Lunch Lady Franchise - Founder and CEO, Ruthie Burd

Date: MAY 25th, 2010

Topic: Interview with a CEO

Ruthie Burd founded the Lunch Lady in 1993. She never imagined that one day she would be delivering healthy hot lunches to thousands of children at school. However, the day one of her boys was diagnosed with autism was the day that she started thinking of new ways to contribute to the family income. Ruthie wanted to work but she needed the afternoons free to take her son to therapies. The Lunch Lady concept was born when she learned that there were no cafeterias in most elementary schools, and that many parents found making school lunches a chore. Today there are hundreds of schools served by the award winning Lunch Lady through a growing network of community based kitchens across Canada. Ruthie still loves her business and is always looking for ways to make life better for your children at school.

BeTheBoss - What’s the story behind The Lunch Lady Group?

Ruthie Burd - Who knew that a chance idea about serving lunches to school kids would turn into the Lunch Lady Group? No one is more surprised than me.

In 1993, my husband and I were both past 40 and parents of 2 small children. Our beautiful, mostly mute and distracted 3 year old, had just been diagnosed with autism and needed constant attention. Our year old baby hollered non-stop and hung onto my leg while his brother squealed like a dolphin [not pleasant] and if unsupervised banged his head on the floor. It was pretty chaotic.

I needed to go back to work but my life was pretty unpredictable and I needed to be able to have my children with me if necessary and work around our special child’s therapies. There was the money need of course but there was also the personal need. I believed I had to find a way to maintain a personal identity that was bigger than the disability that was turning our lives upside down. I started reading, researching and considering my options. I considered a scrapbooking business, making artificial flower arrangements, being a research assistant and in the end settled on a Lunch Business. It seemed to fit the best.

The fact that I could not cook was a bit of an inconvenience but this did not deter me. In the 80s, I had started a window blind manufacturing company in Jamaica without knowing how to make vertical or venetian blinds and I had made that work so I was sure I could manage a food business.

Naturally it was not as simple as that. No schools or parents wanted my service so I started making lunches for auto shops, doctors offices and senior to pay the rent. It was a long two years before I got permission to offer my program to the first school and when the menus came back, there was only ONE. But everything starts with the first one.

Needless to say, things changed. There were many ups and downs over those first years of course, lots of tears, mistakes in the kitchen, a failed partnership attempt. But I loved it just the same, spent time with the boys, often taking them to work with me and our son’s condition started to improve.
The Lunch Lady prospered too and by 1999 I started thinking about franchising and giving partnership another chance.

Today I have 2 partners [Jim Essex who helped me to franchise the concept in 2000 and Stan Newman who joined us in 2009 to direct our corporate development of great franchisees , an excellent and dedicated head office support team and an award winning concept and of course, the support of my wonderful husband and amazing children.

BTB - What made you decide to franchise?

RB - My father always said that “money works best when everybody has some” so I decided that the best way to grow my business was to share the idea with others who wanted the same things in life that I did –a lifestyle that balanced the needs of a family with a meaningful career.

BTB - Tell us a little about your industry?

RB - Most elementary schools in Canada do not have cafeterias and so parents must pack a lunch to send in each day for their children. A generation ago, this usually meant a sandwich [often peanut butter and jam], a fruit and maybe a cookie but times have changed. Parents are working and pressed for time and so making the school lunch becomes just one more task and often a thankless one.

Choices can be limited to accommodate certain allergens [nuts and peanuts] and many parents feel pressured by their children to buy nutrient poor treats that end up being the centerpiece of the meal. On the other hand, parents who control the “ treats’ at home have concerns about all the “junk” food that enters the school and the effect this may have on their children’s future attitudes towards food. The opportunity of course is then is to provide busy parents with a convenient option to packing a lunch but the greater responsibility is to provide a service that meets set nutritional standards and contributes to a healthier food environment for Canadian school children.

BTB - What have some of the challenges been in growing your franchise?

RB - A franchise system is very much an organic and ever evolving organization. In response to the needs of the marketplace and the growing size of the company, flexibility and openness to change have become essential ingredients for success. So dealing with resistance to change among existing franchisees and at Head Office has been a big challenge and we have had to make some tough decisions, but addressing these issues had also been a terrific opportunity to grow as an organization and for me personally to learn essential leadership skills. The well being of our BRAND and the needs of our customers must come ahead of everything else.

Running a the Lunch Lady Group as a franchise system is not at all like operating the original concept. Being good at one does not prepare you for the other. So this whole experience has been a huge learning curve for me. It is really hard but vital for the concept creator to accept their own limitations and learn to delegate to others. I have been very fortunate to find excellent partners with skills I am lacking, and to be supported by a dedicated team, who have the organization’s best interests at heart.

Not every idea is a winner. While you need to try things and be innovative, lots of eyes are focused on you and counting on you to be “right” all the time. How you handle the “not so good” idea is as important if not more so than the idea. No one likes being on the hot seat but avoiding the hot seat undermines the Franchisor’s credibility to lead.

BTB - Who has been your greatest inspiration?

RB - My father left me a wonderful personal legacy and a belief that each one of us is here to make the world a little better for everyone else. We are each pebbles in each other’s ponds. I have been privileged to meet many wonderful men and women in the franchising industry who have been so generous with their time and their advice.

BTB - What are some of the advantages in being a LUNCH LADY franchisee?

RB - Certainly the opportunity to have a career that let’s you “ live like a teacher” with summers and school holidays off , is a huge advantage for many of our franchisees and their families. But there are of course other benefits

  • Feel Good – You are making a positive difference in our school communities
  • Make a Difference – You are helping to raise the bar when it comes to the food environment in elementary schools.
  • Be where the Action is - Serving kids, nutrition and providing convenience are all business concepts that are experiencing high growth in today’s economy.
  • No Need to re-invent the Wheel. Be part of an Established Business - The Lunch Lady has 17 years experience as a provider and 10 as a Franchisor. We are active members of the Canadian Franchise Association. The Brand is nationally recognized and respected.
  • Make friends with Technology - No need to develop your own online presence and website or data management software. Access to ours is part of the Franchise
  • Work around your Family’s Daily Schedule -While the Lunch Lady is a full time job during the school year, many of the administrative tasks can be performed from home while your kids are doing their homework.
  • STILL Affordable - The costs involved in setting up a Lunch Lady Franchise are still around $100K

BTB - What “Gadgets can’t you live without?

RB - I am definitely hooked on my Blackberry and am ashamed to say that I have been guilty of hiding in hotel and restaurant bathrooms and emailing when I have promised my husband that I would not. On the other hand, I can’t live without meditation either, which is all about being gadget-free and disconnected from the outside world.

BTB - What do you do in your spare time?

RB - There’s not a lot of that these days but when there is some, I love to read, listen to book tapes, dance, watch movies, travel, do Suduko puzzles and hang out with my family. Mysteries and histories are my “fav” reads and I enjoy listening to people and being inspired by their stories. After years of shunning the kitchen, I now enjoy being there. My dream since childhood has been to be a published author so I will need to fit that in somewhere too.

BTB - What advice do you have for someone looking to acquire a Franchise?

RB - Can you paint a picture in your mind and SEE yourself operating the franchise or imagine HOW it would feel to be part of the franchise organization you are interested in? Do the values of the Company feel “right”. Do you feel good about the service you will be providing and do you feel your commitment is strong enough to sustain you through the challenges of start up?

BTB - In your opinion, why do you think that the Lunch Lady Group would be a great opportunity for someone?

RB - Our business is a offers an irresistible opportunity for the right person who values:

  • The option of Summers off
  • The Satisfaction of knowing that your efforts are valued and appreciated by the communities you serve
  • The Opportunity to contribute to the well being of Children
  • The Support of a strong and dedicated Team at Head Office led a the Founder who is still “in love” with the “business
  • A dedicated Partnership team [the shareholders] focused on the development and expansion of the Brand and the long term plan
  • The Chance to be part of a Franchise System that meets the profile for a “hot” business in today’s service oriented, time-saving marketplace
  • Being in business (but with a roadmap)