Serving up lunch 'one student at a time': Marlas Lunch combines school lunches with fundraising

When her three sons were younger, Marla Stone took great pride in sending them to school with unique, healthy lunches.

Her children's lunches got noticed, and soon her sons' friends were asking Stone to make them a lunch to take to school. Before long, she was making dozens of lunches for her children's friends.

Fast-forward 15 years. Stone's children are grown, and her passion for good school lunches has grown into a business serving more than 80 schools across the northwest suburbs, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio.

"We bring great lunches to thousands of students every day," said Stone, whose Northfield-based business, Marlas Lunch, works with dozens of partner restaurants to make yummy school lunches possible.

Marlas Lunch, named after the lunches she made for her children, is a virtual cafeteria that delivers school lunches prepared by area restaurants. The female-owned and -operated company is the largest vendor-based school lunch management service in Illinois.

Schools contract with Marlas Lunch, which in turn offers a school lunch menu featuring items from locally owned or national chain restaurants. Parents can select which lunches they want for their children, and Marlas Lunch picks up the orders and delivers them to the school.

Each lunch is individually packaged and has the student's name on it. Lunch options include salads, hummus plates, veggie bowls, wraps, burgers, sushi, pizza, pasta, smoothies, toasted subs and more. Lunches, which include gluten-free, vegan and dairy-free options, range in price from $5 to $7.50.

"We make it easy and seamless for our schools by offering a fun hot lunch program at any school in any city," she said.

For the schools Stone works with, Marlas Lunch provides a much-needed cafeteria service for students and staff. Marlas Lunch also works with the parent-teacher organizations at each school to raise money through the lunches, donating thousands of dollars monthly to area schools.

Stone says her business also benefits local restaurants.

"Our restaurants really do appreciate and thank us for the business that we bring them," Stone said. "We're not just bringing them business that day (we pick up lunches), but we're bringing them customers who come back in."

Though she started in the northwest suburbs, Stone has expanded her business into Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio. Six employees work at the main office in Northfield. Another 30 employees work part-time at the schools Marlas Lunch serves.

A self-described foodie, Stone says she enjoys seeing the excitement on students' faces when their lunches arrive and hearing from parents who talk about how their student tried a new food thanks to Marlas Lunch.

"I love what I do," Stone said, adding she hopes to continue growing her business. "I've always looked at my lunch business as every student matters to me, so I feed one student at a time."

  Marla Stone, right, owner of Marlas Lunch, talks with Northbrook Potbelly worker Lesley Mendez as she and fellow workers make around 120 sandwiches to be delivered to two area schools. Paul Valade/
  Marla Stone, second from right, owner of Marla's Lunch, helps fill a lunch order for two area schools with Northbrook Potbelly Sandwich Works employees from left, Said Leon, Paola Martinez and Lanette Joe. Paul Valade/
  Marla Stone, owner of Marla's Lunch, right, helps Northbrook Potbelly Sandwich Works general manager Said Leon load 120 lunches for delivery to two area schools. Paul Valade/
  Northbrook Potbelly Sandwich Works manager Lanette Joe fills a Marlas Lunch order for two nearby schools. Paul Valade/
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