Chef Kelly Wangard is on a mission to increase fresh produce consumption and promote healthy eating habits, while changing lives in the process.
On a recent media tour of The Wonderful Company’s pistachio operations in Lost Hills, Calif., the director of hospitality for Wonderful Pistachios and Almonds shared the story behind the company’s La Cocina, a produce-centric restaurant and market for Lost Hills-area employees and families.
The aim of La Cocina is “to look like Whole Foods Market but be priced like Walmart,” Wangard said. “This concept was driven by Lynda Resnick, co-founder of The Wonderful Company, herself as she wanted to help Central Valley employees live healthier lives as many have limited resources and access to fresh and healthy ingredients.”
Everything in the health-focused market and restaurant — from the array of green salads to protein and vegan bowls to street tacos and smoothies — is subsidized by The Wonderful Company, so a fresh and nutritious lunch costs approximately $5 to $8.
The market also offers a salad bar that Wangard says is constantly replenished throughout the day, as well as family dinners in the form of meal kits that are ready to eat or cook at home and feed two to four people for just $15. Meals include seasonings, sauces and simple recipes that are vegetable-driven and offer healthy portion sizes.
“We push produce,” but with “approachable flavors,” Wangard says. As the majority of its Lost Hills employees are Hispanic, that means an abundance of Latin-inspired dishes, although the creative chef and her team also like to give dishes a “twist.” Case in point, the day of the media tour a birria ramen was the special of the day.
La Cocina makes all of its own salsas and typically offers some five salsa options a day, for which Wangard says she’s enlisted the help of employees to ensure they are authentic.
Other rules of the kitchen include no added sugar; dates and bananas are the only sweeteners used. And when a starch or carbohydrate is incorporated, it is a measured half-cup portion.
So, while the ramen special was served with a half-cup of noodles, “you’ll see that the [kitchen is] packing on cabbage, jalapenos and radishes,” Wangard said.
Each month, Wangard estimates La Cocina does between $10,000 to $12,000 in produce sales — all sold at cost.
“The whole idea of the market and meal kits is to get employees cooking and eating healthy,” Wangard said.
“We’ve changed a lot of lives,” Wangard said of La Cocina’s efforts to promote produce-rich, healthful meals. “That guy over there,” she continued, pointing to an employee sitting in the dining room. “He came up to me the other day and said, ‘I’ve eaten nothing but La Cocina food since March and I’ve lost 40 pounds.’ I love hearing these stories.”
The Wonderful Company is not only making fresh produce flavorful and delicious; it’s also making it accessible.
The dining room at La Cocina seats 100. Together the market and dining room do between 1,000 and 1,200 transactions a day — even more during harvest, Wangard says.
“The concept of the restaurant is really to serve everybody in literally 30 seconds. Because employees have a 30-minute break, so they need to be able to sit down, enjoy their meal, talk to their colleagues and then get back to work,” Wangard explained.
And while Wangard says initially some employees reacted to the health-focused menu with skepticism, many have become nutrition ambassadors in their own rights. “Our employees will come in now and they’re like, ‘You don’t have the protein bites today? I don’t understand. Get somebody back there to make them!’”
Wangard has replicated this successful healthy eating model across The Wonderful Company’s on-site cafeterias at Wonderful Citrus in Delano, POM Wonderful in Del Rey and at the company headquarters in Los Angeles, for the benefit of its California workforce and their families.