TRAVERSE CITY — It's a school day. You're running late and you forgot to pack your kids' lunches. There's no time to do it before you rush off to work — and in any case, there's nothing in the refrigerator to pack.
It's a dilemma Kelli Johnson is all too familiar with as a mother of three. And one she wants to help other on-the-go parents solve.
So Johnson, proprietor of a new east side eatery called good eats café, is offering a lunch program for parents dropping off students at nearby schools.
"We're a great answer to the panic button," said Johnson, who opened the cafe in early August with her husband, also named Kelley.
Located at Three Mile and Hammond in the former Zakey building, the seven-table cafe is open for breakfast and lunch Tuesdays-Saturdays and for brunch on Sundays. Though it's closed on Mondays it will offer bag lunches for students every school day beginning in September.
Johnson said the program — called The Brown Bagger Express — offers wholesome lunches with a beverage and a snack. The emphasis is on single-ingredient scratch-made foods, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and healthy beverages like low-fat white milk, 100 percent fruit juice and bottled water.
"What I'm trying to avoid is high-fat, high-sodium foods," said Johnson, who prefers to buy organic, local and sustainable for her family. "There will be no processed foods. It will all be made from scratch except for the bread, which I'll get from Bay Bread, and the pasta, which is made from whole grain."
Johnson said the menu will change "with the ebb and flow." But parents can choose one entree plus up to four fruits, vegetables, beverages and "crunchies" — pretzel sticks, Whole Grain Goldfish Crackers, Triscuits or Cafe granola — for each lunch.
Sandwiches — ranging from oven roasted turkey with shredded cheddar and fresh spinach leaves to honey baked ham with lettuce and tomato — can be on whole grain bread or whole grain tortillas.
There's also a veggie wrap (whole grain tortilla with hummus, carrot, cucumber, lettuce, tomato, sweet bell pepper and provolone cheese), a house pasta (made from whole grain noodles and topped with a fresh, in-house-made sauce) and a "Zeus" salad, a smaller version of the cafe's Greek salad (spring greens, shredded red cabbage, grilled chicken breast, pickled beets, pepperoncini, red onions, feta cheese, cucumber and olives).
Hot foods, like the pasta, will come frozen in a paper, microwave-friendly container. The lunches also will come with cutlery, a napkin and a wet nap.
The Brown Bagger cost ranges from $6 each to $25 for five.
"I'd like to see parents on board for a full week," Johnson said, adding that subscribing parents will get first crack at the full brown bag menu, while a limited number of items and lunches will be available for same-day orders.
She said the lunches can accommodate gluten-free and other special diets. Subscribing parents will be asked to fill out an allergen/preference questionnaire for each child.
The Brown Bagger Express and its menu were inspired by the couple's daughter, Brianna, a sixth-grader at Grand Traverse Academy and a "picky eater," Johnson said.
"These are things she likes," she added.
Mitchell Johnson, 17, also gives the lunches high marks and said they would have been a pleasant alternative to buying a lunch at his school cafeteria or packing his own.
"I woke up with just enough time to put on clothes, brush my teeth, put on deodorant and walk out the door," said the Traverse City Central High School graduate, who now works alongside his parents at the cafe.
Culinary arts is a family tradition. Kelli and Kelley met when both were working at a Traverse City restaurant; she was a waitress, he was a cook. Later they opened their own sandwich shop in Acme. Their older son, Mackenzie, is a short-order cook and weekend manager at an Auburn Hills eatery.
Now Johnson is working on her associate's degree in Applied Science, with an emphasis on culinary arts.
She said the couple eventually hopes to offer a lunch delivery service to students of nearby schools.
"We want to make sure we get it right first," she said.
For more information, call 392-9625.