When GayeLyn Bates of Mesa was working in high-tech sales and marketing, distribution and supply chain management, she and her husband were raising two kids and facing the nightly dilemma shared by millions of other families: what to serve for dinner that is healthy, tasty and quick. Her family was the original target market for the Freschef ready-to-cook meals she has been selling since August.
Four years ago, Bates was doing a consulting project that involved researching meal-assembly businesses for a client interested in investing in the industry. She told the client the market was becoming over-saturated with entrepreneurs franchising their concepts.
“I told the investor, ‘There is a market for this, I know it. I’ve experienced it because I couldn’t get a solution for my own family, but it’s not the right solution yet.’ ” With 430 franchisees, she figured many would be closing their doors within six months.
Families need to eat, and working parents want to provide nutritious meals, quickly. The food engineering needed to get a frozen meal assembled, processed and to the dinner table means a lot of added salt, sugar or other additives. Flavor and freshness is often secondary to the convenience. Bates knew there was a market for something better, so she cold-called Fry’s Food Stores, a subsidiary of The Kroger Company, and got an appointment with executives with the simple pitch: “I have a concept that will help you combat the competitive threat of Fresh & Easy in the market.” This was before Tesco had opened a Fresh & Easy store in the U.S., but stores were in the planning stages.
Her concept is fresh meat, rice/pasta and vegetables assembled in a package and ready to cook, not thaw and cook. Freschef currently offers Chicken Piccata, Apple Ginger Pork Loin Chops, Thai Honey Chicken, Walnut Crusted Pork Loin, Coconut Crusted Chicken, Italian Sausage Penne Marinara, Raspberry Chipotle Pork, Black Bean Turkey Chili, Pesto Cream Chicken Fettuccini and Steak au Poivre.
The meals are hand assembled at a commercial kitchen where the meat is cut the same day it is packed. The vegetables are blanched, and sauces are prepared just before they are packed. All the ingredients are vacuum packed in heavy plastic to drive out all the oxygen and increase shelf life.
Each product is packaged in a clear, plastic box so customers see exactly what they are getting. Cooking and preparation instructions are field-tested on 10-year-olds so they are easy follow. Each meal can be prepared in 20 minutes or less, about the time Bates says, that a parent would take to swing by a fast food place on the way home from work.
Let’s go back to the meeting four years ago with the Fry’s executives. Bates recalls, “I had nothing but a concept. I almost canceled the appointment that morning. My hands were sweaty, my heart was racing, I thought, what are you doing? I had no food background, I just had lived the target market and I knew it was viable, and I backed that up with a lot of research, obviously.”
The Fry’s executives told her, “You are right on target and nobody is doing [this].” Bates has worked closely with Fry’s and Kroger while developing the product, including meetings with the Kroger CEO.
Freschef currently sells in 94 stores, 70 in Arizona and 24 in the Louisville, Kentucky area. Bates has arrangements with commercial kitchens around the country ready to ramp up production in anticipation of expansion.
Freschef holds in-store cooking demonstrations at Fry’s (find the schedule on the Freschef Facebook page) and receives positive feedback from parents who like the idea of cooking fresh food and from empty nesters who don’t want devote the time to cooking anymore or who, due to age, no longer can manage the knife skills to cook meals from scratch.
Talking to Bates about Freschef, I get the sense she is very focused and meticulous with details and planning. During summer camp between seventh and eighth grade, she learned how to program HP calculators. She figured out how to calculate the payroll for her dad’s business, including various deductions, and she was hooked. She wanted to go into electronics and started her career at at Avnet and then worked at Wyle Electronics where Bates “did a cultural reengineering and business process reengineering.”
Experience working within large complex businesses likely helped at Freschef. Bates was able to increase distribution from 20 stores to 94 stores in 10 days because she laid the groundwork and figured out how to scale up production with suppliers and kitchens ahead of time, while maintaining product quality.
Learn more about Freschef.