.

A trip to the farmer’s market may constitute an average Saturday morning for some families, but for many children, fresh vegetables rarely make an appearance at home — or in their diets at all.

Richmond and her partner Kirsten Tobey (No. 16 on BI 100: The Creators), cofounders of
Revolution Foods, want to change that. Their $125 million in sales food startup supplies healthy, affordable all-natural meals to schools — and it’s on a mission to help students and families eat healthily for every meal of the day.

The origins of that mission date back to 2006, when Richmond and Tobey were MBA students at the University of California at Berkeley. The duo happened to meet in a marketing class, where they both pitched business ideas on how to make healthy food accessible to all students. They each yearned to transform the American food system, starting in schools, where students are often served meals that are
reheated, void of nutrition, and largely unappetizing.

“Both of us had come from education and had seen incredible differences — in kids in the classroom and outside of the classroom — between those who were well-nourished and those who were not,” Richmond told Business Insider. “We both felt like access to healthy, delicious, affordable food was absolutely critical to set students up for success.”

So they paired up to write a business plan and launch a company that would supply schools with provide nutritious, cost-effective breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that contain no artificial colours, flavours, preservatives, or high-fructose corn syrup and are largely prepared from locally grown ingredients.

Rapid expansion

Revolution Foods’ ambition was always deeper than simply offering a school-lunch alternative — it hoped to improve education and make a lasting difference on the families whose students they served.

“It’s building lifelong healthy eaters by making our fresh, healthy, affordable meals accessible for all,” she says. “It’s a combination of health and access.”

Richmond attributes this committed vision to permanently changing lives as a catalyst for the company’s rapid growth.

In its first year, Revolution operated with six employees who cooked, packaged, and delivered every meal themselves to schools around Oakland, California, where Revolution Foods is based.

A year after kicking off in Oakland, word quickly spread, and the company expanded to Los Angeles, followed by schools in Washington DC, Colorado, New Orleans, New Jersey, and Texas soon after.

Today, a decade after launching, Revolution serves 1.5 million healthy meals per week across 1,000 schools in more than 30 cities nationwide. Along the way, the company has picked up nearly $100 million in private funding, including $30 million from a fund ran by AOL cofounder Steve Case.

Part of that war chest has helped an expansion beyond schools and into general retail. Revolution hit store shelves in 2013 with the goal of providing students and families an affordable way to eat well even outside of school cafeterias. Retail options include everything from ready-made lunch boxes stocked with humanely raised chicken to whole-grain granola bundles, providing a spectrum of options for dinners and snacks.

The company sells products in over 4,000 grocery stores across multiple states, and it donates a portion of all product sales back to support healthy school meal programs.

Another key to successfully scaling Revolution has been a relentless commitment to taste. High-minded, healthy meals mean little if no one is willing to swallow them. So Richmond and Tobey make flavour a top priority, putting each meal through multiple iterations and taking into account ample feedback from real students. Menus run the gamut from spaghetti and meatballs to chicken pasta alfredo to jambalaya, incorporating both classic favourites and regional specialties.

“We really try to take approachable formats, then ensure that we’ve got beautiful, clean ingredients,” Richmond says.

Attracting the right people

In addition to constantly evolving the menu, Richmond and Tobey sustain the company’s growth by developing a solid team of employees around them. Richmond’s secret to finding top-notch talent comes down to one simple strategy: creating and maintaining a clear vision for the company.

“The more we own our mission and the more we talk about the change we want to have and the impact that we want to have, the more we naturally end up attracting the right people who are going to be a good match for the company,” she says.

The company now employs around 1,700 people, and it was named one of the fastest-growing inner-city companies in the country in 2013 and 2014 by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. Revolution Foods’ has been growing by about 30% annually, and the company anticipates the next school year to offer tremendous opportunities to grow even larger.

But at the end of day, the biggest indicator of Revolution Foods’ impact comes from testimonials from teachers and administrators who notice marked difference in their students.

“I’ll never forget when we launched in New Orleans for the first time and had teachers writing in saying, ‘My kids are now well nourished, my students are more engaged, I’m seeing they’re more focused in class,'” Richmond says.

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