Meals on Wheels: Meal delivery companies have hit the sweet spot for busy families
In the beginning, a good meal meant slaving away at a campfire, then a cooking hearth, then a stove. Then came restaurants and takeout, though those options are usually not exactly paragons of healthful eating. Today, convenience and technology have progressed to the point that whole, healthful meals can be delivered to doorsteps, and some of the companies providing that service have found Utah to be the perfect place to set up headquarters for their meal delivery services.
Wasatch Fresh delivers fresh-made, balanced meals to a cluster of communities along the Wasatch Front, curated through a passion for sharing good meals bursting with flavor, says Page Ane Viehweg, owner and chef at the Salt Lake-based company.
“I wanted to always stick with our core values, which is that … the meals Wasatch Fresh presents are things I would serve to my family and friends,” she says. “It’s a sense of giving and nourishment, and I get a tremendous sense of joy for that.”
A little over a year ago, with a nudge from friends and family who now help run the business, Viehweg left her position as chef at Sur la Table and launched Wasatch Fresh. She tries to use local and organic vendors as much as possible, she says, and can go more than four months without repeating a meal.
“There are so many wonderful things to make and create, why would you want to have the same things?” Viehweg says.
Meals are prepared the same day they’re delivered, ready-made in a cooler, on the days and times indicated by subscribers, who sign up for weekly plans. Each meal includes “chef’s notes” about the meal, its origins or other tidbits, and instructions for serving. Viehweg sets a high bar for herself, she says, and even with the growth the company has seen, everything is still made to the standards she would keep when serving a meal to loved ones.
“Anyone who’s a client of Wasatch Fresh can tell if something’s truly made—vegetables chopped by hand, super attention to detail, local ingredients—I love to partner with local businesses,” she says. “As often as I can do local, I do. As often as I can do organic, I do. I don’t always get that luxury, but that’s important to us. I don’t know if that sets us apart, but that’s something that we care very much about.”
Since launching Wasatch Fresh, Viehweg has tweaked her model, menu and other aspects of the business based on customer feedback. Safety is always the top priority, she says, but close behind is customer satisfaction.
“This business has evolved. I’ve listened to my clients. When I get a suggestion, I take it, if it’s a good one,” she says. “I listen really closely to what they have to say.”
Pleasant Grove-based Crust Club has also seen evolution as it has worked the kinks out of its pie-delivery business model, says co-founder Tyler Kukahiko. At first, owner and baker Valerie Kukahiko simply posted pictures of the pies she was offering on her personal Instagram, but those sold out quickly enough that it was apparent a larger-scale operation was needed, Tyler Kukahiko says—and it was going to need more than a separate Instagram page for the business. At that time, the sold pies were also just picked up at the Kukahikos’ house. They quickly decided to go big or go home, he says.
Crust Club sells savory and sweet pies in its store (527 W. State Street, Ste. 106, Pleasant Grove) or delivers within a 20-mile radius in refrigerated boxes that keep the unbaked pies cool throughout the day. Kukahiko says the convenience is almost as important as the product itself to their business model.
“There are two parts to the product: the food itself, but also the service. We said, let’s have something really unique and have more than food, but a service, too,” he says. “With more and more moms, and dads, for that matter, choosing to pick up food or go out to eat or not having time to make food, this is a home-cooked meal that they don’t have to make or shop for, it’s just right there at their door, ready to pop in the oven.”
One of the ways they’ve promoted and streamlined the service aspect is through specially developed software to make delivery as efficient as possible, he says. The ordering system, too, took some work to get just right—especially when people started using it after the company’s launch last November.
“When we set [the e-commerce site] up initially, everything worked the way we wanted it to. When the customers start using your site, they will be very vocal about the things they like and the things they don’t like,” Kukahiko says. “Whether it’s user error or error on the site, it doesn’t matter, because you have to make sure it’s as easy as possible for grandma and a 20-year-old college student.”
Even getting the most efficient kind of refrigerated boxes was a product of trial and error, he says, but that’s the magic of living in this day and age: whatever a business might need, someone’s offering it somewhere on the internet.
“The amazing thing about today’s business world is if you need software, you need a product, anything, you can find it. And not only can you find it, you can find 10 of everything—you just need to pick the best one at the best cost,” he says.
Delivery distance only makes logistics more complicated, something Marti Wymer, founder and CEO of Spoonful of Comfort, knows well. The overnight soup delivery company, based in Salt Lake City, has to pay attention to weather, climate, seasons and regional palates to keep customers happy.
“We know if we’re sending it to Florida or Arizona in July we have to make adjustments to make sure we are monitoring the weather and having enough coolant and refrigerant [in the delivery boxes] to keep it safe. On the other hand, in the winter, there are a lot of storms nationwide, and when someone’s expecting it to be overnighted but there’s a snowstorm in New York and FedEx isn’t delivering—eek. We have to rely on a third-party carrier,” she says. “You just have to know what’s going on in terms of weather, and let your customers know.”
“In the Amazon world where you can get everything everywhere in time, being able to ship food is expensive, to have all the proper insulation and it tastes good and it’s safe when it arrives—there are a lot of logistics in making that work, in making sure that’s right, that it gets there safely and tasting good,” she adds.
Wymer started Spoonful of Comfort after her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. She wanted to make her mother chicken noodle soup and other comfort favorites, but at the time, Wymer lived in Sarasota, Florida, while her mother lived in New Brunswick—too far for soup. Wymer’s mother died six weeks after the diagnosis. Though she couldn’t send her mother soup in her time of need, Wymer set out with an idea to help others connect with their far-away loved ones, she says.
“I wasn’t looking to go into business or start a business. I was at home and running around, but this idea would literally wake me up at night—why isn’t anybody doing this? It wasn’t anything I thought of until I had the need for it,” she says, noting that despite knowing nothing about starting or running a business, or making food on a commercial scale, things seemed to work out as if by magic. “Every step of the way doors would just open. Someone knew a chef who would help me with a commercial kitchen, and someone here would know someone who could help me with packaging. I just started and figured it out as I went.”
By then, she was living in Utah and was stunned by the resources and expertise available to her in her fledgling days from more experienced entrepreneurs, she says. While she was hesitant to ask for help—especially given the personal meaning behind the business—she found advice and assistance in spades.
“I have been so blown away by the number of seasoned entrepreneurs and businesspeople who just want to help. Once I started to network and widen the net, I have had so many people just help, just out of the goodness of their heart. They didn’t want anything, they’d just been there and done that and wanted to pass along great advice,” she says. “I wish I had done that sooner. … If I were to do it again, I would do that sooner.”
More than a trend
The number of meal delivery services has seen a sharp increase in the last several years across the country, and it’s big business—make-a-meal giant Blue Apron filed to go public in June. Viehweg of Wasatch Fresh says she thinks the growth is sustainable, especially given Utah’s preference for local agriculture and quality food. Healthy, delivered meals are ideal for busy families, singles and elderly people who want to eat well but for whom cooking is not practical or convenient, she says.
“I don’t believe it’s a trend—I think it’s just the way things have evolved. I think people in Utah are like-minded and would rather spend time with their family and get something healthy instead of picking up takeout,” she says.
Growth means scaling not only business practices but recipes and supplies, and that can be overwhelming, especially when a business grows quickly. Scalability is a problem all growing businesses face, but food is a product that, more than most products or services, needs to be delivered at specific times and under certain circumstances. Special systems need to be in place to work with customers, handle orders, anticipate and work around holidays, and put out fires.
“There are days we’re making runs at 6:00 to pick up soup and getting it back and packaging to get it out, because we didn’t anticipate something, and also the seasonality of our business,” Wymer says. Learning to forecast what to expect in terms of demand was also an early challenge. “Originally I think we were just reacting,” she says. “You’re so used to doing everything and reacting to putting fires out all day. It can be tricky to take a step back and forecast and put systems in place to handle the growth.”
And as with other small businesses, some days really do feel like being in the trenches. It’s at those times when the positive feedback, the validation of their labor of love, really counts the most, Viehweg says.
“I love the letters and the emails and everything we get, [saying], ‘thank you for making my life so much easier.’ It’s neat. The response from our clients, that’s what’s also so exciting,” she says. “Naturally, in any new business, you have a couple of times when I really wanted to throw in the towel—it was just one thing after another and another—but it was just the perfect timing when I’d get an email or a text thanking me or my staff. It gives you that extra motivation you need to get going. It’s tough, but it’s so fun.”