How to start a meal prep business (with little or no money!) from home or a rented kitchen

I interviewed 3 people who run profitable meal prep businesses, and asked them what you need to know about starting a meal prep business.

Updated December 23, 2021

Written by

Benjamin Davis

Contributor

How-to-start.org

Experts interviewed:

David Merrill - Owner, Fit Freaks Meals in Herriman, UT

Shawna Turkins – Owner, Homegrown Oregon Foods in Albany, OR

Zeke Cortez – Owner, Super Natural Eats in Denver, CO

NOTICE: This is a long article. You can skip directly to the guide if you prefer.

I spent many hours talking with the founders and owners of three successful meal prep businesses.

I wanted to understand how they came into the business, what challenges they had experienced, and importantly – what their advice is to anyone who is thinking about starting a meal prep business.

I first wanted to know what background my three founders came from, so I asked them – how did you get started in the meal prep business?

How did you get started in the meal prep business?

Do you have meal prep or catering industry experience? or did you just get started?

David: So, my wife and I are bodybuilders and we meal prep for ourselves all the time and have been for years. And as we do it, we kind of found that we got tired of eating the same food over and over. So, we wanted more variety, different recipes so on and so forth. And then, eventually, one day my wife made way too much food like a ton too much and we had a couple friends at work or whatever. She just took a bunch of meals over and said “Hey, we prepped too much. Would you want some of these?” – “Sure.” And then it turned into “Hey, could I pay you to do this for me?” Then from there it just kind of another and another and then it just kind of kept continuing to grow and then eventually, like “Hey, let’s do this as a business” and we incorporated and took it from there.

Shawna: I had just left my corporate job and I was home taking care of babies and a friend of mine started to have some food issues and health issues and she needed help with her meal planning because she was busy. And so, I just started helping her and before I knew it, I had the customers, I could no longer work out of my home and then we had the feeling it was time to scale. So, a friend of mine pushed me really into it and then we just learned as we went, learned the recipes that we needed to adapt that helped with her food restrictions.

Zeke: It all started from scratch for me. The idea came around like 2012 to 2013-ish timeframe. And what happened is I was trying to save a little bit of time so that I could spend more time with my son. So, as a single dad, what happened is I was selling cars at the time and just getting off at like 7:30 at night, go pick him up from daycare, get home, take a bath, feed him, stuff like that. And then by the time I get into bed, there's really no time. And so, I had some memories from my childhood. I didn't want to repeat what my dad did. And so, that's really what was the driving force behind it above the passion for food. And so, I went to culinary school and just married those two things together and started the business in 2015.

TipYou don't need a background in the industry if you're willing to spend the time researching and learning everything you need to know. All three experts I spoke with didn't have any formal experience working in the food industry – they came from regular jobs, and now they run very profitable meal prep businesses.

My three experts prove that you don't need to be formally trained in order to start a meal prep business.

You just need to take the time and effort to learn the job, and make sure you're doing things safely.

Most people starting a meal prep business don't have a lot of money to spend, and some people want to start a meal prep business with no money.

I asked my three experts how much you need in order to get started.

How much money do you need to start a meal prep business? And what equipment do you need to buy?

Can you get started with almost no money? What are the must-have things, and what can wait until later? Can you rent some equipment until you can afford to buy it?

David: Well, at the beginning, you have your cooking supplies, your ingredients and your food. That's pretty much it. And then your containers. So, we only bought containers by the box and we still only buy them by the box each week. And same thing with the food. So, at the beginning, when you're starting off, you're buying just single ingredients, not very much. So, basically as long as you have like pots and pans and the ability to start off, you'll have what you need. And you won't start with a ton of clients when you start off, nobody starts with a thousand clients day one, it takes time. We didn't get any investments. We didn't buy anything. We probably bought a couple hundred dollars’ worth of kitchen supplies and some food ingredients and that's it. So, you have a few things maybe like the expense of a kitchen, renting it out and stuff like that but when you start off, you don't buy a kitchen. You rent into a commissary kitchen or a public kitchen and you just rent by the hour.

Shawna: Surprisingly, it's getting easier – so, typically, I would say, if you had somewhere around $25,000, you could probably do everything from setting up your marketing, your website, getting some sort of point of sale and renting a commissary kitchen one or two days a week. That's not going to be that expensive. The expense that was meaningful for us was when we had to build our own kitchen. So, that's where that part came to be a little more expensive, it took a little bit more time but nothing too crazy. We shopped locally and we would make sales and then used those profits to buy another pan that week or extra supplies but really, I’d say, to feel comfortable, to feel like you could do it, I would say you wouldn't need a terrible amount of money. $25,000 is a lot of money but not as much as building a restaurant. We chose to do a sustainable packaging, and right now that is kind of an expensive product to buy, something that is biodegradable, that is a one-time use product. So, we opted for a little bit more expensive of a container and then we set up the program where we pick their clean containers up the next week after they order so that we can run them through our sanitizers and then reuse them a time or two. So, that way they stay out of the landfills but that is part of what the expense is for us, is needing to have containers that are easy for the customer to use, that are small enough to fit in the refrigerator. And we went through several different kinds before we found the ones that we liked. And then, also product and supplies. And then, when you start to get bigger, you got to buy bigger pans, bigger hotel pans and whatnot. When I first started, I was only cooking for two people but now I was cooking 400 meals on a Sunday. To scale that requires a little bit of cash too.

Zeke: To do it the correct way with licensing through the health department, it's $15,000 or $20,000 because you have to go find a kitchen, you have to go find all of your small wares, all of your utensils, all of that stuff. How I started was I was in a small townhome at the time with a little kitchen. I had $500 that I put into an account. And I didn't even create a business account. It's just a random checking account at my bank but I labeled it "Supernatural Eats". And the first thing I started working on was an actual business. So, I created the business online at the Colorado Secretary of State, and then I bought some containers. So, I went and sourced what I was going to be putting all of the food in. Then I went online and got my website up. And then I created a Facebook page, an Instagram page and I started to market in a very organic way with just things that I was doing in my own kitchen. And so, I would say “Hey, I’m creating this business. It's going to be a meal prep business. Stay tuned.” And then I would put up like a pumpkin pie that I baked in a couple days or I put up like a nice lasagna and I would just get people engaged in that content. And that was some of the best engagement that I ever got. It's just friends and family and the page started growing first into a couple hundred, then to 300, 400 people within a few months. And then when I launched in September, I got all of my pre-orders in advance. One thing about meal prep is getting the money in advance first so that you can take that money and then utilize it for all of your supplies upfront. So, what I did is I got a pre-order, bought everything that I needed, made all the deliveries and then I had X amount of money left in my account that I could spend on this or that.

Tip: In my guide, I show you exactly how you can get up to $16,000 worth of food prep equipment for as little as $500. You can check it out >here<.

If you're starting a meal prep business, you'll need a menu of options for your clients to choose from.

I wanted to know how to approach designing a meal prep menu. How can you avoid things that are difficult to prepare, or things that cause a lot of food wastage?

I asked my three successful founders: 

How do you decide on a menu or product offering when you're starting a meal prep business?

What are the things you should consider? what type of food items should you include or avoid?

David: I think it's associated to the needs that you're trying to meet. There are meal prep companies that are trying to sell all organic and grass-fed this and everything ultra-super healthy with a higher price point. Then there's some people who are trying to be the cheapest business out there. I think, it's kind of in your market what's available, where's the niche that you can climb into that's not super saturated. For us, we just kind of did what we do. We're bodybuilders. We eat what we eat and we just supplied what we do. And because it's a proven method, it works time in and time out. So, we're selling ourselves. We're selling what we do, we're selling our lifestyle and we're selling our results.

Shawna: We watched several food companies kind of start and try to launch in the same direction that we were operating in – but, this tends to be a luxury item. This isn't something that everybody is going to be able to afford. You're at a demographic that if you were marketing towards, I’m going to want to use as much local produce as I can, I’m going to try to keep it as sustainable as I can and seasonal is the other thing that is really a hot word that people like and want to participate in, it makes them feel like they are not becoming more of the problem of our food industry right now, that they're trying to eat what's local and available. And you still can find that reasonably priced too. I mean, for a long time, we literally shopped from our farmers’ market.

Then I would say – what's the easy fast things too, like, what's going to be easy and going to reheat well. That's the other thing that people don't think about “Is it going to reheat well?”

We don't do a ton of salads and stuff like that. We usually do one salad a week and we always suggest they eat that first because I don't care how good your ingredients are and how fast of a chef you are, a five-day-old salad is just gross no matter what you do to it.

Zeke: Well, what you should consider is what you like to cook first. And the reason that I say that is because there are so many different diets, there are so many different people that want different things, they want to cook a certain way, whether it's seared or grilled or baked, they want a certain amount of salt on it, they want a certain amount of seasoning on it. There are so many preferences out there. And so, what I would say for somebody that's coming in is just cook what you want because what's going to happen is people that go and find your meal prep business or find your food and they taste it, they're going to taste basically your passion in that food. And that's where I would start. And then from there, what's going to happen is as you grow more, more people are going to come to you and maybe it's the second or third month in and you'll have somebody say “Hey, do you offer paleo style meals?” And then a month later somebody else will say “Hey, do you offer paleo meals?” And then two months later somebody will say the same thing again. So, what will happen is you're going to start to get those ideas from your customers and you just let your customers lead, let them make some suggestions in that realm, then ask yourself “Hey, is this a good idea for me to do paleo? How easy is it for me to conform a portion of my menu to doing paleo to accommodate these people?” And then you'll grab four, five, six people just from offering paleo options and then you'll start to naturally grow. That's what I would start with.

Tip: Start collecting menus from restaurants and other meal prep companies serving your area. You'll easily spot what's popular and what sells well, and then you can start to build your own menu around that. Start with the easiest things first, and things that can be prepared in advance.

The three experts all agree that starting with a limited offering – and perhaps even sticking with that well into the future – is the best way to go. It gets you established, and lets you and your team get a good routine going, and helps you produce high quality food for every meal kit that goes out the door.

But – how do you make sure you're actually making money?

How do you come up with the prices for your meal prep business? It can't just be guess work, right?

I asked the three successful meal prep business owners how to set prices in a way that guarantees you're making a profit.

How do you set prices for your meal prep business?

Is there a set formula? Or is it just based on what others are charging? How can you make sure you're not losing money?

David: I think it's kind of standard across all industries for the most part other than your super luxuries items but generally, your markup is 100%. So, if something cost you 10 dollars, you're selling it for 20. If something cost you 5 dollars, you're selling it for 10. So, that's kind of what we do but now, of course, you have to take into account what's your labor cost, what's your rent cost, what's your debt cost that you have in there. So, basically, it's where can you be profitable at. So, you have to do your accounting to stick to that type of stuff and then find out where you can budget and save and skimp on certain things and add on others.

Shawna: Well, we are higher on the spectrum vs some of the food prep programs. Some of the ones you can have delivered to your house, they'll tell you the meal is about $6.40. When we started, we set our price at $10 per meal and it was a single-serve meal weighed out. Sometimes it wasn't enough for some of our heftier eaters but as we grew into the restaurant, we changed that part but that's what I would say, we had to look at what was going to be a way that we were going to catch them with the 10-dollar price point. And then we threw in freebies. We threw in the delivery. We just made sure that they spent the 50 dollars to get the delivery free. And then it was a hand delivery. So, I didn't have to deal with shipping or freezer packs or any of that stuff. We put on a route, you made your order, and it was added to the route. And then we gave you free kombucha too. That was one of our side products that we’ve built a business out of that went with it. And our philosophy of getting customers on board with that was if they're going to spend the money to purchase and eat healthier good food, they need the probiotic too to help their gut. And kombucha sales always have a nice markup. So, it kind of helped offset a little bit. And that’s where we really got going. And now we charge $12 to $16 a meal.

Zeke: If you start out in your own kitchen, it's a pretty simple formula. So, let's say you have a package of whole wheat noodles and that comes in 16 ounces. Well, you cook it off. How much do you put in each portion? Maybe you put one quarter of that box in each portion. Okay. Well, how much did the box cost? One dollar? Okay. Well, if the box costs a dollar and you have four portions that you can use out of it, how much was that one portion? 25 cents. So, you'll do that with all your ingredients and you'll calculate the cost of all of your food and you'll put it into a total cost for that menu item. So, if it's like chicken pasta and broccoli, just for example purposes, let's say that meal costs $2.50. You will want to, at least in the meal prep business, quadruple that amount. In the restaurant business, you triple it but because if you're starting out, people make the mistake of saying “Oh, I’m going to do what a restaurant does.” A meal prep business is not a restaurant business. So, what we do is we take that and we quadruple it because we have costs like delivery that restaurants do not. So the simple formula is to 4x your ingredients cost, and that becomes your prices.

Again, all three founders were saying roughly the same thing – the easiest way to set your prices is to calculate your exact food costs per dish, and then charge around 3x-4x that amount as a menu price.

There is some variation in what meal-prep businesses can charge their clients based on location, market size, and average incomes in the area, but you need to make sure you're charging enough to turn a healthy profit.

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So you get a good product offering together, you buy your ingredients just right so you don't have leftovers or food waste. Then you're winning clients, and they keep re-ordering from you week after week, and suddenly, you're running a profitable meal prep business.

The question everyone wants to know the answer to is – how much money should you expect to earn with a meal prep business?

How much profit does a meal prep business make?

Is it a super profitable industry? can you start a meal prep business and replace your current income?

David: We've been at it for two or three years. We take home net profit probably around 50 to 60 grand a year after two or three years of business, after hundreds and hundreds of clients, because there's a lot of turnover. And we're only doing about 800 to 1,000 meals per week. So, not a lot of money. In fact, we see companies go under all the time. We see new companies pop up and they go down, new companies pop up and they go down because the cost of the overhead is great. So, you have to be very wise. And the death of a meal prep company is growing too fast, buying a kitchen, buying a ton of supplies, getting a large loan. You have to grow slowly and acquire your client base organically. Otherwise, you're in trouble.

Shawna: We didn't hire any extra employees for like the first two and a half years. First it was just me. So, that was doable because my husband still had his job and we were still slow and it was fine but then we came to the point where I said “All right, you either need to quit your job, or we need to hire” – he ran a commercial kitchen for a big facility. So, he had the background as well. And I said “We either need to hire two people or you need to quit your job.” And so, of course, he jumped right on being able to quit his job and come work here. So, we've replaced one income and it took us about two years. I’m an employee of my business though. So, I pay myself through the business that way versus dividends or whatnot but I don't think either one of us could 'not' come to work every day even still but we're one year into the restaurant and 18 months of it is in the pandemic. So, it's hard to say exact amounts, but it was enough to make a nice little side income and I think we were profitable all the way through. It just wasn't making as much as I was doing at my corporate job, but this new job is so much better than my corporate job was. My new job that I have is much better. I love it. I love being able to do what I do. But, I don't have a complete answer. I’ll let you know when I retire!

Zeke: If you're not in a commercial kitchen, a good income in this business is anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000 a month, if it's just you working by yourself out of your own kitchen.

But, if you are in a kitchen – that kitchen is going to be anywhere from a few grand on up. So, if you're getting into a kitchen, you want to be in that $35,000 to $40,000 per month range as a minimum.

Tip: 'Starting slowly' seems to be the key to this business. It lets you get your menu offering right, you can perfect the meal prep, the delivery, and also, the finances. Spinning up fast seems to end badly most of the time.

The meal prep business seems to have a huge amount of potential. Several of the experts I interviewed said you could easily make 6-figure incomes relatively soon in the business.

With a big earning potential, and relatively low startup costs, I wondered how a new meal prep business would attract clients.

I asked my three experts how they got their first few clients and customers, and how they built their business from there.

How can a new meal prep business get customers?

what methods work well for scoring your first few clients as a new meal prep business?

David: Well for us, it started with word of mouth. And then from there, it started with marketing through social media. And that's pretty much still the only way we actually do stuff. So, we market through our social media platforms. We sell ourselves. We sell the results of the company. And then our clients like our food, tell other people about it and then we have deals and specials and referrals and stuff like that. So, that's pretty much how we work and operate, and it's done well for us.

Shawna: It really wasn't a ton of advertising because we just didn't have a budget for it. It really was word of mouth and then the recommendations from it. And I did offer a discount if somebody referred a new customer to us – I did issue 20% off their next purchase order. Most of the first year it was all word of mouth, like “My friend told me about this” or “My uncle's doing this.” And so, that's really how it started. And then really Facebook is really the only advertising that I did for about four years. Posting there, and then I would do about $75 dollars a month to promote the posts. So, really small advertising on Facebook. And I targeted our surrounding areas and people that would be interested in gluten-free healthy and paleo. That was kind of our market, and people are still going “I can't believe this is a thing.” So, we're still kind of on the new side of it. People are still searching that out.

Zeke: I got my first wave of customers all via my website. And what you'll want to do when you set up your website is you'll have to put on keyword rich content onto your website. It's called search engine optimization on-site. And it's things like keywords, when somebody would go on Google and search for a “meal prep business”. So, for me, I would put in “we're the best locally owned healthy meal preparation company in Loveland” and then a couple sentences later I would say “This is Loveland's best meal preparation offering lasagna.” And so, putting that keyword rich content into your website. Photos that you put on your website, make sure they're labeled. And my photos would be labeled things like “Loveland meal prep” or “Loveland healthy food service” or “Loveland food delivery” and I would literally label my photos like that. And what happened is over the course of about six months, my website started to get traction on Google.

And I wasn't the at the top of Google, I think I started off in like the very bottom of the first page is what I eventually worked myself up into, but Google found my website to be more and more relevant to some of the search query that people were typing in. And I had a customer that eventually just ended up ordering and I was like “Wow! This is the first customer that I have no idea who they are.” And then as you get more and more, obviously, you get numb to it but, yeah, that is what I’d start with – make sure that your online presence is professional, make sure that the sales funnel – the process to purchase and order – is easy and simplified.

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When you're new in any industry – including the meal prep business – it can be tempting to think that you need all the fanciest things, and you might end up buying a bunch of things that you'll never actually use.

I asked my three meal prep business founders – is there something they regretted spending money on, that someone starting a meal prep business could just avoid?

What is the biggest waste of money when starting a meal prep business?

is there a piece of equipment that is just unnecessary? or a service from a service provider that should be avoided?

David: I don't think that we've actually done anything that's been super catastrophic where we felt like we've wasted money. I would say instead that what we DIDN'T do is what's kept us alive. And what we didn't do is just go get investors. We didn't go get financial backers. We didn't go buy a kitchen. We didn't create a ton of overheads. We kept ourselves flexible. Today, with this meal prep company, you can grow 200 meals in a week and the next week be down 200 and the next week be up 300 the next week be down 150. So, if you create a fixed overhead of cost in the meal prep business, you're in trouble because you can't afford to have 200 less meals this week. There goes a thousand bucks. And if you don't have that thousand bucks, you're in trouble. So, the mistakes we HAVEN'T made is getting debt and getting investors and buying unnecessary things like a big expensive kitchen or really expensive fridges or freezers or specialized items. We're keeping ourselves mean and flexible and I think that's where we paid off the most.

Shawna: You know what – it's going to sound so crazy – because a website is so important for a business that I thought that I was doing an upgrade, but really it was the worst $3,500 I ever spent. And that doesn't sound like a lot but, that's a lot when you're a small business. So, initially I had just done my own website to start with, and I paid the minimum fee and it totally served all my purposes but I had that little bit of imposter syndrome fear of never having done it before, that I thought I was doing it wrong and I let somebody talk me into “Oh, you need a new website.” And now I’m like “I don't even like the new website” but that was $3,500 plus all the hours I spent on it.

I didn't realize I had to spend all the hours of transferring all of the content over to the new site. So, that's what I would say.

And my point of sale was the easiest thing. Square is who we use now, and they give you a free online site to sell your food, and it works great. I just wish I’d have not done the whole thing with the new website and I’d still have that $3,500 and those hours of my life back of typing after I’d already done it already once for another website. I just didn't trust it and then I feel like my first website was better.

Zeke: I’m going to answer this in two ways. Now, with my current perspective, I would say nothing was a waste of money because every single thing you spend money on is a good thing because you learn it doesn't work. And in business, you really have to hone in and double down on what works for you. And what works for you is going to work for somebody completely differently because your business is going to be tailored to your personality. It's not a template like they teach you in college. How you go and how you steet your business is based on your likes, your dislikes and your customers. And you're going to marry those two things together. Now, if I had to pick, if you had a gun to my head and said “Zeke, you got to pick”, I would say marketing was a waste of money – and not the kind of marketing that I do on my or our Instagram or Facebook. I would say the marketing that you spend to have sponsored ads on Facebook and Instagram and Google. It works but it doesn't give you like a 5:1 return or 10:1 return. It gives you like a 2:1 return. And in the meal prep business, if you're spending $2000 to make $4000, you're in negative money. You need to spend $2,000 and make like 15 or 20 grand because the margins in food is going to be anywhere from 5% up to 12% at the very highest.

The meal prep business seems like the type of business where – if you get the basics right – you can have a successful and profitable operation that just grows and grows each year as you accumulate more and more happy customers.


I wanted to know what a typical work day is like for the three founders now that they're into the established stage of their business. I asked them:

What is a typical work day for the owner of a meal prep business?

are the hours long? is it relaxed? what about days when you have no events?

David: So, we only work on the weekends. We're still fairly small. So, we start on Friday with a night crew and then on Saturday we assemble and then on Sunday we deliver. So, we're just working on the weekends. Throughout the week, we just do administrative stuff, we do marketing stuff. We don't spend a lot of time, probably maybe 10 to 15 hours throughout the week kind of managing and doing all the administrative tasks to get ready. And then our crew gets to work on the weekend and we get at it.

Shawna: It's been really nice to tone it down through this pandemic. It gave us a really good chance to tie in and hone in what we wanted to do and how we wanted the work scheduled. So, we have five employees total and my husband and myself are two. And so, it used to be I was 12 hours a day non-stop, up at 7, didn't get home till 7:30 or in the shop at 7, didn't home until 7:30, but now we've got it worked out to where we've staggered it pretty well. We've got our systems in place and I work about a six-hour day. Now, that doesn't include emails and whatnot because we're home and we're all workaholics and it still just happens. So, that kind of stuff that I can do from home on the fly, I still do – but my actual running in the shop is only about five hours, six hours a day, which I have three other people here helping me. So, I’m not doing the whole thing by myself anymore. And now we've converted into a restaurant as well. So, we do food prep every day plus a restaurant. So, there's a lot more going on and I’m not nearly working as hard. So, that is the good thing. And my husband, he's the first one in and then he leaves at about 2 o'clock to go get our children and then I come in at about 11 and then I’m usually here to about 5:30. And then that gives me time to be here during the rushes to answer the phone calls, and I still got three people back there, somebody's mopping, somebody's making muffins, somebody's running the register.

Zeke: I’m literally all over the place. Right now, I’ve been trying to build my team up so that they don't rely so heavily on me to solve a lot of the problems for them. So, we have a team of like six people that work at the kitchen every day of the week aside from Sunday – mostly because I’m going to be welcoming a new baby here November 3rd – but I do everything from charting our accounting and making sure things are categorized correctly, paying taxes, filling out forms for our employees’ debit cards, little stuff like that, I’m dealing with Worker’s Comp audits, I’m planning menus, I’m talking with customers about potential events including weddings, social caterings, scouring online for seeking government contracts because we are an AA small business in that development program. Yesterday I met with a restorative health clinic here in Loveland, Colorado. And there's other things that I do to just promote us and I’ll go and do a workout with the business owner of a gym that is one of our affiliates where we go drop off food at. So, my job is everything. And what I love about it is that I’m not tailored to one specific job description. It's literally I fill in the gaps where I need to in the kitchen. I’ll even work on the kitchen like on Mondays or Tuesdays to give my kitchen manager some relief so he can have some days off and just go do what he wants. I’m all over the place – I wake up every morning at 6 or 6:30, sometimes earlier when we have like a wedding or something to do in the morning but I’m all over the place, and really enjoy it this way.

Sometimes, knowing what type of things to avoid as someone entering a new industry can be just as important as knowing what to do.

I asked my three experts what they've seen other meal businesses do that is just madness. Things that shouldn't be happening in the industry, but still happen.

What sort of CRAZY things happen in the meal prep business?

what mistakes can make a meal prep business look unprofessional, and earn them a bad reputation?

David: I think it's crazy that a lot of people try to meet every request that a customer has. So, they have clientele and the clientele wants to change and customize every little thing. It's a big mistake that we've seen several times. People will make their website so customers can buy with so many different options – there's 10 different recipes they offer and there are 25 different sides and there's 30 different veggies and then they allow them to pick whatever. So, somebody might order five of these and 600 of these and four of those. So, they're having to make all of these different items and then they're making different quantities associated to that. And we don't operate that way. We have our set card with our set protein with our set veggies and that's what we offer and that's all you get. And so, we're not having to make little one-offs here and there. We make our bulk food and our bulk stuff and we do it all at one time and we're done. And then if we run out of that, we'll swap that with something else. We won't re-cook something else or start all over or anything like that.

Otherwise, you're almost running a personal chef business rather than a meal prep. And you can't afford to do that. You don't have the time or the effort. You can't run back to the store. You’d just screw yourself that way.

Shawna: It typically tends to be the same type of person that's going to be buying from a food prep service. And a lot of times it's either health based or work-based. It's usually the only two – too busy, but they both want to be healthy. And what we found here was everybody was kind of trying to do the same meal program that we were, gluten-free options plus regular options and whatnot. And I haven't really seen anything that I thought “Well, how are they even doing that? That's crazy” because most of the time that we were watching it, it was like a mirror of what we were doing. So, I had a little bit of a grumble every now and then like “It’s my idea” kind of thing but really, if you could find a niche, go with that! Solve the problem that meets your own need, like we did. It was food restrictions and needing help. And then the pandemic really kind of just amplified that, because now, all of a sudden, there were parents at home that couldn't go to work and they had the children there but they still had to work and be productive. So, we exploded during the pandemic particularly with family size meals and things like that because it doesn't work the way you'd think “Oh, mom's home and dad is home, so one of them can cook” – when in reality now they're both trying to work and not lose their mind and they got all the kids there. So, we helped out a lot that way.

Zeke: Oh man! Bad customer service, hands down, by far the worst. I have seen people fail horribly because they just do not know how to treat people – I’ve put myself on the losing end of a lot of transactions. And if I could add all that up, it would be thousands and thousands of dollars – but it's necessary because you don't want to just make somebody mad in today's day and age and genuinely, you don't want somebody mad at your company anyways. If you made a mistake, just own up say “Hey, I made a mistake. I’m really sorry” or “My staff made a mistake. How can I get even with you? – “Hey, I want a refund.” – “All right, 70 bucks. Here's your refund.”

That money that you're giving back to your customer is worth 100X less than a bad review. You just be done with the transaction, move on. If they're not the right fit for you, it is what it is. You're not going to please 100% of people. I’d be happy to get 30% or 40% of people pleased with the business because that's a high percentage nowadays – but I would say bad customer service is definitely the worst thing that happens in this industry. And people that jump into it thinking that they're going to do something entirely new and they have this plan for what they want to do to put into meal prep. And they're trying to do too many things at once when they're small. When you're small and you're starting out, focus on one thing and just keep hitting that button over and over and over again. If you're just doing standard chicken broccoli rice meals, just keep hitting that button and change the menu up here and there but you got to focus on one thing first, do it the right way and then start moving on.

Tip: Avoiding mistakes can be as simple as being well prepared. I have dedicated an entire section in my guide to the topic of preparation for starting a meal prep business, including checklists – you can check it out >here<.

I've seen some businesses that make more money from add-on services and selling extras and upgrades than they make from their main business.

I wondered if there's anything like that in the meal prep business – are there services or products that can generate additional revenue for a new meal prep business, that can maybe help you grow faster and bring in more money?

What additional services can a meal prep business offer?

any add-ons, up-sells or cross-sells that can increase the total revenue from a customer?

David: The other part of this business is often nutritional services and education. So, a lot of people, they see your food and they're like “Okay but I don't know what to do. I don't know how much to order. I don't know how to lose weight with what you're eating. What size do I buy?” And so, on top of that, you can sell nutritional coaching and advice and meal plans. And then from there, you can have coaching and so on and so forth. So, it kind of goes that way. A lot of meal prep companies also offer that service.

Shawna: We do a full fermented program here too which was a part of a way for us to upsell. And the cost is relatively low because it's really just vegetables and prep time, and we have the time because we're already here. So, the markup on those kinds of ferments and kombucha has been really great – but when you come into our shop too, you can buy shirts and you can buy refrigerator bags that if you want your food delivered in refrigerator bags, etc. And then we also offer a ton of local products here that are in line with our program. So, nutritional yeast, liquid aminos, things that are a little harder to find that are in our part of our food category of healthy and gluten-free. So, we offer all those alternatives for sale here too. And I’ve seen some other folks – like one that was open for a little while, she owned a CrossFit gym. And so, she got in contact with the company and then she sold all of their collagens and muscle builders and all of those things that they could piggyback onto their orders. My experience though has been, that other than the ferments, people will usually – if they can find it relatively cheaper and easier – they're going to go that route.

Zeke: Yeah, with us now, we're at the point where we have the northern Colorado meal preparation market pretty locked in locally. Obviously, there's those big box companies that are very difficult to compete with because they just outspend you and they have so much omnipresence online and that's where everybody is, but add-ons are huge. What I would say with add-ons is – keep track of how long they take… for instance, we just eliminated protein doughnuts that we were making, and instead we brought in protein donuts from a vendor to sell that we make a buck and a half off of per donut. It's just basically a donut with extra added protein in it. The ones that we get are gluten free and soy free and they are delicious. I mean, they taste just like cake, it's crazy.

So, things like that, you have to quantify how long it takes you to make those add-ons. With us, making donuts every other week started to get increasingly difficult. You wear your staff out. Not everybody can do donuts really, really well. So, you have to look at the labor capacity. And when you hire somebody new, they can't do donuts. So, it's like you got to have that same guy do them until this person gets up to speed. So, it just came to a point where there was simple little logistics here and there where it was hard to just keep making donuts for basically like zero profit because of how long they take to make and the inconvenience of them. So, so that's what we weighed. And add-ons are a great option for our business specifically and where we're at in the market. I’m starting to bring on items where we can just include them in a weekly subscription that's food related – kombuchas, smoothies, juice shots. We're thinking about infusing CBDA into our food as well which is basically CBD in the raw form and it provides a lot more nutrients to your body. And now, it's just a matter of the process of getting it on to food and how you do that from a crude oil perspective.

My three experts have generously shared their wealth of experience. You can take their tips, tools and strategies and implement it in your own meal prep business startup, and probably save yourself many years of learning things 'the hard way'. I wanted to know their key pieces of advice for getting started in a meal prep business.

I asked the three successful founders – what final advice would they have for someone starting a meal prep business?

Advice for starting a new meal prep business, from industry experts

the three successful founders share their keys to success in this industry, based on their own experiences

David: I would say grow slowly and don't take on too many financial backers. Overhead will kill you. The other thing is, I would say, try to keep the process as simple and as efficient as possible. And then the third thing I would say is make sure you have a lot of quality assurance, meaning you're making sure that you're dotting your I’s, you're crossing your T’s, you're making sure that clients are getting the correct meal, they're getting the correct substitutions, they're getting the correct variations like “I don't like broccoli,” “I’m allergic to nuts,” you're making sure that not only do you write that down but then once the meal is being assembled, it's noted and people are checking. And then at the last step, there's somebody checking and verifying “Okay, this person is exactly right. Okay, done. This is blessed and can go on.” So, I’d say that's kind of a big problem as well because you can set yourself up for some serious liabilities if somebody has a peanut allergy and you give them nuts in their meal.

Shawna: Make your budget and stick to it. That's been a hard part and I think that's probably with every business but you have to have the budget. And at first, we were kind of winging it. And if I could have some of that time back, I would. I wish I had stuck to a budget but I didn't know. There wasn't a model for me to follow. So, we were kind of building as we go.

 

And secondly, don't ever argue with your customer. Don't get taken advantage of, but also don't ever argue with them. Even my employees, sometimes they want to be upset at the way they're being treated – and I’m not saying it's ever okay to be disrespected in your place – but it's not worth it to argue with them because they're going to tell somebody, or worse, they're going to tell three people. So, really, it's just best to smile and do your best. I hate to say customer is always right but always be kind and helpful. I have all five-star reviews too and I think that's why. We've just been accommodating for that and we're small.

 

And number three, make sure you like it and that you can wake up every single day and think about not having your job and doing it. You have to love it. I think sometimes that's where people go off the rails – especially in the restaurant and food prep business, it looks easy when you see somebody doing it well but when you try to do it yourself, you have to understand it is a lot of work but you have to love it. And if you love it, then it's not as bad but I think that's what happens a lot of the times, people expect that it's going to run itself and really, it's like 10 years, I think, before this thing will be running itself and I don't have to be here. We're five years in but I still wouldn't feel comfortable leaving it. So, you have to love. That's what I’d say.

Zeke: Well, I would first say that the biggest thing that holds a lot of people up is, I would say, just start. So, a lot of people get worried and they're like “Hey, I got to create this business plan. I got to do this. I got to get my funding for it.” Just start. Get into it and be immersed into it.

 

The second thing is when you're starting a business, you need to make sure that you're passionate about it because you're not going to make money for some time and there's going to be dips. I mean, there's going to be dips in the economy, there's going to be a pandemic, there's going to be a housing crisis, whatever it is. And you've got to be passionate about this business to carry you through the tough times, in business in general.

 

And the third point is, I would say, be pliable in your business. Be agile. And what I mean by that is when there needs to be a change that happens, the change is obvious. It's a gut feeling and you feel it coming down the pipeline and you got to change whether that means it's time to get into a kitchen that you need to pay for or whether that means it's time to change your menu, whether that means it's time to get new packaging and whether that means it's time to buy a van. Whatever it is, that person that is starting the business needs to be agile.

 

And other than that, don't try to avoid mistakes. There's a lot of people out there that are like “What's the secret sauce? and “What's this?” and “What's that?” You have got to go through the most difficult of times in business if you are going to make it. There's no way around it. There's nobody that's ever been successful in business that hasn't gone through extreme hardships. And I would say be privy to that information and don't avoid it. I mean, it's supposed to happen. And what that is that's molding you into the right business owner that you need to be to be successful and it's molding your business as well.

Without needing too much money, it seems possible that anyone can start a meal prep business if they have the time to put into learning and researching and understanding what they need to do. I have spent over 100 hours learning everything there is to know about the meal prep business, by talking to industry experts and meal prep business owners. I have compiled it into the worlds most useful guide, How to Start a Meal Prep Business. You can check it out here.

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