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SFE warms up to offer school lunches in Charles City

By Travis Fischer,

The cafeteria menu will be a little different when Charles City students return to classes for the new school year.

Starting this year, the school lunchrooms will be operated by Southwest Foodservice Excellence (SFE), winning the food service contract over Taher, which had  provided food service for the district since 2016.

SFE warms up to offer school lunches in Charles City
Johnny Worley is looking forward to managing the kitchens in the Charles City School District as it transitions to a new food service provider. Press photo by Travis Fischer

Charles City will be the first school in Iowa for the Arizona-based company to work in. SFE has been making expansions into the Midwest and targeted Charles City with a competitive bid as the district’s contract with Taher came up for renewal.

While the company may be different, the people will remain largely the same. SFE retained all 25 local food service workers that previously worked under Taher.

“It’s always our goal when we come into a new environment to bring on every single employee,” said SFE Director of Area Relations Mike Butler.

This week, the cafeteria staff started getting ready for the new school year with a two-day training session to get acclimated to SFE’s process.

“We had the whole team go back and prepare some food,” said Butler. “That way we can all see it in action.”

Far removed from the days of mass produced meals and “take it or leave it” menus, modern school lunches offer a wider range of options for students to choose from on a daily basis. Butler says that SFE is focused on providing more à la carte items and food bars so the students can pick out what they want to eat.

“The biggest change is going to be the number of entrees,” he said.

To better plan their menus, SFE will be spending a lot of effort in these early days watching what students are eating to see what food is popular and what isn’t.

“We’re really focused on what the kids are looking for,” said Butler. “You gotta find out what really tracks.”

This is especially important as they enter a new area where regional tastes and traditions may differ from their southwestern headquarters.

Ensuring that Midwest staples like chili and cinnamon rolls remain on the menu will be part of the job of on-site director Johnny Worley.

“I’m excited for it,” said Worley. “The menus I’ve seen for the kids this year are through the roof.”

A native of Greene now living in Mason City, Worley has a varied career in food service, operating kitchens in restaurants, hotels, and more over the years. Noting the long hours and unpredictable schedules that often come with running a kitchen, Worley said he is looking forward to his new position and what it will mean for him and his two children.

“Making the jump to serving kids in school was the best thing for my family,” Worley said.

A new hire to SFE, Worley said he is impressed with what he has seen and is looking forward to showing the Charles City students what the company has to offer. In particular, he likes the emphasis on making food from scratch. From proofing their own hamburger buns to making their own pizza sauce, many of the lunch items will be made on-site.

“They did pizza for training today and the sauce was amazing,” said Worley.

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