Candy Vidovich said it is not enough to simply serve nutritious plates in schools.
Instead, she said, kids learn to respond in healthier ways when a larger variety of food is offered.
“You can’t just put it on kids’ plates,” Vidovich said. “When kids are given a choice and allowed to decide for themselves what it is they want to eat, we’ve actually seen an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables.”
She knows what she is talking about.
As vice president and owner of Pomptonian Food Service in Fairfield, Vidovich and her husband, Mark Vidovich, the company president, oversee more than 2,000 employees, nearly $79 million in managed sales and more than 375 accounts with primary and secondary schools in more than 90 districts in New Jersey.
But while Pomptonian Food Service has consistently won awards for its high-quality, affordable lunches and its nutrition and organic programs, the school districts always can change their mind.
“We operate on one-year contracts,” Candy Vidovich said. “That means every year, we need to keep everyone — the students, the parents, the districts — happy and convinced that we are moving in the right direction.”
Vidovich has had a lot of practice. Originally a family-run steakhouse, the business was established by her parents in 1959.
“When a local high school needed someone to run the cafeteria, my parents — having never done that before — said they would give it a try,” Vidovich said. “That led to other business with schools, and, eventually, they liked that business so much that they sold the restaurant.”
Having worked in both the restaurant and the schools with her parents growing up, Vidovich attended Fairleigh Dickinson University to study restaurant and hotel management in order to take over the business.
Today, Pomptonian Food Service employs about 25 at its headquarters in Fairfield, with more than 90 percent of its other employees working in school kitchens and cafeterias.
“We serve about 200,000 students a day across all socioeconomic categories,” Vidovich said. “Our concentration has always been to work with students, parents and administrations on healthy menu ideas that kids will eat and enjoy.”
School districts hire and pay Pomptonian Food Service a management fee in order to run their cafeterias.
“While we work with the Board of Education to set the pricing at the schools, there is a lot of regulation to deal with at both the state and federal levels,” Vidovich said. “What you serve in schools, from the portion sizes, to the sodium content, to the calorie targets, is reviewed every three years to make sure that you are doing everything by the book.”
The trick is to balance the menus between what is nutritious and what schools can conceivably get kids to eat.
In New Jersey, pizza is still the No. 1 request; bagels are a close second.
“A lot of commodity foods are highly processed, so we work to try to find cleaner labels and less ingredients,” Vidovich said. “We also try to use local vendors in order to give business to whatever town we are working within.”
“Kids like to see their items being made in front of them, but they don’t want to see the packaging,” Vidovich said. “So we have fresh deli bars and ‘build your own’ stations that help bring new, creative and multicultural ideas into our school cafeterias.”
For example, Korean chefs might prepare made-to-order Asian dishes, or Italian chefs might create fresh pasta and sauces, all within the confines of the cafeterias.
“You don’t want kids eating the same things all the time, so we are really excited to bring in different cultures into the cafeteria to expose kids to new flavors,” Vidovich said. “And with ‘build your own’ and ‘made to order,’ we continue our trend toward more organic and less preservatives.”
Pomptonian Food Service is also looking to work more with technology.
“We are becoming more involved in working with preordering systems, such as in-cafeteria kiosks and digital boards, and looking to do more with Twitter and Instagram,” Vidovich said.
With more than 20 food management competitors in the area, it is up to Pomptonian each year to consistently try to improve and do better.
“We are small compared to companies such as Sodexo, Chartwells, Aramark — they are like the McDonald’s and we are like the local sandwich shop,” Vidovich said.
Pomptonian Food Service competes, however, by being completely customizable.
“From our menus to our management styles, nothing about us is cookie-cutter — each school district is different and we treat them as so,” Vidovich said. “We focus on high quality food ingredients and working with the kids and the district to understand their needs
“Essentially, we focus on what our customer wants.”
Woman at work
Candy Vidovich not only takes care of the kids in her schools — she also was a working mother of five.
“The triplets are now 27, our son is 22 and our daughter is 16,” she said. “It was a very hard juggling act — but kids and family always come first.
“Devote as much energy as you have to them and make sure that they are No. 1 when it comes to making any business decision.”
Biz in brief
Company: Pomptonian Food Service
Executive: Candy Vidovich, vice president and owner
Financials: Nearly $79 million in managed sales
Employees: More than 2,000
One More Thing: One of the challenges when managing a cafeteria is to find dedicated workers who are willing to work short hours within a short year. “For some people, such as college students and part-time workers, it’s great, but for someone who is looking for a long-term career, it may not be the right fit,” Candy Vidovich said.
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