Embarking on a road trip, most travelers eventually stop en route at a convenience store for fuel and tasty car snacks, perhaps peckish enough to try a prepackaged salad or sandwich. Omaha-based Lunch Box Foods has been providing sandwiches, salads, snacks, and desserts to area convenience stores and vending companies since 2013, surprising even the most discerning road-warrior palates with its ready-to-eat selections.
Company president David E. Burr has been in the food business for most of his life, from bagging grocery items as a teen to cutting meat at local Wohlner’s Neighborhood Grocery and Deli, where he relished the opportunity to learn butchery fundamentals from experts in the craft. Restaurant gigs helped pay the bills in college, where Burr pursued and earned a business degree.
In late 2011, the popular local food truck he was involved in found itself in need of commercial food preparation space, so Burr acquired a small company called Laurie’s Lunch Box (started in 2001). After Localmotive ended, the entrepreneur focused his attention on a more upscale approach to convenience food, taking the original Lunch Box idea to the next level.
“Food manufacturing is at the heart of what we do, we just happen to specialize in grab-and-go convenience food items,” explained Burr. Over the years, the team has refined processes, phasing out heating of ingredients and focusing on processing produce and cold mixing, including crafting their own salad dressings and sandwich binders.
The establishment, which employs over 50 people, is a dual jurisdiction facility, which means one part follows U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the other U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules. The facility is raw-meat free, meaning all proteins and meats are USDA inspected and fully cooked upon arrival.
All products are made to order—prepared on day one, assembled on day two, and shipped on day three. The preparation department is responsible for ingredient fabrication such as slicing and dicing, but occasionally when it makes fiscal sense, prefabricated products are used. Becoming a USDA inspected facility in January 2021 made it possible for the company to expand its offerings to include salads with certain allowable meat products, which enabled production of entrée-sized chef, steak, and chicken Caesar salads as well as a new line of wraps.
Local bakery Rotella’s is the exclusive bread supplier for items produced (Rotella’s does not produce croissants and biscuits). According to Burr, “There is a noticeable difference in the quality because they deliver daily. We order bread today for tomorrow’s production.”
New recipes are developed according to customer demand, but most research and development surrounds shelf-life testing, labelling requirements, and improved process development, including the complicated but necessary HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point) plans.
The meatball sandwich is a popular option, always finding a place in the company’s top three selling items. Burr attributes that success to quality ingredients, including a precooked meatball and delectable sauce. Rounding out the top three are a club deluxe and a Reuben, something quite unique in the grab-and-go convenience food industry.
Lunch Box Foods offers both fresh (produce) and extended shelf-life product lines (no produce). The modified atmosphere packaging used in the fresh line (five-day shelf-life) is sealed with non-forming film under vacuum at less than one percent residual oxygen. A bit of food grade CO2 (for freshness and color retention) and nitrogen is added, with the goal of reducing oxygen, because oxidation rapidly ages food.
The advent of modified atmosphere packaging has made short shelf-life foods such as entree salads and snack trays with fresh fruit, diced cheeses, and club crackers fly off the shelves. Another benefit of the improved packaging is the ability to add fresh lettuce and tomato to sandwiches. Burr described the preparation process, “The tomatoes are sliced and placed in perforated pans to reduce moisture, which greatly reduces residual sogginess.”
Lunch Box Foods offers three sales plans: direct wholesale, distributor discount, and direct store delivery. Direct wholesale most often involves vending operators, while distributor partners handle case pack and palletized products that are resold by regional food distribution companies such as Farner-Bocken (Carroll, Iowa) and Vistar (Kansas City).
Direct store delivery is provided by route sales representatives who perform inventory management and merchandising at the point of sale. This option includes a guaranteed sale program which gives store credit for any expired items (the items are under dated by about nine days). These still-edible goods are then donated to local nonprofit Saving Grace.
Over the years, Burr has seen consumer trends change, but store owners still buy what sells, and that means a fresher, better-quality product on the shelves of local convenience stores in the Omaha area. “We pride ourselves on quality, not just product but customer service. We believe in Midwestern values, working with integrity, honesty, and transparency.”