By Belle Hatfield
It was bitterly cold during a recent Thursday visit to the Humble Gourmet at Yarmouth Consolidated Memorial High School. Seconds after the noon buzzer sounded at the Forest Street school, students, teachers and support staff flooded into the sun-lit dining hall where the Humble Gourmet operates the school’s cafeteria. The smells associated with Mediterranean cooking greet you as the doors into the spacious dining room open. In moments the line is snaking back from the food service window all along the outer perimeter of the room.
Tony Papadogiorgaki is at the cash register processing orders. Staff in the kitchen are a symphony in motion. There are a hundred hungry people, a dozen choices, and the seconds are ticking. As the owner of the Humble Gourmet, Papadogiorgaki is building his marketing campaign around freshly prepared, healthy food, but he knows the success of his venture relies on getting food served fast.
As quickly as the line forms, it seems to dissipate. The team, which includes his daughter Eva and Theresa DeViller and Carmen Stuart, has developed a well-honed system that Papadogiorgaki says can now serve customers in seconds.
There’s fresh-from-the-oven pulled pork with mashed and mixed veggies for $5. Students are tucking into a variety of choices. The day’s other special is mac and cheese, but not the kind that comes from a box. Creamy, aromatic and with a little crunch on top, it has been prepared from scratch with basic ingredients.
The restaurant offers five varieties of wraps and subs, four kinds of from-scratch pizzas and spaghetti with sauce made with lean, locally grown beef. In addition, there are two daily specials and a soup of the day. Cream of Leek was on the menu during my visit. You can also get salads and fresh fruit.
Papadogiorgaki hopes this pilot project will transform what’s being served on school cafeteria menus throughout the province.
“It is a contrast to the prevailing systems of food services in school cafeterias,” he says.
The traditional fare in cafeterias relies on highly processed foods, usually pre-packaged to minimize labour costs.
“They meet the minimum nutritional values, at the lowest possible cost, and almost always at the expense of flavour,” he says.
Humble Gourmet Ventures Inc. secured the contract last summer through the school board’s procurement process. As a turn-key operation, he rents the space from the Tri-County Regional School Board and delivers food services within the framework of the contract. He’s no stranger to running restaurants. Papadogiorgaki has a master of science degree in food service from the University of Massachusetts and has operated restaurants around the world, most recently at the Old World Bakery on Main Street in Yarmouth. Taking the principles of locally-sourced, gourmet food and applying them to an institutional food service is an emerging trend and he believes it can be the way of the future.
”What really matters,” he says, “is that what we make here is appreciated for its taste and wholesomeness, as well as for being inexpensive and served fast and in a caring way.”
It is a far cry from standard cafeteria fare.
A fact not lost on Grade 12 student Emily Muise and her friends.
Though she lives in town, Muise says the cafeteria menu has made staying at school for lunch an attractive alternative. She’s grown up in a home where healthy food is a priority.
“The food is really good,” she says, “The wraps and sandwiches are just like the food my mom would make.”
When asked for a comparison with the cafeteria food in the old high school, she shrugs her shoulders and laughs.
“I wouldn’t know. I never went there.”
Papadogiorgaki knows one of his big challenges is to get students into the cafeteria to try the food.
“Some people say that kids will eat anything, as long as it is ‘junk’ food,” he says.
He’s gambling that if they are exposed to it, most kids will choose the healthier choice.
“It’s the ultimate challenge in viability, whether simple, tasty, healthy and inexpensive food can be provided at a small profit, while contributing to school revenues,” he says.
If he can pull it off, it could serve as a prototype, based on the idea that you can have both tasty and healthy, fast and inexpensive.
“It goes beyond profit margins,” he says. “It’s about turning people on to good food. That can last a lifetime.” @bellehatfield