Hunger Management

30,000 meals a day and counting

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

abbey0717David and Sherry Underwood and their daughter, Abbey (right), run The Abbey Group FoodService Management Co. in Enosburg Falls, providing meals for K-12 schools and other organizations throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and upstate New York.

After high school, David Underwood followed the path of a lot of American youths hoping to see the world: He joined the Navy. The St. Albans farm boy jumped at the opportunity for deployments in Europe, Cuba, and the States, and to be trained in electronics in avionics.

Out of the Navy, he worked a while for General Electric in Winooski, then, at the urging of his brother, headed to California. He landed a position as a chemical vapor deposition technician with Fairchild Camera and Instrument in Mountain View in an advance line research facility. He then was hired by Tylan Corp. as a sales manager for the West Coast, which led to a position with Applied Materials Technology as a product marketing specialist for the company’s marketing group.

After 10 years in California, though — “eight to 10 lanes of traffic, two hours to get to work in a normal half-hour drive” — David was burnt out and yearning for home. “I came back and started looking for commercial property to land on,” he says.

“The Abbey Restaurant in Enosburg Falls came up for sale, and I purchased it in 1982. Sherry lived next door and came to work for us. I already knew her mother and father, and they said, ‘You’ve got to meet our daughter.’ I fell madly in love.” They married on July 26, 1987.

“My journey is nothing exciting like Dave’s,” says Sherry, who’s also the child of farmers. “My dream out of high school was to become a mom. I had two gorgeous daughters, Shannon and Jennifer; was living in Highgate; and found out I was not married to the guy I thought I was. I moved back to Sheldon and found I needed to have a job.

“The restaurant was next door, and I worked there. Dave and I met, together had a beautiful daughter named Abbey, and have worked side-by-side for the last 32 years.”

One day in 1985, David had a contact from Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, which had decided to outsource its food service.

“The food service person knocked on my door and said, ‘We’re here. Why don’t you manage our food service?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to put in a bid.’ They said, ‘We’ll help you out there.’ That was our first account.”

The next year, St. Albans City Elementary School and Fairfield Elementary School became customers. “And right about then,” says David, “talk about family! My nephew, Scott Choiniere, who was working for me from seventh grade through high school, starting off as a dishwasher in the restaurant, then short order cook, he went to the New England Culinary Institute and got a degree — top of his class. And I offered him a job in our fledgling food service–management company.

“Shannon helped create the company we currently have,” says Sherry of her daughter, “and Jennifer is one of the reasons The Abbey Restaurant has had the success it has had. She’s no longer with us; she’s taken a time-out to be with her children, but hopes to come back one day.”

The Underwoods’ daughter, Abbey, studied at Bentley University after high school “and took a small journey to Japan to work with Uniqlo,” says David. “But they had the tsunami when she was there, and she decided to come home. She came to work for us and is helping to run the food service–management company.” He calls her “the white knight we’re looking to ride into the sunset with the management company.”

From that first client in ’85, the food service management company has grown into a business that feeds around 30,000 student meals a day in K-12 schools throughout New Hampshire and Vermont and is expanding into New York, where the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy has been a client for 10 years. At press time, the Amsterdam, N.Y., school district was about to sign on.

The company’s 110 clients aren’t limited to schools, though, and include food service at the Vermont capitol, the Blue Cross Blue Shield cafeteria, the Police Academy in Pittsford, and various camps around the state. The 430 people who provide the service at all the locations are Underwood employees.

“We’re responsible to the school boards and administration of the schools,” says David, “to the education department, child nutrition in Montpelier, and the federal USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] program.”

“They were great partners for the school system and always employed what I call a continuous improvement philosophy,” says Rick Pembroke, CFO of the Caledonia Supervisory Union. He worked with the Underwoods in his former position as CFO of the Southwestern Vermont Supervisory Union, where Abbey FoodService managed all the food service programs for seven districts and catered special events for the likes of professional development, in-service days, and board meetings and retreats.

“They were always coming up with ideas to make the food system better, and through that, have increased the participation rate so that more children are using the system.”

A team of employees makes connections with farmers to procure food, close to 40 percent of it locally sourced, says Abbey. “That would be including our milk purchases.” The other 60 percent, she says, comes from Reinhart Foodservice in Essex Junction, “although we help them distribute local purchases. We also use Koffee Kup Bakery for all of our bread products, and we do local farm purchases.”

The company defines “local,” generally, as Vermont and 200 miles beyond, depending on the location.

“That’s a huge part of who we are,” says David. “We’re local, not a big international company that has strict policies. We go to the farm and we help them integrate their products into our distribution system.”

As an example, he mentions a recent contract with Blue Heron Farm in Richford. “We buy all their lettuce, which sets them up in a situation that they now have a market. Instead of going to farmers’ markets, they sell it by the hundreds of cases to us.”

Abbey FoodService has farm connections throughout Vermont and New Hampshire and is beginning to secure farm connections in New York state.

“Some of our more senior-level people are wanting us to jump into Florida — a little warmer climate,” David quips, and they both laugh. “Let’s get our feet on the ground over in New York, and then maybe we’ll look at Florida.”

Ralph McNall has known the Underwoods for at least 30 years, “since they purchased The Abbey,” he says. “I’m a dairy farmer first, but have been heavily involved with dairy marketing. I was a board member and president of St. Albans Cooperative Creamery. So I’ve known them through business and pleasure.

“They’ve been very successful in a way that’s been beneficial to a lot of people,” McNall says. “They work as a team and they’ve done that by themselves pretty much.”

David says that one challenge for the company has been that schools must go out to bid for their food service every three or five years. Spring is “bid season,” when the Underwoods take on national companies or seek new accounts. They don’t talk income numbers, but, says, David, business has increased 10 percent a year since the inception.

The company won the Whole Wheat Challenge Award in 2010 because of its nutrition program. That was the year Michelle Obama led the program to make major changes in hot lunch programs: The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. “Obviously we’ve met all the new rules and regulations,” says Sherry.

The Underwoods are rapidly expanding their information technology. All their locations are supported by computers and Web-based training, “so we’re rapidly coming into the 21st century,” says David.

It’s evident that the Underwoods enjoy their work. They are on the job seven days a week, a total of 60 to 70 hours. “If we’re not here in our offices, we’re on the road visiting our accounts throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York,” David says.

Each Sunday in winter, they entertain at least 20 to 30 people at their home, only a 10-minute walk from the office. “We have card parties, and just enjoy it.,” says Susan. “In the summer, we have a cottage at Lake Carmi and love for the family and grandchildren to come spend time with us. And Sundays in summer, we invite all our local friends to join us and we entertain.”

“We’re not afraid of work,” David says. “We love work, love the people around us, believe in what we’re doing. If we didn’t love what we’re doing — this is really tough work — but the tough is only tough if you don’t like it.”