Yorkville High School students have the option to leave campus during their lunch period, but this year hundreds more students are choosing to stay and dine in the cafeteria thanks to the district’s exclusive new meal provider.
The food offered in Yorkville School District 115 cafeterias is now prepared by Whitsons Culinary Group out of Long Island. Whitsons advertises a menu prepared from scratch and locally sourced whenever possible, with a focus on healthy whole grains, fresh produce and lean meats.
Y115 is the first district in Illinois to employ Whitsons, and staff and administrators have reported nothing but positive responses to the new menu. Student participation in the new program has been increasing month over month, and is up more than 20% for lunch and more than 10% for breakfast compared with the 2022-23 school year.
Business Services Director Mike Guzaldo and School Board member Leslie Smogor were both part of the Wellness Committee that was in charge of finding a new food provider last spring. Guzaldo said the committee’s goal was to make sure students were eating healthy, fresh, and made-from-scratch items.
Guzaldo said Whitsons was chosen because committee members believed they could provide a better product for students, and he said that belief has been validated by the increase they’ve seen in participation in the first year.
Smogor said as a parent of two students who eat lunches provided by Whitsons, she is extremely happy with the food and said it is safe to say other parents would agree. Staff participation in the lunch program has also increased.
Smogor said the real chicken Whitsons serves was one of the offerings that students immediately got excited about.
“I think that was one of the things that kids were wowed by,” Smogor said. “They were surprised to have chicken that tasted like chicken and it wasn’t in a patty form and gray.”
Whitsons serves freshly prepared meals at every school, every day for breakfast and lunch. Guzaldo said about 50% of all food served by Whitsons is made from scratch, and very little of what is offered was ever frozen.
The food is prepared on location every morning, except at the grade schools, which do not have kitchens. Smogor said in previous years, they have had some issues with timing the deliveries to the grade schools, which was done by district staff and often led to cold meals.
Now, Whitsons takes care of every step of the process, delivering meals to the grade schools in heated platters and ensuring every school has fresh, hot meals on time every day. Guzaldo said the district is in the process of installing kitchens in the grade schools, which should be operational by the end of this school year.
“It’s exciting for us to be the only one in the state of Illinois to have Whitsons,” Smogor said. “We were very fortunate that we found each other, because there was nothing else being offered like them in the area.”
Smogor said besides offering high-quality, healthy food, the Whitsons team members have also been great partners. She said they have been open, honest and communicative, they have met the district’s needs as much as possible, and have worked with staff whenever possible to achieve goals and fulfill requests.
There are two resident chefs on the Whitsons team that are at the schools almost every day, and Head Chef Tony Distefano oversees operations from the east coast.
Distefano, or Chef Tony, as he is known by the Y115 students, lives in New York but visits Yorkville at least once a month for training, menu creation, and to host pop-up events in the schools, where he is treated like a local celebrity.
Guzaldo said the pop-ups offer a more customizable lunch for students and the Whitsons team goes above and beyond with the specials. He said besides the special food items, the cafe plays music and the culinary team brings a high energy to the pop-ups, which makes for a memorable lunch experience for the students.
Many of the pop-up specials feature build-your-own dishes like the Nashville Hot Kickin’ Chicken, the Tot Spot, and the Melted Mac Factory.
On Feb. 9, Whitsons hosted a taco pop-up at Yorkville High School, where Chef Tony served fresh made tacos and burrito bowls. Students could choose from three scratch-made proteins served by Chef Tony, and load them up with fresh salsas and toppings at a self-service buffet station.
Shortly after the lunch bell, students bombarded the cafe to line up for the pop-up special and to see the chef. At times, students erupted in “Chef Tony” chants and many were quick to take pictures with the chef from across the service window.
Distefano said he enjoys being a pseudo celebrity, especially in the younger schools. Whitsons recently had a breakfast pop-up at district elementary schools, where students could build their own Belgian waffles from a buffet of fresh fruit and other toppings.
“I have a love for kids and a love for food,” Distefano said. “To be able to bring that all together like this is awesome.”
In addition to the pop-up specials and daily menu items, students can always choose from other stations including pizza, salad bar and various hot pre-made sandwiches.
In the 2022-23 school year, the high school served about 300 student lunches each day on average. At the Feb. 9 pop-up, Whitsons served more than 650 meals.
“There’s no reason that school lunch can’t be good. It can be visually appealing, it can be appetizing, and that’s what Whitsons brought,” Smogor said. “By all accounts it seems to have gone quite well. Working with them has been really great. They’ve definitely done what we’ve asked in terms of quality of food and menu offerings.”
The price per meal to families remained unchanged under the new meal provider, and all free and reduced lunch benefits are still in place.
There are two more years in the district’s food service contract with Whitsons. Smogor and Guzaldo said they would recommend the culinary group to any other school district in the midwest, and hope the partnership continues to be a success that benefits Yorkville students.