Area business grows from small kitchen started 40 years ago

As the population ages and people seek to age at home, Vandalia-based Ahler’s Catering & Nutritional Services has been growing.

The state-contracted meal delivery business dates back 40 years ago to a small kitchen on Troy Street and now has a little more than 1,000 clients, who get connected to Ahler’s through case managers.

Jamie Dailey, granddaughter of the company’s founder Mary Ann Wallace, said the family just sold the business to Mike Burke, who is working on taking over the business while she transitions out.

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The company has grown about 20 percent a year and Burke said Ahler’s has mostly grown by word of mouth over the last 12 years since Jim and Robin Harvey, Wallace’s daughter and son-in-law, moved the business to its 20,000-square-foot warehouse at 3620 Lightner Road.

Ahler’s has scaled through word of mouth and the help of new programs paying for meal services — and it doesn’t hurt that their delivery drivers drop off free bags of pet food for seniors that otherwise would carefully split their meals with their beloved pets.

“It’s a testament to their family name and reputation,” Burke said.

Origin Story

Wallace originally had a restaurant and the Area Agency on Aging had approached her about doing a program like the one in place now. She started out slowly, packaging, cooking and delivering meals out of a kitchen roughly the size of Dailey’s office

“Now it’s changed so much,” she said.

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When Jim Harvey stepped in and eventually bought Ahler’s, he switched to pre-made meals specifically for a senior diet, which was less limiting than labor-intensive hot meals cooked each day.

They installed a giant freezer on Troy Street — now one of the walk-ins at the Vandalia site — and it was in a garage by the original kitchen. They at first hand unloaded everything from semi-trucks without a forklift.

“So quickly — very quickly — he started looking and checking out spaces,” she said.

Now operating in Vandalia, the company has 22 employees who could be seen last week assembling and labeling orders for their clients, pulling from rows of freezers and shelves of food.

Their clients get the meal services paid for by programs that help people have support to age in place, such as Medicaid managed care insurance plans, PASSPORT and ComCare.

Aging population

In the background of Ahler’s growth is that the Miami Valley population is getting older and those older adults are increasingly interested in services that help with aging independently in the home.

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About 18.5 percent of Montgomery County’s population will be 65 or older in 2020, according to a 2018 report by Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University. That’s up from 15.1 percent in 2020. And about 2.6 percent of Montgomery County is projected to be 85 years or older by 2020.

Doug McGarry, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging for West Central Ohio, said the oldest baby boomers are getting close to 75 years old and with increased age often comes increased disability and the need for more services.

There’s been more recognition of this need in recent years, such as Medicare Advantage plans recently receiving permission to start covering non-medical services like adult day care or meals, though details for next year are still being worked out for the different plans.

What’s next

The company has added some new services in recent years, including starting November 2017 when they started donating and dropping off bulk bags of pet food to some of their clients.

“What happened was a lot of our drivers were reporting that they would go to clients’ homes, and they would see a client heating up one of their own meals from us, and then sharing half of their Salisbury steak with little Benji,” she said.

Burke said as he takes over the business he’s looking at new growth for the company, including looking at expanding into meal delivery for people with developmental disabilities.

“Everything that we do is geared toward helping individuals live an independent life,” Burke said.

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