Dressing up lunch to go: Santa Cruz moms make a difference one box lunch at a time

Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ — Two Santa Cruz mothers, set on improving the lunchtime habits of on-the-go Americans, have built a multimillion-dollar empire of brightly colored plastic lunch boxes with smart-fitting containers.

It’s not, however, just a reusable container, said Amy Hemmert, co-founder and president of Obentec. “We really want to make a difference in their lives.”

Obentec is a local company that eight years ago launched a line of lunch box products that put the Cinderella and Superman metal latch boxes once used by baby boomers to shame.

Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring, a co-founder who serves as chief executive officer, met in a mothers group in 1995 when they had newborns of the same age. They became unsettled by the unhealthy school lunches they saw for kids and envisioned a far-reaching creative partnership that helped parents pack nutritious, waste-free lunches for their school-age children. They also wanted to make it all just easier and more fun.

The duo created Laptop Lunches, which feature neatly fitting spill-proof containers in a plastic box with a thermal sleeve, a tote bag and other accessories for hot and cold or liquid items. The product is patterned after Japanese-style bento boxes which Hemmert encountered while living in Japan and teaching English for five years. An expanding set of accoutrements, such as heart- and star-shaped fruit and vegetable cutters and ruffled plastic muffin cup dividers, make food more fun.

A copy of “Laptop Lunch User’s Guide,” which provides healthy lunch ideas and menus, tips for picky eaters, recipes and tips for reducing lunchtime waste, is included in the box set. They were trying to address the complaint that parents just didn’t have time, or had misinformation about nutritional values of pre-packaged foods.
“A lot of it was instinct,” Pelstring said. “We were our own demographic.”

Their vision was ambitious from the start.

“We had our sleeves rolled up,” Pelstring said, noting that the two of them regularly work evenings so they can accommodate their teens’ schedules. “We wanted to change how people did lunch.”

Although early adopters were primarily in health-food and ecology-minded communities, the customer base has broadened to include a more general population nationwide. Revenues doubled every year for the first five years and in recent years, sales reached seven figures and continued, despite the recession, to maintain a hearty 30 percent growth rate year over year.

“It’s definitely embraced by middle America,” Pelstring said.

In fact, the recession, which is causing many adults to give up costly restaurant lunches during the workweek, seems to be a great impetus for the adult lunch box business. The women have recently launched a new bento box model for adults — the Casual Lunch Date $47, the Designer Date $66 and the Power Lunch Systems $45.

Newer markets include people interested in weight or portion control, people with food allergies and people who need to keep foods separate.

The women hope the Americanized bento box will revolutionize the industry like the now ubiquitous reusable grocery bag has replaced plastic and paper grocery bags. People, they say, will be bringing them to restaurants in lieu of doggy bags, on hikes in lieu of plastic bags and while traveling.

Ann Cooper, a former director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District who is known for revamping school lunch programs, recommends Laptop Lunches as one solution to the challenge of nutrition and waste.

Obentec has worked with Whole Foods, New Leaf Markets and the city of Santa Cruz Waste Free school program. Commendations include the “Parents’ Choice Award” for She Knows 2010 and recommendations from several green organizations.

“The word of mouth has been phenomenal,” Pelstring said. “We spoke the language that a lot of moms could understand. We didn’t spend a cent on advertising.”

In a strange way, the colored boxes have actually become a framework for creativity. A cult-like Laptop Lunches fan club has sprouted up on Flickr website and grown to include nearly 10,000 photos of people’s artistic bento box meals.

“There’s inspiration there,” Hemmert said. “I’ve got this box. Now, what can I put in there to make it fun?

OBENTEC
WHAT: A privately held company that manufactures reusable lunch containers and lunch accessories and publishes books aimed at improving family nutrition and reducing waste
HEADQUARTERS: 500 Chestnut St., Suite 250, Santa Cruz
BACKGROUND: Incorporated in Santa Cruz in 2002
LEADERSHIP: Amy Hemmert, co-founder and president, and Tammy Pelstring, co-founder and chief executive officer
EMPLOYEES: 15 and up to 25 people in the peak summer months
INFORMATION: 457-0301; www.laptoplunches.com

This article was published here.

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