Are chef-to-table meal services the future of cheffing? No restaurant? No problem. – Food
Chef Maribel Rivero (Photo by Jana Birchum)
As someone who thinks about food most of the time and falls asleep cataloging breakfast items, I still don’t willingly accept meal planning and preparation. Not because I don’t like it. Because cooking, with laundry or lawn maintenance, is a daily task: the need to eat never stops, which is why restaurants and, by extension, chefs are an integral part of our daily lives.
When the pandemic hit, many pain points in the restaurant industry emerged, and we non-industrials who still didn’t want to cook had to switch from restaurant meals to curbside delivery and to meal kits. An even easier and more appealing option after sitting in Zoom meetings all day is to buy pre-prepared meals; you just have to heat them – plate them if you have to – before scraping them.
One such ready-meal company, CookUnity, found me through an email offer in April 2022. The offer was 40% off my first order, and the tease was meals prepared by Iron Chef and longtime restaurateur Jose Garces. I eagerly signed up and learned that Chef Garces meals are only available to CookUnity customers in Brooklyn, Chicago and Philadelphia. That didn’t stop me from signing up for four meals a week and then moving up to six. The meals were all mostly delicious, out of the park, at home, all in a rich, homemade, balanced and balanced way. Perhaps because CookUnity, which calls itself the first-ever chef-to-table platform, onboards local chefs, most of whom have run their own restaurants. And yet, chefs like to cook this way.
What is a chef-to-table platform and will it change the way you eat?
What is a chef-to-table platform and will it change the way you eat? CookUnity launched in New York in 2018 and, after raising $70 million in venture funding, quietly expanded nationwide, including Austin, in the fall of 2021. CookUnity highlights connecting consumers with local chefs via an app or website. To hear it from former Austin restaurant owner and culinary educator Maribel Rivero, CookUnity’s model benefits chefs by removing tedious tasks and letting them focus on creating recipes. On the phone, Chef Rivero sounded bubbly as she talked about her experience working for the platform.
“I was one of the first to register [in Austin]. I was catering individually and I knew I couldn’t have the same litter. As an independent chef, that’s appealing.” She joined the platform in September 2021 and hasn’t looked back.
Rivero, who once owned Peruvian restaurant Manor Road Yuyo, explained the model: CookUnity provides the kitchen and buys and supplies all the food. They take care of all the logistics and packaging, including putting a photo of the specific chef’s smiley face on each box, as well as the delivery. CookUnity earns money for every meal someone orders, the chef gets a percentage, then the chefs pay their team. “They find the customers and then they let us know how many customers we have through the app. We don’t do anything but cook and take care of the labor,” Rivero said.
Chief Rebecca Meeker (Photo by John Anderson)
As executive chef of Yuyo, it took Rivero nine months to find a supplier to provide choclo, Peruvian corn. Rivero plans to bring his version of arroz con choclo, featured on Yuyo’s menu, back to CookUnity in the near future, along with the choclo provided by CookUnity.
Rivero came to the platform with eight different dinners. His dishes are simple-looking dishes, spruced up by a chef, like grilled chicken and grilled vegetables bound with rich chimichurri and mashed smoked eggplant. Rivero also offers clean, crisp renditions of the homemade Tex-Mex dishes she grew up with. She explained the reasons for her meal offerings.
“Most chefs stay in their lane or try to provide something that another chef doesn’t. But people still want their home-style classics. At first, I started with Peruvian dishes, and I I have a few favorites that I will continue. But customers are getting finicky.”
Rivero teased a Uruguayan dish she has on the platform soon: “It’s just grilled fish with a chimichurri, and rice with his own chimichurri that I presented to Yuyo, and charred tomatoes and caramelized onions. More corn in the rice!”
Like Rivero, Garces was recruited by CookUnity. I had to ask: Why would an Iron Chef with his own restaurants and website (garcesgroup.com) want to sell meals through another online platform?
He said: “I love the community aspect. There are multiple teams of chefs working together under one roof, there’s a certain camaraderie. It’s a challenge to source local and fresh ingredients, and CU takes care of that, which makes sense for all the chef teams. And during the pandemic, it wasn’t the time to go out to eat. I’m glad I got the outlet. Garces said he was surprised to find that he was planning to prepare the food in a new way.
“Cooking big meals in abundance, and making sure they are all fresh and of the same quality, there is a lot to learn. I started to think about the nutritional balance of my meals, where before I ‘stacked the taste.’ Garces eats the same CookUnity meals as anyone in her delivery area.
Chef Jose Garces (Courtesy of CookUnity)
Garces said, “I order the meals for myself, for quality assurance purposes and for my family. I think it’s good. I’m not just saying that, it’s a great homemade option.”
The chefs I spoke to seemed happy with the deal, but they had a restaurant of sorts, a national profile and various “entrepreneurial” moves before they were spotted by CookUnity. Like WeWork, the CookUnity model appears to aim to dominate the market nationally, but not just with real estate – by matching regional/local cooks with the customer.
What about a hyperlocal model, in that the heat-and-eat meals you buy in semi-bulk (4-8 meals per week) were prepared locally, by an Austin chef who grew up here and wants to live a balanced life and serve delicious food? That would be Lucky Lime, founded by Austinite Rebecca Meeker, former chef of Jeffrey’s and Josephine House. She explained her intention to prepare meals: “In 2017, I quit my job and was looking for a more balanced lifestyle. I wanted to make appetizing meals that were also healthy.”
“I like the community side. There are several teams of chefs working together under one roof, there is a certain camaraderie.
– Chef Jose Garces on selling his meals through CookUnity
She launched Lucky Lime in 2018 and currently cooks 1,000 meals a week for weekly subscribers, as well as take-out items at Thom’s Market, Tiny Grocer and Royal Blue. Or you can stop by the Lucky Lime kitchen window at GhostLine Kitchens after placing an order online through eatluckylime.com. The new platform is powered by Prado, a local company that helps meal prep businesses – which is a bit like the CookUnity model.
“It’s going well,” Meeker said modestly. And it’s not doing it alone (or with VC funding). Along with her prep team, she works with marketing, design and advertising agency Whitebox to create the branding and packaging for Lucky Lime.
But will the business model work? CookUnity just expanded to Austin. Lucky Lime only wants to serve Austin; Meeker said she might consider expanding to Houston or Dallas, but has no plans for national expansion. So I had to ask someone who long ago opted out of the convenience food delivery game what they thought of the overall business model. David Ansel of The Soup Peddler used to offer a similar ready-to-eat weekly meal delivery option, but discontinued it years ago. Ansel saw the future of the Soup Peddler as good food and fast service through convenient locations, and you know how that story turned out: they’ve become an Austin staple with five locations.
Ansel, who is quietly proud of Soup Peddler’s always fresh and healthy yet indulgent offerings, was candid when recalling his old meal program: “Well, it was sort of a failure. The logistics were tough. Our brand didn’t seem like it was embraced by younger, hipper Austinites the healthier products we offered weren’t popular We couldn’t make fresh stuff Everything was cooked, cooled, then had to be warmed up by the customer. And the customer had to place their order a week in advance.”
Well when you put it like this, the logistics seem difficult. I don’t remember ordering Soup Peddler’s meals a week in advance, I only remember being thrilled to 1) get them to my doorstep and 2) eat them. As someone who is always thinking about food, planning ahead and being rewarded with great meals is a little thrill. It’s not as exciting as eating a perfect Caribbean chicken stew with rice and peas that taste like a chef, because it is. It’s a bigger thrill, and one that has the potential to spread like wildfire among Austin’s increasingly young, affluent, and on-the-go population.
And with many restaurants and chefs digging in to fill the vacuum created by the pandemic, the CookUnity model connects eaters with chefs who find themselves “in between” restaurants, waiting for the real estate market to correct in their favor or wish to develop their catering without increasing overhead costs. And it might have no impact on the traditional restaurant model, if chefs like Jose Garces embrace it. Because the meal itself, while required multiple times a day, is no substitute for the in-person dining experience we’ve all learned during the pandemic.
That said, this model could offer a middle way not only for chefs, but also for those who want a restaurant-quality meal without having to change into their pajamas. And it’s a win for everyone.