MARK MOSKOWITZ and Paul Kramer, the turkey men, were there. Then there were Dan Chapman, the chili dog man; Bob Carpenter, the burrito and turkey fillet man, and Janice Svejcar, whom everyone called "the pickle woman."
All of these food people gathered last week in a classroom at Weyanoke Elementary School in eastern Fairfax County to find out how well the products they sell would go over with 25 children who had been invited to a taste-testing lunch.
How the kids reacted to the various dishes served up would help decide how the Fairfax school system, which prepares close to 80,000 meals a day, would spend part of its annual $8.3-million food budget. With labor costs rising, Fairfax is turning increasingly to outside food processors who deliver a product that generally only has to be heated in the oven before it is served.
From a pound of turkey meat, which costs 43 cents to process in hot dogs and other products, Fairfax can get five to seven two-ounce servings, which forms the basis for meals that cost students from 50 to 60 cents.
Food processors court big school systems like Fairfax because a single contract can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Which is why Bob Carpenter, of Larry's Foods, spent the taste-testing hour carefully watching the kids' reactions to his beef patty, burrito and turkey fillet.
"I'm not here for my health," he said.
While the children giggled as white-smocked personnel brought trays of entrees to their plates, Carpenter and the other sales people stood apprehensively against the wall, their eyes tracking where each fork poked on each plate.
"There's a lot of potential here, said Dan Chapman, the representative of Capitol Food Sales in Laurel, which is trying to market a Texas-made, Mexican-style chili dog."We're going to be going great guns. Just give us 60 days."
From among the young tasters came a verbal critique of the turkey hot dog offered by Moskowitz (of New York Turkey Corp., Maspeth, N.Y.) and Kramer (of Almark, Inc., food brokers located in Jenkinstown, Pa.). "It's chewy," said one youngster.
"That's the nature of the beast," said Kramer without missing a beat.
"We did a survey in Dade County [Florida]," chimed in Moskowitz, "and the children accepted the turkey hot dog."
"But remember, Mark," countered Penny McConnell, the dietitian who runs the county's food program -- one of the biggest in its category in the nation -- "we're Fairfax. We don't necessarily do what they do in Dade."
As it turned out, Kramer and Moskowitz needn't have worried about their turkey hot dog. It generally got a top rating from the students, who graded each item with a happy face, a so-so face or a scowling face for what they found poor.
Moscowitz said his firm can take whole turkeys, which the Fairfax system gets free from the U.S. Agriculture Department's commodities program, and return them in the form of 10 products: roast, ham, all-white-meat rolls, bologna, salami, pastrami, ground meat, meat molded to look like a drumstick, diced meat and even breakfast sausage. The 43-cents-a-pound cost to to the school, the processors argue, is less that what it would cost if Fairfax were to prepare the turkeys itself.
"You could serve turkey three or four days a week," said the enthusiastic Moskowitz. "There will always be an ample supply. The growers have never learned to reduce their stock."
But right now the turkey people are getting some stiff competition from the chicken people, though none of them brought products to the taste testing at Weyanoke. With poultry shipments to the Soviet Union under embargo, the Agriculture Department is funneling a lot of chicken into the commodities program, which also maes this basic food available free to schools and other institutions.
"We're putting chicken on the menu every week," said McConnell.