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From high-tech leader to healthy lunch lady

Ex-tech executive puts focus on convenience, better nutrition

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Smart Lunches delivers lunches to children in schools. It targets schools without cafeterias.

The meeting took place at the end of a busy hallway decorated with colorful animal paintings, past a parade of small children returning from outdoor recess.

Emily Nagle Green, the recently appointed chief executive of Smart Lunches, was calling on the head of the Lesley Ellis School in Arlington, one of the company’s early customers.

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This is an entirely new direction for Green, the former chief executive of the research firm Yankee Group. For 15 years, she has been one of the Boston technology community’s most prominent leaders, with a seat on several industry boards. But Green is working in a very different world now, one centered on the finicky eating habits of schoolchildren. Selling healthy lunches to elementary and preschool students has suddenly changed her focus from smartphones and social media to pizza and chicken chunks.

Her pinstriped charcoal suits, Green said, “are staying in the closet’’ in favor of casual sweaters and jeans. Her family has taken to calling her “the lunch lady.’’

The company that captured Green’s interest, Smart Lunches, was launched less than six months ago by two Boston-area mothers, Susan Frigoletto and Cathy Goldman, who set up a website last fall to allow parents to order meals for their children. The food is prepared by catering companies and delivered directly to each child’s school, which gets a small percentage of the revenues.

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Smart Lunches serves 11 schools and day-care centers in the Boston area, including the Riverbend School in Natick, the Good Shepherd School in Charlestown, and the Lesley Ellis School.

The business is targeting schools where the lunch program is parents packing sandwiches.

“The value of Smart Lunches for our parents was the convenience. It’s one less thing to do in the morning,’’ said Deanne Benson, head of school at Lesley Ellis, after the meeting with Green.

On Tuesday, the lunch options delivered to around 35 Lesley Ellis students included a choice of combos: chicken parmesan pasta, green peas, and a chocolate chip cookie; or hummus, pita bread, cheese, tabouli, baby carrots, and dark grapes. Optional sides included a garden salad, two cookies, and vegetable soup. The cost for parents ranged from $5.50 to $6.25 for each lunch, with sides priced from $1 to $3.

Some Lesley Ellis parents order lunch five days a week; others order meals just one or two days a week, as a break from the lunch-packing routine.

After its first few months of operation, Smart Lunches’ founders tapped a personal connection for management advice: Scott Savitz, who founded ShoeBuy.com Inc., a Boston-based online shoe retailer that was acquired by billionaire Barry Diller’s holding company IAC in 2006. Savitz, who retired from ShoeBuy.com in 2011, immediately saw an opportunity.

“It struck me as an extremely unique business,’’ he said. “I’ve yet to see one in such a unique marketplace, without significant competition.’’

Savitz proposed to buy the young company from the two founders, who were struggling to manage the business around full-time jobs. The deal, for an undisclosed sum, closed at the end of last year, leaving both founders with a minority stake in the company.

Even before the deal closed, Savitz pitched the chief executive job to Green. He told her, “You’re going to try to find every reason not to do this, but you’re ultimately going to want to do this,’’ Savitz recalled.

Green, who has a daughter in college, did not need much convincing. She saw the company as a way to get involved with the rising national interest in healthy eating and childhood obesity.

“It would be exciting to be part of this growing food movement,’’ Green said. She started in January.

“I was surprised, but not for long,’’ said Shirley MacBeth, director of corporate marketing at ACI Worldwide, the electronic payment software company in Waltham, who worked with Green at Yankee Group for three years.

“At Yankee, Emily was very good at working on big, national issues, like access to the broadband Internet. Nutrition is another issue like that. I won’t be surprised to see her lunching with Michelle Obama at the White House soon.’’

Before that happens, Green has a lot of work to do. Next week, the company is moving into a new office in downtown Boston. She is also working her way through a foot-high pile of resumes, trying to quickly hire professionals to help with marketing, sales, and customer relations.

The company hopes to branch out to “a half-dozen cities in the next couple of years,’’ Green said, eventually becoming the dominant player in a very big market: the 30 million children nationwide, ages 2 to 18, it says go to schools that do not have cafeterias. “We want to create a national brand around the idea of providing healthy food to kids when they are away from home,’’ Green said.

To get to that size, she pointed out, will take considerable expertise in digital commerce, social media, and mobile marketing.

“At a certain point, Smart Lunches is going to become very virtual and very scalable,’’ Green said. “That’s when the lunch lady meets the technology executive.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.
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