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How Bosco Sticks Became the Secret Weapon of Midwestern Cafeterias

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A fond look back at the dirt cheap — but delicious — school lunch option.

Cafeteria foods are notoriously depressing for most kids, but navigating the school lunch line as a first-generation, vegetarian Indian-American was always like an episode of Ripley's Believe It or Not. Did people really eat limp looking Salisbury steak with a gloopy sauce browner than myself? Why would anyone order sloppy joes when it has "sloppy" in its name? I typically eschewed the lunch line in favor of a packed peanut butter and jelly, except for when two words appeared on the menu: Bosco Sticks. The breadsticks were a beacon of hope among the mushy green bean casserole- and overcooked hot dog- strewn landscape of my elementary school lunch line. Cheesy and warm, they were guaranteed to be meat free, way under two dollars, and 100 percent delicious.

While Bosco Sticks are basic in construction — they're simply mozzarella cheese-stuffed breadsticks brushed with butter and parmesan — they have managed to dominate school lunch rooms. Typically served hot, so that the cheesy center is melty, and with a cup of marinara sauce for dipping, Bosco Sticks have been dubbed "the hottest thing in foods school service" by the Grand Rapids Press. Over the years, the breadsticks have become a brand-name item like Kleenex is for tissues and Tylenol is for acetaminophen.

Bosco Sticks are currently the "#1-selling brand in school food service in the Midwest," according to a press release from the company. Though the item is perhaps most-recognized in the Midwest, Bosco Sticks are now available in schools across 45 states. "If you think about how many Bosco Sticks are eaten in a year, you can literally line them up end to end six times from coast to coast," reveals Lee Nordin Sr., a spokesperson for the brand. So how did the Bosco Stick get to be so popular?

The Bosco Stick serves as a deconstructed pizza that is less messy to eat. Baked until they are golden brown, the bread itself is slightly fluffy with the chew of a decent pizza crust. But the real magic lies with the stick: The cheese manages to melt in a magical way where it's not rubbery, but stretchy. Pull the stick apart and a ribbon of cheese will link the two halves. At the same time, the cheese manages to line the inside so that if you stick out your tongue after biting, there is a cheese-lined gap. The Bosco Stick is so popular among kids that the company loves to tell the story of the food service director who offers them on headcount day — the day where funding is given based on the number of students in attendance — "to make sure kids come to school."

The cheese manages to melt in a magical way... pull the stick apart and a ribbon of cheese will link the two halves.

Bosco Sticks found fame in cafeterias, but their roots originate in a now-shuttered Michigan pizzeria that was named after the patron saint of children, St. John Bosco. In 1988, Mark Artinian founded Bosco's Carry-Out Pizzeria in Warren, adjacent to a high school. "At lunchtime a number of students would come in," explains Nordin Sr., "and it didn't take Artinian long to figure out that schools really need high-quality restaurant-style pizzas in cafeterias." So Artinian shut down the pizzeria and transformed the business into a food-distribution service, launching the first commercially-made frozen stuffed crust pizza in 1995. Soon after, an accident resulted in the creation of the company's golden goose. Its origin story is simple: A cheese-filled crust fell off a slice of stuffed-crust pizza, and the company realized it could make for great breadstick. The Bosco Stick was born.

In 2008 alone, Bosco's Pizza Co. managed to generate $40 million in revenue. The Detroit Free Press writes that the number jumped to $51 million in 2013. Nordin Sr. attributes Bosco's success to the appeal of a soft cheesy breadstick, "the quality of the product," and "brand resonation." Perhaps, however, the answer lies in its price point. For the most part, Bosco Sticks come two to an order and will rarely cost students more than $2 or $3. At Kinawa Middle School in Okemos, Michigan, two Bosco Sticks plus a side and a carton of milk will run a student $2.80. At Warrick County Schools in Indiana, an a la carte Bosco Stick costs just $1.

In recent years, the breadsticks have moved beyond realm of school food services and are now served at hospitals, stadiums, and even a number of restaurants. A variety of pizzerias, mostly in the Midwest, offer the breadsticks on their menus. Pizza Shuttle in Wisconsin already offers three types of bread-based appetizers — garlic bread, cheese bread, and garlic breadsticks — but the restaurant has kept Bosco Sticks on the menu for years (it charges a $1.50 per piece if you buy 12). A quick search reveals that restaurants across multiple states — including Lola's Pizza Palace in Illinois (which will sell customers a set of three for $6) and Gala T Inn in Michigan — serve the item.

Bosco Sticks have even managed to infiltrate the freezers of bulk stores like Sam's Club, and can now be found on a number of college campuses. Nordin Sr. says that many people who grew up eating the item request the breadsticks as adults. "It's funny, we can see where kids have gotten into college, they remember loving the brand, growing up loving the brand, eating it in school, and then they want to get it in their college cafeterias [and beyond]."

Does this mean an egg- and-cheese Bosco Stick may be in the cards?

Since the ‘90s, Artinian received a number of offers to sell the company, but it wasn't until January 2014 that he decided to take the plunge. Artinian sold Bosco's Pizza to Arkansas-based food manufacturing giant Tyson for an undisclosed amount of money. Artinian told the Detroit Free Press: "It was one of those phone calls that you get. Frankly, we've had many of these phone calls over the years, but nobody has shown us everything on the whole wish list." The Bosco Sticks are still produced at Bosco's 50,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Warren, Michigan.

In addition to the whole-grain Bosco Stick, the company has launched a slew of versions that go beyond cheesy centers. Bosco Sticks have hopped on the pretzel trend, and Tyson Foods has also started stuffing the sticks with pepperoni. The company is also taking the breadsticks down a sweeter path, offering an apple-filled version that serves as a take on a portable pie. Nordin Sr. adds that Bosco doesn't plan on stopping there: "We're taking great strides to expand the brand... We're always exploring new flavor combinations that work for a variety of Bosco Sticks beyond just lunch or snacks, so I would definitely look to see us in other areas outside of just lunch at some point." Does this mean an egg-and-cheese Bosco Stick may be in the cards? My third-grade self certainly hopes so.