East Bay School-Lunch Company Pivots to Drive-Thru Pickup

Danville-based Choicelunch now lets customers order staples online.

A Danville-based school-lunch program has recently shifted its efforts to bring fresh food from local distributors straight onto the plates of consumers throughout the greater Bay Area.

Founded in 2003, operating five kitchens, and employing 200 workers, Choicelunch was accustomed to serving school lunches daily to 25,000 students at 300 schools.

But statewide school closures required the company to discover new ways of providing consumers with food.

“Almost everyone had stockpiled groceries prior to the shelter-in-place order, but we knew we were all going to be in it for the long haul,” said Choicelunch founder and CEO Justin Gagnon, a third-generation Danviller.

“We saw the frenzy and stockouts in the grocery stores, but knew that our food-service distribution partners had excessive capacity from restaurants and food-service businesses slowing down and even shutting completely.

“We wanted to find a way to reliably get the products our community needed into the hands our residents,” Gagnon said.

He worked through last weekend building an online ordering platform — the Choicelunch Pantry — while his partners Keith Cosbey and Ryan Mariotti researched sourcing ingredients. Meanwhile, Gagnon’s mother and sister, Mary Gagnon and Robbie Anderson, sewed protective masks for Choicelunch workers to wear.

The pantry is now offering milk, meat, seafood, eggs, bread, and other staples. It’s accepting orders for pickup at its Danville kitchen and has also expanded to offer staples to consumers in Hayward, San Jose, Rossmoor, and other locations.

As he was building the ordering platform, Gagnon noticed a Facebook post by his friend Jason Pera, whose parents own San Jose’s 117-year-old Roma Bakery.

Depicted on social media, “Jason’s mom was standing outside in a strip mall selling loaves of bread from a folding table. … I knew there was a way I could help a friend’s family” and expand the Choicelunch Pantry’s span of options, Gagnon said, “so I ran with it.”

Choicelunch has kitchens in both San Jose and Danville, and Gagnon plans to have a Choicelunch team member collect fresh bread daily in San Jose, then deliver it to Danville for drive-through pick-up the same day.

“My wife loves the saying ‘Do the next right thing,” and I’m a big believer that in times of crisis, that’s really all any of us can do,” he said.

“This is more of a community service than anything. Many of our neighbors are nervous about going to the grocery store or frustrated that when they do go, staple ingredients are often out of stock.

“My own brother couldn’t believe that we can get eggs,” Gagnon said.

“Our goal right now is to help our community by getting food safely to our neighbors, and help our people by keeping as many of them working as possible.”
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