The future of food convenience meets the triple bottom line


Photo: Andrea Coan

Photo: Andrea Coan

Can sustainability be convenient?

By Paige Wolf

Over the past 75 years, Americans have relentlessly pursued liberation from household tasks. How we eat has been at the heart of this movement. Fast food, TV dinners and microwaves have all promised more free time—no more food shopping, cooking or, for the most part, cleaning.  

Unfortunately, that promised free time has been filled up not only with more work, but also more visits to the doctor, pharmacy and hospital. The salt, sugar and soda that dominate the American diet have coincided with an unprecedented explosion of health problems plaguing our country.

Another unintended consequence of the fast food revolution has been immeasurable amounts of waste. Doing the dishes has been replaced by taking out the trash. 

And, in the modern supermarket, vast amounts of food are discarded because of food spoilage in the global supply chain, and the demand of supermarkets to provide what is perceived to be cosmetically pleasing produce. 

For people concerned with sustainability, there’s been a tendency to look longingly to the time before convenience trumped all, when there was far less waste and far healthier food. The slow food movement, launched in 1986, emphasizes using carefully cultivated ingredients and devoting the necessary time to prepare a meal. 

However, mindfully preparing your dinner requires a significant investment of personal energy and culinary education. And since we eat at least three times a day, cooking even most of the time is a tall order for anyone just trying to keep up with their daily responsibilities.

On the national level, there has been the emergence of delivery meal kit services, pre-portioned ingredients with easy-to-follow recipes, popularized by companies like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Plated. While they may reduce the frequency of last-minute pizza deliveries, and the pre-packaging of food does help eliminate food waste, the packaging of each ingredient separately requires a lot of Styrofoam coolers, plastic bags and frozen chemical gel packs.

When it comes to produce, great progress has been made in accessibility. With CSAs—which are essentially subscriptions to weekly farm shares that are paid to the farmers in advance—the supply chains are shortened. It benefits farmers by cutting out the middle man, providing more money when they need it most, and it benefits consumers in that they get food that is local and more likely to be fresh, which also makes it more nutritious. But many of the shares do not allow for consumer choice, which means you may get more food than you need, or food you don’t like.

Consumers have largely had to choose between sustainability and convenience, but there are now a few companies in Philadelphia that believe they can help solve some of the biggest problems we have with our food systems—waste in supply chains and packaging, unhealthy diets—while simultaneously providing the consumer with unmatched convenience.  

The New Vending Machine

Jared Cannon, a chef who has worked for Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant, Honeygrow and Tria, started Simply Good Jars six months ago with a simple concept: Create healthy, sustainable, locally sourced meals in jars and offer consumers incentives to return the jars for reuse. 

Cannon says this idea had been marinating in his mind for several years, inspired by his own struggle to find the time to eat healthfully while working full-time as a chef and attending Temple University Fox School of Business, where he earned his MBA.

“When you’re busy, it’s hard to eat healthy, but why is that?” Cannon asked. “I was constantly seeing all this food go in the garbage, yet I knew the reality of this country’s hunger problem. So I thought, who better than a chef to solve this by being creative with what’s available?”

Cannon started Simply Good Jars with a $1,000 loan from microlender Kiva with the intention of filling a need in the market while addressing a larger societal issue: hunger.

Currently the delivery plan serves fewer than 100 customers—but there is a 500-person waiting list as the quickly growing company works to expand its delivery service beyond Center City.

While this aspect of their business holds plenty of promise, it’s the new technology they are rolling out that offers an advancement in healthy food convenience: the installation of smart refrigerators in offices and, potentially, as vending machines.

First, to show a proof of concept, they’ve put their meals in conventional refrigerators and installed them primarily at co-working spaces such as 1776 and Indy Hall. These prototypes are based on the honor system, and ask customers to pay via the online service Venmo. 

This summer, Simply Good Jars expects to roll out its smart fridges, which will combine chef-crafted, hand-prepared meals with technology developed by the New York City-based company Via Touch Media, which uses artificial intelligence to personalize the experience. 

For example, you’ll be able to ask the refrigerator, “What are the vegetarian choices today?” and lights next to the products that fit that criteria will illuminate. Sales and recommendations will be customized based on inventory and purchase history.

“Customers will have an app to service their own subscriptions to the fridges that lower the price point for every jar you purchase,” says Edward Drakhlis, VP of marketing and sales. “We want to incentivize healthy eating habits.”

Costs are already accessible, especially considering that a typical meal is smoked duck breast with roasted carrots, cauliflower and pears. A lunch jar ranges from $7-$12 and a breakfast is $5-$6. 

The company is looking to expand into more public spaces, and is in talks with the city. The airport, Drakhlis says, seems like a good fit.

“The whole convenience aspect plays a big role in the waste we are seeing,” Drakhlis says. “It’s very convenient for someone to sell you one potato wrapped in plastic. We’re trying to make healthy eating extremely convenient by having it exactly where you are already.”

The company touts itself as going “beyond zero waste,” reusing the jars and stripping away unnecessary packaging.

“You can eat your entire meal straight out of one jar,” Drakhlis says. “We encourage real silverware and hope we can motivate customers to return the jars through our partnership with Philabundance.”

And that is the hunger piece of their business plan. Every time an empty jar is returned to the fridge, the company donates a meal through Philabundance.

Simply Good Jars’ biggest market is busy professionals who often work through lunch and don’t have many choices for a quick bite.

“We’re really trying to change the game in how people eat healthy,” Drakhlis says. “We want to provide really tasty, locally sourced meals that will make you actually crave healthy foods.”

Sarah Frank, a 26-year-old marketing executive in Fishtown, is a subscriber who has breakfasts and lunches delivered to her office each week. She used to spend her lunch breaks snacking on chicken fingers and French fries, but now enjoys having a healthful alternative.

“I just needed something so I wasn’t eating junk all the time, and these healthy meals filled me up and gave me more energy,” she says.

Since she started, several of her colleagues got on board with the service.

“It’s great to spend less money on lunch and not have to worry about what I’m putting in my body and how I’m going to feel after I eat it,” she says.

The New Customized Door-to-Door Farm Share

 The recent growth of community shared agriculture (CSAs) correlates with an increased consumer interest in supporting fresh, sustainable, local food. There are dozens of CSAs in the Philadelphia area—like Greensgrow, Lancaster Far
m Fresh, Red Earth Farm—with hundreds of drop-off points.

While CSAs are excellent for supporting local farms, eating seasonally, and pushing subscribers to expand their culinary skills by using unfamiliar produce, there is potential for waste. If you really don’t like turnips or can’t figure out what to do with Swiss chard, you might get stuck with a lot of vegetables rotting in your fridge.

Companies like Philly Foodworks are working to reduce unwanted food waste by offering customized subscriptions and door-to-door delivery. 

The website essentially serves as an online farmers market, connecting customers with local farms and producers. A la carte ordering helps avoid the receipt of another bag of beets after you’ve been eating borscht for a week.

Philly Foodworks originally started in 2011 as an urban farm in West Philly in partnership with Urban Tree Connection. Co-founder and CEO Dylan Baird was interested in pursuing a financially sustainable urban farm business model, which he originally fleshed out with traditional CSAs and farmers markets.

But once he started bringing in food from farmers in Lancaster, Baird says he had an “aha moment.”

“We realized that there wasn’t a shortage of produce—it was how to get it to people,” he says. “Maybe we didn’t need to fill a space in the production side, but the supply chain.”

Since many of the crops they wanted to provide were space inefficient, they decided to have other people do the farming while they did the selling. In 2014, they launched the new subscription model, which serves about 700 members throughout the greater Philadelphia area.

In order to keep up with customers who may change orders from week to week, rather than relying on the “you get what you get” model of traditional CSAs, Philly Foodworks built a forecasting model using its market sales history to project how many units of each item they’ll need. They also keep track of a farm share item’s “deselection rate,” and say root vegetables like rutabaga are rarely in high demand.

“We know whatever we put in the subscriptions will be highest-moving items, and we have an idea in advance of what kind of bumper crops we’re going to have,” Baird says. “Thirty percent of people just leave their subscriptions as it is, and most other people don’t change it drastically.”

Most produce  Philly Foodworks sells is certified organic or grown using organic practices; the rest is IPM (integrated pest management) or low spray techniques.  However, its prices remain competitive with stores like Whole Foods—and some items are less expensive. Since they purchase whole animals, which are then broken down into retail cuts, they can offer pasture-raised beef for $6.99 a pound.

While Philly Foodworks is seeing consistent growth, they point to the shuttering of other mainstays like Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market as an example of the changing marketplace as consumers demand additional convenience.

“People used to drive or take the bus to Fair Food Farmstand because you couldn’t find local turkey anywhere else,” he says. “But now Philly Foodworks can deliver that same turkey to your door.”

Kristin Jekielek, a 33-year-old business software consultant in Center City, is a regular customer of Philly Foodworks, and says she loves that she is never stuck wondering what to do with 10 pounds of eggplant.

“I can stock my kitchen in 15 minutes and it shows up at my door,” Jekielek says.

And she says she feels like she is spending no more, and maybe less, than she ever did at Whole Foods. 

“When I was in the store I was more prone to grabbing impulse items,” she says. “This service allows me to focus on what I actually want and need.”

Rescuing a Healthy Surplus

 Another innovative company working to reduce food waste is Hungry Harvest, champions of “ugly produce.” After learning that 20 percent of otherwise good produce goes to waste simply because it isn’t aesthetically perfect, Evan Lutz started his company to take advantage of this unused commodity.

The business launched in Baltimore in 2014, and, after a successful appearance on NBC’s “Shark Tank,” expanded to its second market—Philadelphia—in 2016. While the company would not share how many households it serves, it claims growth in the last year of over 150 percent across the Philadelphia area, including Delaware, South Jersey, and Montgomery, Chester, Delaware and Bucks counties. 

Hungry Harvest operates as a door-to-door service, and after four years in business, the company claims to have prevented more than 8 million pounds of food from going to landfills, while simultaneously providing  700,000 pounds of produce to reduced-cost markets and donations.

The company has also expanded its offerings to include “rescued” organic produce, eggs, bread and granola. But how do you end up with deeply discounted organic eggs?

Cynthia Plotch, director of marketing, says food goes to waste not just because of aesthetic, but surplus or structural inefficiencies.

“Jumbo white eggs don’t sell as well as jumbo brown eggs, so producers are left with extra white eggs,” she says. “Bread could have a misprint on the label or be too close to the sell-by date for super-strict grocery store rules.”

This allows Hungry Harvest to sell a dozen locally grown jumbo cage-free eggs for $2.50. The same eggs could cost close to twice that at Whole Foods.

A mini-harvest delivery starts at $15 and an organic harvest starts at $25—but everything is 20 to 30 percent less than grocery pricing and customizable down to precise quantities.

And, due to the nature of the business, Hungry Harvest never knows when it will come into a jackpot of healthy food in need of rescue.

“There was a full shipment of coconuts coming in from Thailand but the purchaser lost contact with the ship,” Plotch says. “The supplier had to make good by sending a new order to the store, and when the original batch turned up in the states, the supplier had no one to buy them.”

Hungry Harvest was able to step in and offer their customers a deep discount on the coconuts, a wonderful surprise in the middle of April.

Providing a Full Plate

When Beth Strauss, 34, was working as a health coach and personal chef, she saw how difficult it was for her clients to eat well while juggling busy lifestyles. In 2015, she and her husband, Mike, launched Grateful Plate, a meal delivery service that could be customized for all tastes and dietary restrictions—even when those varied within the same household.

Based in Manayunk, Grateful Plate is part meal service, part personal chef, offering convenience while adapting to restrictive diets. 

It currently serves 60 to 100 households each week, and offers weekly changing menus with no commitments or minimums.

“One thing that makes Grateful Plate so unique is that it’s a la carte, so you can get single servings of each meal catered to each person,” Strauss says. “Your household could consist of one vegan, one meat eater and one picky child, and everyone gets what they want.”

Dinners range from $18-$28 with portions plentiful enough to potentially feed two. While that price point is much higher than the $10 per meal from the national meal kit delivery services, the customizable door-to-door delivery is a benefit some people see as invaluable.

“Value is really important to me, and I want to make sure we are giving people generous portions of the best quality, freshest food,” Strauss says. “With my youngest child, one meal can last four days!”

Strauss says after working for other meal delivery services and enjoying the structure, starting this service seemed like the best way to expand beyond being a personal chef to reach more people and spread healthy eating as widely as she could.

To make the service
more accessible for limited budgets, they offer a wide variety of a la carte items at various price points.  

Beth Hollinger, a mother of two young children in Center City, has been using Grateful Plate weekly since the birth of her son, who is now 2.

Hollinger was struggling with trying to prepare healthful meals for her family, especially with dietary restrictions like nut allergies and gluten intolerance. It started out as a trial gift from her husband, who saw her struggling to prepare nutritious meals for two little ones and just wanted to help her “take the edge off.”

“All the diet restrictions and time constraints were making it hard for me to come up with a variety of healthy meals, and I wanted to expose my children to more adventurous eating,” Hollinger says. “This service really helped expand my older daughter’s palate, and now she is open to trying more new healthy foods.”

Dining out with two little ones is tricky and stressful for her family, and she says the value of having healthy and creative meals available at her doorstep is immeasurable.

“We’ve been able to maintain our weight and have the peace of mind knowing that our children are being exposed to different nutritional components without hormones or antibiotics,” she says. “For me to come even close to preparing meals like this would be extraordinarily time consuming—I’m just not equipped to be that kind of chef.”

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