On the surface, Cooking Simplified appears to be yet another entrant in the increasingly-crowded meal kit market, joining the ranks of Blue Apron, Plated and Hello Fresh, among others (even Mark Bittman announced this week that he would be partnering with Purple Carrot, another competitor). They all use the same subscription model designed to make home cooking more convenient by providing weekly shipments of healthy, recipe-tailored food.
Upon closer inspection, however, Cooking Simplified is taking a different road. Its model is based on the recognition that many sustainable food innovations are too costly for most low-income (and many budget-conscious) consumers. However, with a lower price tag, the Cooking Simplified creators believe that the meal kit could have a huge impact on the way we eat food.
Founders and UC-Berkeley graduate students, Michelle Azurin and Sara Draper-Zivetz, hope to give consumers a more enticing option. They want to offer a more affordable meal kit, one that will bring the same ease of healthy home cooking to low-income (and frugal) consumers and eventually replace fast food as the default dinner option. While the traditional players offer subscriptions that cost between $10 to 15 per meal, Cooking Simplified is aiming to deliver its meal kit for less than $5 per meal.
While Cooking Simplified is still in the design phase, it plans to be fully operational next summer. And Azurin and Draper-Zivetz have reason to be optimistic. In only six months, they have already run a successful pilot of their idea and raised money that will be used to fund some upcoming projected operating costs, including the hiring of a new chef.
The two entrepreneurs first met this past spring in an interdisciplinary course at Berkeley called Eat.Think.Design. This course applies the principles of human-centered design to food and food systems challenges. Azurin, a Masters of Public Health (MPH) nutrition student, stood up on the first day of class to pitch her idea for the $5 meal kit. Draper-Zivetz, who is pursuing a Masters of City Planning, listened intently, intrigued by the idea and motivated by its alignment with her own passion.
Draper-Zivetz’s passion stems from her background working on food security issues as an undergraduate and then with the World Food Program in Washington, D.C. Those experiences fueled her interest in the potential intersection between urban policy, food systems, and social justice.
For Azurin, it was only a few years ago that she was on a path to medical school with her background in neuroscience, before she realized it wasn’t her passion. Coming from a family with a history of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, Azurin wanted to make an impact in the field of dietary health. Prior to and during her time in the MPH program, Azurin has gained extensive experience researching and developing solutions to food access and insecurity issues.
With similar missions in mind, the two food entrepreneurs came together to test the feasibility of Cooking Simplified. Following some initial market research and prototyping with customers, they designed and launched a pilot program that received orders and made deliveries to 15 customers, totaling 150 meals over a two-week span. The pilot, at least on a small scale, confirmed the feasibility of their $5 target price. It also provided some key lessons about how much work still remained before Cooking Simplified could become a viable business.
Such work includes quality control, cost control, delivery logistics, and developing strategic partnerships. Of course, they also needed to raise money. They looked at traditional crowdfunding options like Kickstarter. However, they found another option that they concluded would better serve their needs. They came across Barnraiser, a crowdfunding platform whose tagline is “powering the food movement one project at a time.” Barnraiser’s mission is to support projects that promote a sustainable food system. Their current projects include an artisanal cheese farm, a commercial kitchen, and a gluten-free healthy snack food company.
“Right from the start we had their support,” said Azurin. “They are located in the Bay Area and had a lot of resources that helped us [in designing our crowdfunding campaign].”
Azurin and Draper-Zivetz initially requested $5,000 for their venture. When the campaign closed last month, they had raised nearly $6,500, with over 15% of the donors coming from outside their network of friends and family.
“We’ve been surprised by the amount of enthusiasm and the people coming out of the woodwork to offer resources to help get our idea off the ground,” said Draper-Zivetz. “It’s very motivating.”
The chance to engage with and build a wider community around food systems sustainability is also a critical factor in how the two want to grow Cooking Simplified and demonstrate its viability.
“There are a hundred different ways to tackle food access issues, and an incredible need to have people working in every space,” said Draper-Zivetz.
While Cooking Simplified is trying to fill the entrepreneurial space, both founders believe their success (and ability to deliver a $5 meal) will depend on collaborative partnerships with nonprofits, local clinics, health care facilities, academic institutions, and other organizations tackling food access challenges. For instance, through institutional partnerships with clinics and health care facilities, Cooking Simplified can provide meal kits to patient populations in need of healthy, convenient meals and at the same time help those organizations enhance their services and mission.
Cooking Simplified could also benefit from policy changes at the federal level. According to Draper-Zivetz, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is piloting a program that would allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to use their food stamps to purchase groceries online and have them delivered. If this policy becomes a reality, Cooking Simplified would be able to accept SNAP benefits for its meal kits.
Although there is still much work to be done, Azurin and Draper-Zivetz are excited about the company’s next phase of development. The same should be said for those of us concerned about the inequality and inefficiency of our food system. The success of ideas like Cooking Simplified and the determined efforts of entrepreneurs like Michelle Azurin and Sara Draper-Zivetz give us hope for the future.