We all remember the less-than-stellar meals served in the school cafeteria. You might have been left sighing at the choice of a lackluster hot dish or a brown paper sack lunch, longing for the rare, once-a-month offering of everyone’s favorite: pepperoni pizza. But at Heritage Christian Academy, students are blessed with delightful lunches every day from Heavenly Hosts Catering, thanks to two local caterers’ approach to creating fresh, homecooked meals for hungry students.
Good food and making people happy have been Wendy Gamble’s calling from a young age. “I’d been a waitress at Bakers Square since I was 16 and loved food and serving people,” she says. She enjoyed her time serving, but eventually “the Bakers Square closed and I was forced to find another job,” she says. This was a blessing in disguise, because her next job was working for a caterer. “I found out that I loved catering just as much, if not more,” she realized.
Gamble crossed paths with Stacey Herzberg when the two volunteered together in the church kitchen at Beautiful Savior in Plymouth. “We did all the funeral lunches and special events at our church and we found people really liked our food. They would ask us to cater other events,” Gamble says. “So, we thought, ‘Hey we should get licensed and insured and become an official business.’”
In 2011, they started Heavenly Hosts Catering, and word-of-mouth spread news of the delicious fare they provided for weddings, funerals, birthdays and more. Doors continued to open when they took over for the retiring caterer at Heritage Christian Academy in 2014.
Now in their fourth year at Heritage, the chefs have formed relationships with students and have learned their tastes well. “We have tweaked the menu over the years,” Gamble says. “We even find that the kids, especially the high schoolers, have favorites depending on the year. For the seniors this year it’s mac n’ cheese, but they don’t like pancakes, and last year the seniors were crazy for pancakes. Every year it changes a little.”
Their prior experience gives them an edge when it comes to creating inspired lunches that kids love: Italian dunkers with marinara sauce, barbecue chicken flatbread pizza, teriyaki chicken wraps with rice and Asian salad, beef Mexican nachos with all the fixings, or the classic favorite: creamy chicken alfredo with homemade sauce.
The pair finds they can treat taste buds while still following nutritional guidelines. “We provide 4 oz. protein, 2 oz. vegetables, 2 oz. fruit, and 4 oz. of starch,” Herzberg says. “So, we feel like we’re offering nutritious meals and they’re getting all the main food groups that they need.” The caterers prepare lunch for half of the 400 students, the others bring a cold lunch from home. “Some kids do decide, ‘Oh my gosh, that lunch looks really good, I’m going to ditch my cold lunch,” Gamble laughs.
The biggest challenge the pair faces is providing a healthy, satisfying lunch for such a wide range of ages. “We know that the high schoolers love chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes, but the little kindergarteners don’t,” Gamble says. “So, we offer a sandwich-of-the-day like turkey or ham sub or a salad. We don’t want to think the kids are going without food
if they don’t like the lunch.”
The chefs have found a strong fan following among the students. “Mrs. Gamble serves some of the best lunches I’ve ever tasted in my entire life.” says Heritage third grader Nevaeh Kovar.
“I really like the homemade waffles and pancakes because I love breakfast lunches [and] I also love syrup.
I also love the Italian dunkers lunches because I love cheese and cheese is inside those.”
Crosby Kuehl, who graduated last spring, regularly ate the catered lunches and offered an upper classmen’s perspective: “I like that school lunches are tasty, convenient and readily available. I eat them every day. My favorite lunch is the pasta bar and breadstick day—it’s delicious, and a variety of pasta types and sauces are available, so that’s great. I give [Wendy and the lunch staff] ‘props’ for the patience they have in putting up with the hundreds of kids coming through the lunch line every day.”
Another unique aspect of this school is that the students contribute to the meals. “A few years age, Heritage started their own community garden,” Herzberg says. “It’s run by the kids.” The students offer up the squash, zucchini, tomatoes and cucumbers to the chefs, who make everything from chocolate zucchini cake to garden vegetable soup to tomato sauce for spaghetti and salsa for tacos.
“They take such ownership that they picked the vegetables, they want to try the food that they know their vegetables are in,” Gamble adds. “The chocolate zucchini cake, I mean, there was not one kid who didn’t take it.”
The chefs work on site every day and the students are grateful for the tailored dishes. “Often the kids will come in with their teacher as a group to sing us songs or present us cards—thank you cards to the lunch ladies!” Herzberg says smiling.
Gamble’s Tips for Feeding Large Crowds
“For grad parties, people always overestimate how much food…people are going from party to party and they’re not taking a full portion. Usually the guidelines are 4 oz. of beef [per person] if you’re doing tacos, or a cup of pasta for a pasta bar. Or, for a fresh fruit platter, 15 people per pineapple, for example.
For funerals, we usually overestimate a little on the food because they’re always guessing how many people will come and we hate to run out. We’ll scoop 50 potatoes per pan, but we’ll do bigger scoops because what if it’s 150 people? You can always take the leftovers home.”