When Jacqueline Keller started NutriFit, she wanted her clients to enjoy fresh and healthy meals at home without having to get dressed to open the front door or tip the delivery driver.
She opted for middle-of-the-night drop-offs of sealed packages containing breakfast, lunch or dinner entries, often tailored to various dietary preferences.
The business model she pioneered more than 30 years ago is proving effective during the Covid-19 pandemic as restaurants’ dining rooms remain empty, and contactless transactions take precedence over face-to-face interaction.
“I wish I had such a foresight when it comes to the lottery,” joked Keller, an executive chef who runs the West Los Angeles-based company with her husband, Phil Yaney, and employs 30 workers.
“Typically, we have around 1,500 items going out of here on any given cooking day … and (the orders) went up 15% because of the pandemic. … The summertime is usually a slow time, and this has not been a slow summer for us,” she added.
Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered indoor dining rooms to shut down again on July 13 amid a spike in infections. Some eateries managed to provide outdoor seating, but the California Restaurant Association now expects nearly 30% of restaurants to close for good.
And while the pandemic continues to emaciate the hospitality industry, it has helped local ready-meal companies like NutriFit see an uptick in business in recent months.
Vernon-based Veestro saw a 30% increase in orders in March “when people thought that the world was ending, and everybody was just trying to buy as much food as they could,” said Chief Executive Mark Fachler, a former investment banker who founded the plant-based meal company with his sister Monica Klausner in 2013.
At the onset of the pandemic, Laura Diaz — better known as Chef Lala at downtown-based Chef Nourish — noticed the flow of meal orders slow slightly only to pick up shortly after.
“I think that people were afraid of where they are going to get their next dollar from, and there was a lot of uncertainty,” Diaz said adding that she’s getting calls from clients who “have gained weight because they are staying home.
“There’s also a lot of people who have autoimmune diseases, and they can’t go out to the market or shopping, and then there’s others who prefer to stay indoors and stay safe as much as possible,” Diaz continued. “So, this is their way of getting that wonderful experience of having food brought in and having a variety without having to compromise anything.”
Ready-meal companies must differentiate themselves to remain competitive, said Diaz, a Le Cordon Bleu-educated chef whose resume includes appearances on the “Today” show, “The Dr. Oz Show” and “The Martha Stewart Show.” Her niche is homecooked meals made to order based on her clients’ preferences.
“I’m here to make people’s life easier and more delicious,” she said. “When my dad was diagnosed with diabetes, he said, ‘I’d rather die than lose my pleasure food.’ And that’s literally my mantra, because no matter what, even if you’re trying to meet a (weight loss) goal, or you can’t have something, the food should always be delicious.”
Keller’s approach at NutriFit also favors taste and quality, along with providing a high level of customization.
“We serve everyone, from Olympic athletes and professional sports players who have calorie requirements and trouble putting on weight to people at the other end of the spectrum who have 200 pounds to lose and diabetes, congestive heart failure, renal disease and all kinds of comorbidities,” she said, adding that some clients stop by her office to get a metabolic test and a custom meal plan while others are happy with just placing a recurring order online.
“If people want high-touch (service), we’re in that lane, and if they want to just sign up online and retrieve a bag as though the food fairy dropped it in the middle of the night, that’s okay with us,” Keller said. “We don’t have to be your friend; we don’t have to know everything about you, but we have the bandwidth to do that, and for that reason we’ve had very loyal clients for many, many years.”
For Keller, knowing everything about her clients means remembering “who will eat red bell peppers but not green ones,” or who’s OK with “cooked carrots but not raw carrots.”
“I have clients who say, ‘Don’t send me anything green,’” she said. “I feel like sometimes I’m parenting adult children, but … the health coach in me says we have to let people evolve their own process (because) then they own it, and if they own it, then the success is theirs.”
NutriFit is also flexible when it comes to frequency of delivery.
“We have people on every kind of different schedule you can imagine, from ‘breakfast, lunch and dinner send me everything I don’t ever want to have to cook for myself,’ to ‘send me three dinners a week on every third week,’” she said.
Veestro does not provide customization of individual meals but offers a wide variety of choices with hope that there’s going to be something for everyone.
“We have a head chef, and (he) either comes up with the recipes or approves all the other recipes before he gives them to me and my sister Monica, who has the final say on what goes on the menu,” Fachler said.
“We have over 50 different meal options, and they range from Asian dishes, American, Mexican, comfort food, Italian — anything that you can imagine. We want to make sure that people have enough variety so that they can stay with us longer,” he added.
When Fachler started the business nearly eight years ago, “it wasn’t that popular to order food over the internet,” so he wanted to make sure Veestro’s offering “was something unique, something they couldn’t find anywhere. Of course, living in L.A. at that time, we already had a vegan restaurant at every corner, but the rest of the country didn’t, and this was a nationwide business from day one.
“We started in a very small commercial kitchen in the back of a used car dealership in Thousand Oaks, and we were making everything there and shipping it all over the country,” Fachler added. “Even today, a lot of cities and states don’t have access to either organic produce or good healthy vegan meals.”
These days, Veestro ships about 50,000 frozen meals each week, supported by a staff of 80. The business has been profitable since last year and generates about $25 million in revenue, according to the Business Journal’s estimate.
Fachler has raised about $5 million to date, mostly from friends and family, and said he’s getting ready to start fundraising again in the next few months.
“We foresee a lot of growth, especially because of what’s been going on in the last five months,” he said. “At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, the pandemic is going to be over, and people are going to go back to normal and going to the supermarket and restaurants. But until that happens, a lot of people are trying to avoid being in public places, and companies like ours are a good solution for that.
“We also foresee that there’s going to be a lot more competition in the next few years, which is why we’re also considering going into retail,” Fachler added. “For the last almost eight years, we built a brand that’s associated with good meals, healthy meals … and we believe that product in the supermarket would do very well.”
New competitors in the space include restauranteur Hamid Latiff Jr., who has turned to ready meals while his eatery at Slauson Super Mall in Harvard Park remains shut down. The pandemic has also disrupted his catering business, Callaloo Express, which focuses on food from his native Trinidad.
“I had events lined up for every weekend in April, May and June, including Coachella and Hollywood Carnival,” Latiff said. “Everything got postponed at first, and then cancellations came.”
Cooking family meals for pick up or delivery has kept him partially afloat. It has also changed his business outlook.
“Covid has opened a lot of restaurateurs’ and chefs’ eyes to this pick-up-and-go kind of system, because before, the whole thing was to have a big spot and fill it up with people, and with Covid, now the trend is a total opposite — the smaller the space, the better,” he said. “People who now have dining rooms that are empty, they can’t pay their rent. I will definitely stick to this if there’s an opportunity.”
Whatever the motive, the customers appear to appreciate the experience.
Mark Lipis, a semi-retired management consultant who’s responsible for all “shopping and cooking and meal planning and meal prep” in his household, described signing up for NutriFit deliveries as “an absolute godsend.”
“We get one delivery a week,” Lipis said. “There are only two of us in the house, so we get three or four dinners, which takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of me. … Also, we have a single elderly neighbor, and shopping and cooking for one is not easy to do, so now Ruth piggybacks on us, and so we get stuff for us and for Ruth, and we’re helping out a neighbor.
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