It was the Bearded Lunch Lady’s logo that first caught my eye. The hair-netted female profile wears lipstick and, not surprisingly, a beard. The cheerful menu promises hand-made burritos with ingredients such as Wobbley Cart Farm’s onions, Black Sheep Creamery’s cheese, and Coffee Creek Farm’s eggs and garlic.
The hefty burrito was delicious, a tasty and satisfying meal. But what about the company that made it? Curious, I went in search of the original Bearded Lunch Lady, local chef Jay Ryan, to find out more.
Jay runs several food businesses in Centralia — the Head Start lunch program, Hub City Grub at the Centralia Sports Hub – and he’s a featured chef at local Farm to Table events. The Bearded Lunch Lady is his newest venture, a mobile food service that opened in July 2017.
“I had this beautiful kitchen sitting empty for a couple of months during the summer,” Jay tells me. “The Bearded Lunch Lady business generates paid employment for my staff year-round, and that is really important to me.”
The colorful name came from a flash of insight back in 2014. “I had five bearded dudes and one woman all working in a small kitchen preparing school lunches. I realized that we were all lunch ladies.”
Today, there are four bearded lunch ladies — Jay Ryan, Eric Bostic, Garrit Pannkuk and Chris Ridgely. On the day I visited the kitchen, Eric and Garrit were making delicious-looking burritos. There are three types on the menu — sausage and cheese, veggie and cheese, and vegan.
“I just love the idea of a burrito,” Jay explains as we tour the kitchen. “It allows you to hold a diverse meal in your hand and eat it on the go.”
But getting the recipe right is a process. “We test all sorts of things — does the burrito stick to the paper? Is it too saucy? And at almost 14 ounces, it’s pretty hefty, so we need to be sure it will heat up properly in a microwave.”
Using locally-sourced ingredients adds another level to product development. “The burrito will always have potato, onion, garlic and fresh herbs. But it might also have collard greens, chard or kale. It all depends on what is coming out of the ground during that season. Ours is a small-batch burrito company.” All ingredients are sourced within a 50-mile radius of Centralia. If it weren’t for the tortillas, it would all be within 12 miles.
As for spicy burritos, that’s something for the future. “Jalapenos grow really well here. I would love to add a spicy burrito to the menu,” Jay says, “but right now I’m making food that most people will like.”
No lunch is complete without a tasty dessert, and the Bearded Lunch Lady offers pumpkin and banana breads. The sweet breads will also reflect seasonal choices, and they’re working on a zucchini bread to add to the menu for fall.
They offer large-size Epic Sugar and Serious Chocolate Chip cookies. All the desserts are made with real butter and raw sugar, and with no hydrogenated oils.
The Bearded Lunch Lady exemplifies Jay’s desire to serve beautiful, fresh food. “Everything in my kitchen is made from scratch. Things come directly from farmers, and nothing is highly-processed.”
Jay’s been making dishes using farm fresh ingredients since the late 1980s. “When I started my apprenticeship at Rover’s restaurant in Seattle, farmers were constantly delivering beautiful, fresh food to us. In fact, I can’t remember the word ‘organic’ being mentioned. Food just was.”
He returned to Centralia in 2007 and began building relationships with local farmers right away. “The agricultural community in this area is phenomenal. It’s a great place to be a chef.”
Jay buys direct from local farms in Rochester, Centralia and Chehalis. But he’s doing more than just buying produce, he’s also investing in the future. “I’m paying farmers ahead of time for onions that are still in the ground, and I’m investing in another farmer to help her specialize in garlic.”
Knowing where your food comes from is nothing new in an agricultural community, but the reasons to do so have changed. In the past, local food was all there was. Today, food can come from anywhere, and some of it is so highly-processed as to be almost unrecognizable as food. It’s easy to buy something unhealthy to eat, especially when you’re in a hurry. The Bearded Lunch Lady offers healthier options for meals on the go.