How 2 Brooklyn Moms Are Reinventing School Lunch

Butter Beans serves up from-scratch meals, cooking classes and farm-to-table camps for Alice Waters acolytes.

Plenty of parents know what it’s like to look at cafeteria French fries and chicken fingers and sigh: “Surely it doesn’t have to be this bad.” But when Belinda DiGiambattista saw a lackluster school lunch, her reaction was more like: “This is a business opportunity.”

DiGiambattista had spent her own childhood picking blackberries and cucumbers on her grandparents’ North Carolina farm, then helping sell them from the back of the truck at farmers markets.

She studied business at UNC-Chapel Hill and NYU, building a lucrative career in finance, but soon came to feel there must be more to life than underwriting loans. When she got downsized from Moody’s, the severance package was, to her banking eyes, “great start-up capital.” But for what?

She found the answer on a weeklong yoga retreat in Costa Rica, organized by fellow Brooklynite mom Felicia Desrosiers, a holistic health counselor, yogi and evangelist for quinoa and kale. Between chaturangas, the two discussed the tyranny of tater tots and realized they weren’t the only busy parents who wanted their kids to eat real food.

Back in Brooklyn the would-be lunch ladies scheduled a play-date and quickly agreed to cook up a business. They incorporated, naming their start-up Butter Beans.

During the pilot stage, they focused not on school cafeterias, but on building a better brown bag — the kind filled with killer, from-scratch meals. “We were literally asking parents, ‘Can we bag your kids’ lunch?’” laughs DiGiambattista. In the beginning they had 20 takers, at six schools.

butterbeans brooklyn

Butter Beans Food & Garden campers visit the Union Square Greenmarket. There, they’ll explore connections between nutri- tion, seasonality, ecology and agriculture.

To fill those early orders, she and Desrosiers rented the midnight shift at a Gowanus kitchen, wrote menus, went to Trader Joe’s, hired a cook and made and packed cold lunches in adorable steel tiffins, color-coded to indicate ages, allergies and herbivores.

“It was a ton of work,” recalls DiGiambattista of delivering the tiffins to six different schools each morning, “but we learned everything we needed to know on how to actually do this business. And soon we looked at each other and said — ‘We can’t do this for 20 kids. We have to do it for every kid, or it’s not gonna be worth it.’” Which meant their little start-up would need contracts to do school lunch for real, in the cafeteria. And the MBA had an idea for how to fund that kind of growth. She remembered that her alma mater, NYU Business School, holds a competition every year, and she was determined to win it.

So Belinda wrote the operations plan, logistics plan and financial model, complete with a budget to build a custom commercial kitchen. “Our numbers did not have the typical hockey stick,” she says. “Ours had a lot of reality baked into it — because we were already doing it.”

Just before the competition, Butter Beans signed a $200,000 contract to provide mandatory lunch to Poly Prep Country Day’s lower school in Park Slope. Previously, all the private school students had to brown bag it, and a few were already opting for Butter Beans’ tiffins. When Poly Prep made them the mandatory choice for the whole lower school, one hot tiffin for every student, overnight Butter Beans’ daily order went from 20 kids to 200.

A week later, they won the $50,000 NYU prize; second place went to something called Totes — since renamed Pinterest.

butterbeans brooklyn

During their trip to the Greenmarket, campers shop for apples, identify herbs and try their hands at stir-frying vegetables.

Today they serve nine schools and one day care, plus the UNICEF cafeteria, cooking everything in a gleaming commercial kitchen in Sunnyside, Queens, complete with dry storage, 400 square feet of refrigeration, a loading bay, daily fresh produce deliveries and two refrigerated vans. They deliver all lunches the day before they are served, Sunday to Thursday, then Butter Beans staff — they employ over 60 — arrives on site to heat, serve and clean up.

Kids still feast on Desrosiers’s yogi fare like spaghetti squash, quinoa and sweet potato gnocchi, but early on some parents asked: “Where’s the beef?” So Butter Beans added daily omnivore options like handmade lasagna, from-scratch meatballs and Applegate franks. (“Our customers want hot dogs,” acknowledges DiGiambattista.) Having mastered lunch, Butter Beans soon expanded their offerings to include education: cooking classes and farm-to-table camps for Alice Waters acolytes.

A week later, they won the $50,000 NYU prize; second place went to something called Totes — since renamed Pinterest.

After-school classes, now offered weekly in a dozen schools citywide for kindergarten through sixth grade, cover everything from knife skills to mindful eating, as well as what happens to rice during cooking, cumin’s cultural significance and why carrots are good for your spleen. Taught by Butter Beans staff who come equipped with cooking kits and curriculum, they’ve converted even the staunchest young skeptics.

“We find that, even if at the beginning of class, kids are, like, ‘I will NOT taste that butternut squash,’” says DiGiambattista, “by the end of the session, they can’t get enough.”

Day camps, offered during spring and summer breaks, get kids’ hands dirty through everything from sowing seeds to composting. Kids plan a group budget to spend at the Union Square Greenmarket, then cook their own lunch together each day. Field trips, inducing adult envy, take kids behind the scenes at kimchi kitchens, Brooklyn Grange’s rooftop farm, Rafetto’s pasta shop, Randall’s Island vegetable gardens and Ample Hills ice cream shop, where campers help transform pastured cream and eggs into cone-ready scoops.

Children and parents are lining up, but DiGiambattista’s got her executive eye on the spreadsheets. “Most businesses fail,” she says. “Our first five years were rough, as we figured out the model, but we were profitable in 2014 and we’ll be profitable in 2015.”

For those of us without MBAs, the proof is in the pudding, or rather on the lunch tray, where kids come back for seconds of lentil salad, sautéed spinach and pasta with sausage and kale. Sure, Butter Beans does occasionally offer chicken fingers, but unlike the typical processed stuff, these are made from whole breasts, cut and breaded by hand and baked until golden.

“Eating awareness is not just for select foodies anymore,” says DiGiambattista. “This can be viewed as a pilot for the country, in a way that could really benefit children everywhere.”

“Demand,” she adds, “will continue to grow.”

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Gabrielle Langholtz is the former editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan.