The Story of No Pots & Pans
No Pots & Pans produced, sold, and delivered healthy, prepared meals in the Boston area and MetroWest.
I developed the concept, then built and launched the business, bootstrapped and by myself. I did it all — marketing, web dev, cooking, legal, and finance. I built the AWS ecommerce site and marketing stack. I set up a Delaware C-Corp and filed the taxes. I modeled, tracked, and managed everything; finance to marketing. I built a brand with a highly engaged audience across the website, email, and social.
We offered 3-4 different meal selections weekly, trying to appeal to a wide range of tastes. We cooked, chilled, packed (in compostable, fiber containers), and delivered meals to customers, most often to coolers they would leave out for us.
The business grew from $0 to almost $10,000 in monthly revenue in just a few months. We sold thousands of meals to hundreds of happy, loyal customers. Working with local food banks, we provided hundreds of meals to those in need.
Proud Partner and Supporter of Local Food Pantries
No Pots & Pans provided hundreds of meals to people in need, through food donations and per order cash contributions.
Every order placed, for every day we were open, provided a meal to someone in need. In partnership with the GBFB, we donated $.33 per order.
Most weeks, we overproduced meals. When we did, I’d bring the extras and any excess inventory to the local food pantry. I heard that the meals went quickly and were well received.
But it’s not all rosy, or I’d still be at it. It’s a difficult business, logistically challenging and it doesn’t enjoy the high margins of a technology business. Unable to make meaningful investments in customer acquisition, I didn’t have a near term path to financial rewards commensurate with the 80-100 hour weeks I was putting in. In October of 2016, I made the difficult decision to pull the plug.
As most entrepreneurs will report, this was the hardest, most professionally fulfilling experience of my career. My story is unremarkable and ends with the business closing within a year of launching. But there’s a story, nonetheless, and it’s not one of failure. It’s an honest take from inside the grind. If you’re interested, scroll with me.
People want to eat healthier.
The ubiquitous delivery options (pizza and Chinese) are wildly unhealthy.
The No Pots & Pans business:
Make healthy, tasty meals.
Sell them online.
Takeout and delivery combined are almost $100B annually and growing. The Boston market alone is about $2B. The concept is simple and broadly similar to what Munchery seemed to be doing successfully in California. (Now, perhaps, we know a little differently.)
Making it Happen
Nothing happens by accident. This was a combination of my personal passion for cooking with professional experience in marketing and e-commerce. To the delight of my family, as it solved a real-world problem in our house, I launched No Pots & Pans late in 2015.
Starting any business is hard. Starting a food business; working through the permitting process is harder.
I had hoped to work with a partner who would produce the meals, a caterer or restaurant, and sell them to me at a fair price. While exploring this route, I learned that if I were to buy meals from another company and deliver them, I’d need to do so with a commercial refrigeration vehicle. With last mile delivery and logistics, generally, already expected to be an expensive challenge, this requirement broke that model. Back to the drawing board.
The local food delivery businesses you know don’t face these requirements. Why? Because they operate their own commercial kitchen. “Chain of custody”, for lack of a better explanation, matters. When you produce the food, you can deliver it in normal cars, as an extension of your food establishment permit. All I need now is a commercial kitchen.
Bootstrapping the business, I couldn’t afford a commercial kitchen or even a shared kitchen rental in the first couple of months. I also now need kitchen staff. I can cook, but well enough? I have some restaurant experience from 15+ years ago, but I’d rather focus on growing the business. Off to find a kitchen and staff… maybe I can offer services to offset my costs.
After reaching out to most caterers in the Boston area and being quickly rejected by several, I got a bite. I found a caterer whose business was struggling and where I could add some immediate value in her operation. At least conceptually, she could help me meet both my compliance and operational needs around a kitchen and a staff. This is what I needed, so I immersed myself in helping her floundering operation stay afloat.
First, we need to turn the kitchen into a shared kitchen. This is the first one of its kind in the city, so I need to draft a set of SOPs and associated rules. For all who follow, you’re welcome. With the plan blessed, we dove into inspection processes, though slow and expensive for a fast moving startup operating on a wing and a prayer, it went smoothly enough. On paper, I built a fully licensed, functioning food establishment (I like the term “virtual restaurant”), in about 60 days and for $500 and some consulting sweat equity.
Open for Business
We launched in November 2015, offering delivery just a couple of days a week. This allowed us to cook for a few hours, chill and pack the food, then deliver it over the next couple of days while it was still fresh.
I’m not a chef, so I sought professional help with the menu planning and food production. At launch and for the first few weeks, I expected this to be a losing proposition on low output volume and sales. Keen to control costs and get my hands dirty in the business, I dove into the kitchen work, acting as prep cook and dishwasher for our first production run. We’d done some test cooking in the weeks prior; dry runs for practice, menu planning, and website photos. That was fun, but the real thing, the production runs where the food was going out to my customers (ok, so most of the initial customers were friends and family) was inspiring.
Unfortunately, the folks I paid to lead and execute the food production proved expensive and highly inefficient. More than just the hours and dollars spent cooking, it was painfully apparent that there was no plan, little process, and things should have moved faster. Further, while this disappointed still existed only in my head, the leaders of the team that I hired requested more money — payment for extra hours. Though the ask was small in dollar terms, it was the final straw. I paid them what was requested, thanked them for their help, and anointed myself, Head Chef. From Week 2, forward, I did the menu planning and led meal production.
It was hard. The cooking was typically a mad scramble, but that was only a few hours a week. It was everything else surrounding the food operation that constituted a full-time job, in addition to running the business and fighting like hell to grow it.
Saturdays became my test cooking days. I’d make a few meals, track the inputs and quantities, sample the food, and take pictures. The winners went into my “meal library” or directly to the site for sale. Sunday, the new menu went up. Monday, purchase planning, informed by orders and demand speculation, began. Tuesday was my food shopping day, often taking me to Restaurant Depot, a supermarket, looping from home to Somerville, filling the car and spending hundreds of dollars buying produce and meats by the case. Wednesday morning was a mad dash to the kitchen to crank out meals for delivery that very afternoon. Thursdays and Fridays were delivery days. Cruising around, doing deliveries on those days was the most relaxing part of the week.
Early returns were positive. Customers said they loved the convenience and the food. The reorder rate was above 70%, with many customers incorporating us into their weekly routine and ordering every week.
After just a few weeks in business, my press outreach started paying dividends. After speaking with a reporter for the Hudson Sun (local paper that rolls up to the MetroWest Daily News), I was expecting a small article in the Sun. About ten days later, I wake up to a series of customer emails and see my Google Analytics blowing up (when you’re accustomed to 0-2 people on site at a time, 10-20 users counts as blowing up). We had earned a half page feature in the MWDN print edition, along with home page placement on the website. The newsletters they sent boosted traffic even higher.
Media being an echo chamber, we were soon featured in BostInno and Boston Magazine. The earned media was valuable and came at just the right time. In one week, strongly supported by this exposure, sales doubled.
Sales doubling in the span of 48 hours is a great problem to have. When you’re in a business that makes real world, physical products, it’s an enormous challenge. When your product is perishable and your customers want it within 12-48 hours, there’s a great deal of pressure.
As a greedy capitalist and hungry entrepreneur, I fought like hell to take all orders and avoid selling out. Watching the orders roll in, new customer upon new customer, was both a thrill and incredibly stressful.
We were stretched, depending on your perspective, to or beyond our capacity. I’d be lying if I failed to acknowledge that quality suffered some, but we took and fulfilled every order. It was, by far, our best week to that point – 2X any prior week.
I solicited help from friends and family, who came through in significant roles, and I couldn’t have pulled it off without their impactful contributions. Thank you.
I hired a couple more prep cooks. I started interviewing delivery drivers. We were off to the races. Prior to our big week, everything pointed up and to the right. We should continue growing, and on a compounded basis against a larger customer base, right? Not so fast.
Despite making some small investments in advertising and continuing to throw myself into content production, deploying a referral program, and making personal, individualized appeals with discount offers, we did not recapture the momentum of that week in January. Taking a longer view, there was an argument for growth — the trendline was there, with an upside outlier. Still, it was a slow grind higher, week by week, if there was any growth at all.
Then summer hit. I had expected it to be slow. I had not expected July to be off 50% and August more than that. In hindsight, now understanding the seasonality, this is a business that could shut down in the summer. Lesson learned.
With an eye toward the fall, I tried to remain optimistic. I had high hopes for September and, if the business was to continue, I needed to see a trajectory that would allow me to personally make money from the business.
In parallel, and going all the way back to pre-launch, I sought investment. In the current “on-demand” funding climate, I understood that it was highly unlikely I could attract institutional seed capital until I had strong, steady, and growing revenue. Unit economics were solved Day One. Customer economics looked outstanding, but it’s hard to know how much churn would have ticked up in a significantly expanded customer base. Regardless, I was unable to bring in investors and the capital I felt I needed to fuel growth.
September, by any measure, was strong. It was one of our best months in business. But it wasn’t enough. I needed to see double what we did, in order to keep the lights on. As we turned the corner into October, I made the difficult decision to cease operations.
It was fun. I learned a lot. I’ll be back to do it again soon, but not in food and not B2C.