Cooking from scratch - the easy way

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 05:00 30/03/2014
My Food Bag
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ

DREAM TEAM: Theresa Gattung, Nadia Lim and Cecilia Robinson – between them they have business, food and online expertise covered.

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First they got cleaners. Then someone to do the lawns. Mind the kids. Walk the dog.

They took their cars to car washes, someone else chopped their winter firewood and even though they worked 60-plus hours a week to pay for all of this, life, for the middle classes, was perfect.

Except for the groceries. Once a week (three, or four times, if they forgot the bread, the toilet paper and the Sardinian olives) they were forced to go to the supermarket. Oh, the drudgery. The slog. The sheer inconvenience of having to choose between chicken breast and chicken thigh.

Well hello, My Food Bag.

It was a Sunday night in March, and across Auckland, hand-picked "influencers" from the world of media and minor celebrity took possession of the brown paper bags full of the groceries - and recipes - they would cook that week.

Only 50 free deliveries were made, but the fall-out was tsunamic. Recipients tweeted pictures of duck in plum sauce, and non-recipients responded with accusations of bribery, corruption and bad ethics.

Many assumed the tweeters were being paid, that they had signed a contract obligating them to provide free publicity and their Twitter comments should have been hashtagged #ad. (The assumptions were, perhaps, understandable. Just a month earlier, for example, adidas had made a bid to sign up "supporters" to a new technology shoe. In exchange for one of the first six pairs of shoes in the country, the "supporter" was required to post "three or more social media mentions".)

Deborah Pead, head of Pead PR, the company that managed the My Food Bag launch, says no-one was paid to tweet or told what to say, beyond the provision of a non-compulsory "myfoodbag" hashtag.

"There was a certain amount of risk to this. If the triallists didn't like it, they could have said as much on Twitter as well."

Hazel Phillips, writing at the time for business magazine Idealog, summed up the backlash: "It smacked of kids who had seen somebody else offered an icecream, when they didn't get one themselves and they can't quite figure out why. And now they want to trip you up and push you into the bushes to ruin your icecream."

Some of the online critique was funny. Paul Litterick wrote that the product "combines the two most ghastly things on Twitter: braying wannabees and photos of food". Sacha Dylan asked if it was "a bit like Chrisco hampers for enfeebled rich folk?" But David McGregor laid down a challenge, betting dinner at the restaurant of his choice "that the venture will be gone and forgotten in 18 months time".

Twelve months and counting. The venture that was founded by businesswoman and 2013 Young Entrepreneur of the Year Cecilia Robinson, former Telecom chief executive Theresa Gattung, and MasterChef winner Nadia Lim, has just celebrated its first birthday.

It turned out the proof of the crispy-skinned snapper was in the eating. Gattung says between two-thirds and 70 per cent of those original influencers signed up for a paid delivery the following week.

"It was a very deliberate strategy to give the bags to - well, celebrity is a way of defining it - it was really to the people who tweet, who talk, who proclaim. We took a risk. What if it had been bad? Would we have been given a second chance? Let's say we're not a risk-averse group!"

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Today, the company employs 22 staff, delivers to Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington and has expanded its original five-meals-for-four-adults classic and four-for-two gourmet offerings ($189 and $139 a week, respectively) to include a family bag ($159), fruit bags and a one-off Christmas dinner bag.

The water in the swimming pool at Gattung's Auckland apartment is sparkling the day the founders come together for this interview. We're here, instead of the company's test kitchens, because Gattung, 51, has ruptured her Achilles tendon playing tennis, and is confined to crutches and flat surfaces.

Lim, 28, is running slightly late, with back-to-back meetings before this interview, and a drive to Hamilton afterwards for an evening speaking engagement. Robinson is a 28-year-old Swedish-born blur. She speaks too quickly for shorthand notes. She is credited with completing the business plan for this venture four hours before she went into labour with her son, Thomas.

They have 5000 customers on their books. Robinson says she originally forecast an uptake of around 1500 - though she won't confirm how many subscribers are fulltime regulars (it's possible to opt in and out of the weekly and fortnightly deliveries - this writer has done just that).

What the trio will confess: they are not yet making a profit.

"Businesses don't in their first year of operation," says Gattung. "We're taking a long-term view. The turnover has grown fast - we're turning over $20 million now - and you need that sort of scale to make money. Food's a low margin business, and you've got to have that sort of scale . . . most small fast-growing start-ups don't [immediately] turn a profit, and may not turn a profit in the first five years."

Her prediction? "Look, it's possible it could be as early as next year. It just depends."

Robinson: "It depends what we do with our money."

They have been approached by prospective investors, says Gattung. "We can expand through cash flow, and our own resources. We're not looking for other interested parties at the moment. We think we're onto a good thing."

For converts, that "thing" is more than a food delivery service. Recipients get groceries, but they also get the recipe-devising expertise of Lim and a team of test kitchen cooks who, every week, come up with the instructions for the dishes. Sample offerings from last Wednesday: Venison with truffle pansotti; sweet and sour pork; spiced lamb and turmeric rice.

"It's that balance of making things from scratch," says Lim, "but fast-tracking them. Giving people clever shortcuts."

When Lim was approached to join the venture, she assumed it was another offer to work with baby food (she'd already had two approaches).

"When I worked as a dietitian at the diabetes centre, my big light bulb moment was while you can have all the knowledge in the world, and tell people how to eat healthily - and I thought that was enough in the beginning - that's not enough for people to put it into practice. Cooking is one of the most important skills someone can have to keep themselves healthy, and what this does is put them in an environment where they really will follow through."

She says she knows Food Bag families who have now delegated the cooking to their children.

"And if you fast forward 15 or 20 years, they will have grown up knowing how to eat certain vegetables and being OK about trying a variety of foods, and actually having a few dishes up their sleeves. Just that will have a huge impact on their health. It seems small, but in 20 years' time, they're not going to have to rely on processed foods and takeaways and that's going to have a huge impact."

The original business plan featured Lim - bio, photos, the lot. Robinson says of the then three MasterChef winners, she targeted Lim "because we thought she was the most talented". Gattung: "And I think the fact that she's a trained dietitian is, I think, significant."

Between them, says Gattung, they had food, business and online expertise covered. What they didn't know anything about was physical delivery.

"We used a really good consultant. He said it was the equivalent of trying to photograph animals and babies at the same time - the home delivery of fresh food, all at the right temperature, in that narrow window of time."

It is, says Robinson, a logistical nightmare - one reason why it won't be entering the South Island market any time soon.

"The funniest thing is when we drop off a delivery and it's not entirely clear what the address number is, and the neighbours end up with it, and they just somehow think it's a gift. It happens every week. It gets delivered to the wrong house, they unpack it, they think it's like Christmas. I've had people start cooking it."

There was the time the harissa paste leaked. The time people (including Gattung) threw out the $12 a bulb black garlic, cooked at 60 degrees for six weeks and sold at a premium in Japan and Korea, because they thought it was rotten. They've dealt with correspondence from the man who needed to know where to buy a plantain because his drunk flatmate ate it, thinking it was a banana. And they've answered a flurry of complaints about shrink wrapping on Lebanese cucumber (it protects the vegetable's delicate skin).

"People have become more aware of what they eat and where things come from," says Robinson. "People care now."

But if they care so much, then why can't they be bothered going to the grocery store, or devising a week's menu? Are the middle class lazy?

"I was brought up to believe a woman could have it all," says Gattung. "I didn't have children, but most women do. We're graduating from universities in greater numbers than men, have been for a while, but the reality hits the road once you have kids. It's still the woman who shoulders the organising of the domestic responsibilities, even if they don't do it all.

"The pressure on your time to do what you want for your family, to spend quality time, to look after yourself, to keep yourself fit and well, to eat nutritious food . . ."

You could, says Robinson, go and buy a can of spaghetti for less outlay. "But with this, you're getting the good health and the convenience - we change people's lives every week."

- Sunday Star Times

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