MILLERSBURG, Mo. — "A full belly is a happy belly."
That's Signature Foods co-owner Mary Evans' motto, and it's perhaps especially true at correctional facilities. She and her husband Norton Evans' Callaway County-based company has been supplying hot meals to the Callaway County Jail for four years.
Signature Foods also provides meals to senior living facilities, schools and other facilities. While the calorie content is different — inmates get 2,600-2,800 calories per day, based on federal requirements — Evans said her approach is the same: healthy, tasty and varied meals.
She expressed disgust about Nutraloaf, a bland baked loaf of compressed vegetables, meat and bread served in some prisons to misbehaving prisoners. (The Callaway County Jail does not serve Nutraloaf under any circumstances, Sheriff Clay said.)
"A lot of them were in the wrong place at the wrong time," Evans said of inmates.
Instead, her company sends two hot meals per day plus a breakfast of fruit, cereal and a giant cinnamon roll. The meals tend toward hearty fare: turkey potato casserole with green beans, or barbecue smokies with baked beans and corn. She taste-tests every recipe. No meal is served twice in one week, except by occasional special request.
"They really love the Mexican food," Evans added.
According to Chism, the partnership between the Callaway County Jail and Signature Foods has been good for everyone — the county and inmates alike.
Until 2014, the county relied on purchasing meals from the Fulton State Hospital. In 2015, the jail transitioned to Signature Foods. Chism hopes to see that business relationship continue.
"I appreciate that they're a local vendor," he said.
He also appreciates Signature Foods is easy on the wallet. In 2014, the county forked over $265,661 for prisoner meals. In 2017, that figure dropped by 42 percent to $154,784.96. The cost per meal per inmate decreased by nearly $1 as well, he said.
The food's good, too — at least, for prison food.
"We tried all their menu items (before becoming customers) and they were pretty good," Callaway County Jail Superintendent Robbie Harrison said.
That doesn't mean there aren't complaints, Chism said, but that's the nature of feeding folks at a jail.
"I could serve prime rib and fries on a Saturday night and get complaints," he said.
Evans said inmates usually want more salt and pepper in dishes, but federal guidelines limit inmates' sodium intake.
Recipe for success
Mary and Norton Evans founded Signature Foods in the mid-2000s, but it was far from their first venture into the food industry. In fact, the pair now have a combined 57 years of experience.
"In the restaurant industry, there's an adrenaline when you're up against the wall and you're so busy," Mary Evans reminisced. "There's a challenge there that you love."
Food brought them together. The two met while working at Bobby Buford's, a now-shuttered Columbia restaurant. Norton was the head chef, and Mary the general manager. Eventually, they left to found their own restaurant: the 63 Diner.
Together, they raised three children and built a business.
"When I was raising (the kids), I homeschooled them until third or fourth grade," she said. "I'd bring them into the diner and homeschool them in the basement until the lunch rush."
She thinks watching the long hours their parents put in ultimately kept the three away from the restaurant industry — though the oldest, now 24, is a nutritionist who helps part-time at Signature Foods.
In the early 2000s, Mary and Norton became involved in selling frozen meals and had to choose which path to take their career. Mary said it was a hard choice.
"You miss the people," she said. "I worked the front of the house."
Mary loves the variety of people one meets and works alongside in the restaurant industry. She makes up for it by visiting current and potential customers frequently.
In 2005, she and Norton sold 63 Diner and found the building that eventually became Signature Foods.
"It was so empty, you could drive through the whole thing," she said.
Now, the building's filled with loud classic rock and the rich smell of gravy, plus the chatter of employees — most of whom are either related to or friends of the Evanses.
Switching from being restaurateurs to frozen food manufacturing involved quite a learning curve.
"You're very conscious of nutritional values," she said. "Initially, we were dealing with the senior population, so you have to monitor sodium, you monitor fat, you monitor calories. At 63 Diner, it was a cheeseburger, a shake, a slice of cheesecake."
Signature Foods must track changing guidelines for nutrition for each of the demographics it serves.
"It keeps you on your toes," Mary added.
She and the other Signature Foods employees take pride in sending out tasty meals.
Joe Dexter, a Signature Foods employee and the Evans nephew, said his favorite Signature Foods meal is the pork chop (not currently on the correctional facility menu).
"It's the type of job where you're doing something good," said Blake Marsden, who's worked for the Evanses since 2004. "You're not just selling swimming pools to rich people. We don't take it lightly."