Jeremy Barnwell is not your average lunch lady. Tall, bearded, tattooed, and passionately committed to the local food movement, he’s more daring entrepreneur than cafeteria worker. After years of running a successful pastured poultry operation, he heard his wife bemoaning the lackluster and nutritionally deficient lunches served at The Rawson Saunders School where she is an elementary school teacher, and decided he could do a better job. No matter that he had not cooked professionally before; he sold the new head of school with his enthusiasm and his big idea to create a local and farm-based lunch program for the school. Sometimes what you don’t know leads to innovation, and four years later, he has legions of tiny fans and the unwavering support and trust of their parents, grows and harvests fresh produce at the school for his meals, teaches an elective cooking course at Rawson Saunders, has expanded to a second campus, wowed the audience at TEDx Austin with a bento box style lunch, and has plans to grow Barnison Catering even bigger to meet the needs of more kids in the Austin community. We visit Jeremy in the cafeteria kitchen to see for ourselves the surest sign of his success: kids holding lunch trays piled high with fresh, colorful, just-harvested organic vegetables and fruit, wearing ear-to-ear grins, ready to dig in.
Tell your brand story in 5 words.
Healthy school lunches, locally sourced.
What was your first job?
My first job was at age twelve working in a small convenience store/deli/ gas station/feed store that my mom owned in northeast Texas.
What is your biggest motivator?
Knowing that I am changing the way that kids: that will hopefully affect the rest of their lives.
What has been your greatest mistake?
Trying to do too much by myself. I was always reluctant to hire anyone to help. Since hiring my first employee just this year (the amazing Anne Hargrove), I have watched my business grow significantly. I realized that there are people out there who share the same integrity and passion that I have for putting out an excellent product.
Tell us about your lucky break?
I’ve had so many, but the main two are as follows: My brother-in-law was on a flight and began to chat with the flight attendant who lived in Austin. He told her that his sister and I were moving to Austin soon and looking for work. She gave him the phone number of a man running a free-range poultry business in Austin. When I called the farmer to inquire about a job, he replied that he was getting out of the business and was looking to sell his farm. We went to visit and long story short, purchased the property and began our own poultry operation. Things seemed to just fall into place. Through that poultry operation, I had the opportunity to work with some great chefs who re-introduced me to my passion for cooking. The second big break was getting the school lunch job at Rawson Saunders School. When I started the poultry business, I hadn’t touched a chicken since I was a kid. Within a few months, we had raised enough birds to sustain a booth at the farmer’s market. When I began serving lunches, I had never worked in a restaurant or kitchen, but within a few short months owned a successful food business. I feel like my whole adult life has been a lucky break.
Required reading for every food entrepreneur?
Who is your business idol?
Words of wisdom:
Be nice and do what makes you happy
What gets you to work every morning?
Knowing that kids are relying on me for their meal. For some of them, it is their only healthy, well-balanced meal of the day.
What inspires you?
Knowing the best is yet to come.
What other businesses do you come back to again & again?
How do you measure success?
Through happy customers, happy employees and a happy self. Also, if I’m able to create and run a sustainable business that can promote other local business as well as myself without it being a competition, that’s success.
If you weren’t cooking school lunches, what would you be doing?
I have a degree in aquatic biology so I could see myself working for a fishery or for Parks and Wildlife. But in reality, I’d still probably cooking in some respect.
What’s your next big idea?
Stay tuned later in the week for more culinary inspiration and a recipe inspired by Jeremy’s tasty, healthy lunch menu!