The answer, it turned out, was a resounding yes, said Wise Apple co-founder Nate Cooper, who is now getting approached by retailers to sell the lunches in bricks & mortar stores.
“The one meal parents have a lot of trouble with is lunch, and we thought, what if we did Blue Apron for kids’ lunches?” he told FoodNavigator-USA
“So we posted to a local moms’ facebook group in Chicago, and said hey, we’re starting a pilot, if you’re interested, sign up here. Optimistically, we were hoping for 10 or 15 people to sign up over the course of a week, but we woke up that first morning and 400 people had signed up, and we thought maybe we’re onto something here…
“We made the food and delivered it ourselves, and then people started asking, are you going to be here for the school year? Of course we said yes, although we didn’t know how, and we just went from there, working out of a shared kitchen in a bar, operating in their off hours, from three in the morning to nine or ten in the morning.”
Scaling the business
As the operation (originally known as Pak’d) grew, and Cooper and co-founder Rebecca Sholiton moved into their own production facility in Humboldt Park, the challenge was designing a business model that was scalable, but still offered customization options.
“Initially, we were giving people the option to do a main, a fruit, a vegetable and a dessert, but right from the start, everyone wanted customization,” said Cooper, who said the service is most popular with dual income dual working families with multiple kids, especially picky eaters.
“It was, my kid wants this, but not that; this, but not that. We had some really picky eaters. When you are making a couple of hundred of lunches a day, that’s easy, but when you get into the thousands, it’s really hard. So we said, how can we design a packaging system that allows customization from the back end, so it’s easy for us to execute operationally?
“And that’s when we came up with this modular packaging system [sealed modified atmosphere plastic trays with four tubs allowing users to mix and match from meal components – and a shelf life of 14 days from production],” said Cooper, who says Wise Apple is currently focusing on serving customers throughout the midwest, but says the business “could probably reach the entire country from three facilities.”
Quick, simple, customizable, portable
Unlike meal kits, which are more expensive, and often generate more waste because dinner plans or moods change, Wise Apple lunches are individually sealed, portable and flexible, do not require any preparation, and offer a simple, quick meal solution or snack for older kids and adults as well, he said.
“Anecdotally, we know adults and older children are eating them too. The way our product is made and packaged it’s much more flexible than a meal kit. You can have it as a portable lunch or snack on the go, or snack on parts of it throughout the day and you don’t get the waste.”
Chicago-based Wise Apple works with a pediatric dietitian to design peanut-free lunches targeting 4-8 year olds (although kids of all ages are consuming them), including gluten-free and vegetarian options.
The lunches include treats, such as brownies or pretzels, but with a twist, says cofounder Nate Cooper: “We try to do healthier takes on familiar foods, so we have a brownie that uses apple sauce instead of butter, for example.”
Each week, there are 10 different meal options or build your own meal options, with prices of $6.50/meal for 12 meals a week, $6.75/meal for eight meals a week, and $6.99/meal for five meals a week.
‘People get it instantly, not just the business model but the problem we are trying to solve’
To date, Wise Apple - which was part of the Techstars Chicago class of 2016 (an accelerator program giving start-ups access to funding, resources, office space, and mentorship) - has raised $4.3m, securing around $700,000 in 2016 and a further $3.6m in August 2017 via a seed round led by Pritzker Group Venture Capital and Levy Family Partners.
While investors looked carefully at metrics such as customer acquisition costs vs lifetime value ratios, net promoter scores and the like, and liked what they saw, they also recognized the simplicity of Wise Apple’s business model versus some other direct to consumer food businesses, said Cooper.
“People get it instantly, not just the business model but the problem we are trying to solve; it’s one of those, ‘Why didn’t I think of that’ solutions. One thing that all parents think about is how do I make my crazy life easier? A huge percentage of our customers have come from word of mouth, but we’ve also acquired a lot through social media, particularly facebook.”
Retailers were approaching us
One of the most interesting opportunities the company is currently exploring is retail, said Cooper, who won’t share precise numbers, but says Wise Apple has “delivered hundreds of thousands of lunches to thousands of families.”
While supplying packed lunches to retailers was always on Wise Apple’s radar, the initial approach was made by retailers, not the other way around, he said.
“Retailers were approaching us, and the reception we’ve had has been so overwhelmingly positive; we’re starting trials with retailers in the next few weeks. They will be selling our lunch packs as well as the modular 'pods' which is our 'secret sauce'- and allows individuals to build their own lunches.
“It’s interesting because there have been products such as lunchables that have been around for 30 years that own 90% of the market, but we think we present a formidable competitor.”