“People say to us that [meal-ingredients delivery service] Blue Apron is great, but I want to put dinner on the table in less than 20 minutes,” says TableRunner’s San Francisco-based founder and modern-day Renaissance man Ryan Tu, who also runs the fast-growing Three Bridges chilled prepared foods business, and is about to unveil a third enterprise – promising “ultimate champagne experiences” - in 2016.
TableRunner, which was launched in the Bay area about six months ago, and is “like having a personal chef make the meals you want for the week”, enables customers to choose meals from a weekly menu, which are then shipped to their door by UPS in a cooler box every Monday (which can be returned for free and recycled along with all the packaging materials inside).
Each meal - which costs $11.99-$15 including delivery - is plated in a sealed aluminum tray and can be stored in the fridge and heated in the oven or microwave, says Tu, who says the service is commercially viable with a minimum order of four meals per week, which could mean meals four nights a week for a single person or two nights a week for a couple.
“What’s great about TableRunner is that there is zero waste, whereas up to 40% of the money people spend on food from grocery stores is thrown away, so if you think about it in those terms, it is actually pretty cost effective,” adds Tu, who has degrees in business administration, electrical engineering and computer science from Berkeley, and a PhD in materials science engineering from Stanford, and began his career at a private equity firm before turning his attention to the food industry.
While it is still early days, Tu says he is encouraged by TableRunner’s low churn rates (customer retention is a critical metric in any kind of subscription-based service), and says many customers that started using the service on day one are still using it today because they know dinner is sorted for at least a couple of nights a week, and they can still do their own thing the rest of the time.
What’s for dinner tonight?
And this is the point, says Tu, who says TableRunner is competing not just with other meal delivery services, but with the prepared meals/food-to-go section of the grocery store, local restaurants that deliver, and a host of other companies offering an answer to the eternal question: what’s for dinner tonight?
So just as consumers might shop at Aldi for some things and Sprouts for others, they might also cook meals from scratch on Sunday but order pizza on Saturday, grab some restaurant-quality refrigerated pasta and pesto from Three Bridges on Friday with a bottle of wine from a grocery store on the way home from work, and sign up to TableRunner for mid-week meals, says Tu.
“We’re talking about a trillion dollar market for food, so there is room for multiple players offering consumers options in all of these areas. As to who the winners and losers will be in each channel, only time will tell.”
The prepared foods grab and go area, that’s actually a $40bn market one that’s growing fairly rapidly
The Three Bridges brand, meanwhile – which is currently generating double-digit growth driven by strong velocity in existing accounts and new distribution wins – is based on the same principles underpinning TableRunner, he says: quality and convenience.
“It’s chef-inspired easy to prepare, high quality, convenient, and great for busy professionals, and it’s in a part of the store that retailers are allocating more space to. We’re now in tens of thousands of locations nationwide from Safeway to Target, but we do particularly well in the west coast and the Chicago area.
“If you look at what’s growing today, it’s the fresh perimeter items and Three Bridges embodies what most shoppers are aspiring to which is convenient foods made with better for you ingredients.
“The prepared foods grab and go area, that’s actually a $40bn market one that’s growing fairly rapidly, so while we have a packaged product it falls right into that category of what consumers are looking for.”
When it comes to chilled pastas, there are larger manufacturers that can do a great cheese ravioli, while private label products have also gained momentum in the category, although their share is “shrinking a bit now”, says Tu. So rather than competing with Buitoni to make a basic cheese filled pasta, Three Bridges has chosen to develop more distinctive, culinary-inspired offerings such as lobster, spinach & kale, wild mushroom, plus organic, and gluten-free offerings, that help it to punch above its weight in the category.
When it comes to a jar of pesto versus our fresh pesto, there’s just no comparison
And while consumers can expect to pay a premium for a chilled sauce to go with their pasta, the difference in quality and taste between the chilled and ambient products in jars is so clear that shoppers immediately see what they are getting for their money, says Tu.
“You can buy a great jar of marinara pasta sauce, but when it comes to a jar of pesto versus our fresh pesto, there’s just no comparison. We always try and focus on areas where we can bring something new to the table.”