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The Story of No Pots & Pans

No Pots & PansThe 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.

No Pots & Pans

 


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.

 


The Opportunity

Market inefficiency:

People want to eat healthier.

Home cooking is healthier, but…

…it’s near all-time lows and declining.

The ubiquitous delivery options (pizza and Chinese) are wildly unhealthy.

The No Pots & Pans business:

Make healthy, tasty meals.

Sell them online.

Delight customers.

Profit!

 

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

No Pots & Pans 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.

News article that includes “Hudson man” and my picture. Could be worse, right?

 


The Grind

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.

We tried Blue Apron, here’s what happened

Blue Apron

You’ve seen these ads and “sponsored content” pieces. I see them everywhere, likely because I’m a past customer and a close follower of Blue Apron and the meal kit space.

I’ve tried Blue Apron. I kinda like it. It’s not a great deal and they send you an obscene amount of packaging, but they offer good quality ingredients and it’s fun opening the box to see what’s in it.

But let’s be honest about what you get…

You get ingredients and recipe cards. They do some grocery shopping and meal planning for you, but you’re still going to spend an hour cooking and cleaning up.

If you’re looking for convenience, we’re a better answer. Our meals are heat and eat, ready in two minutes, and all for just a couple bucks more than a meal kit.

Order. Try it. You’ll love it!

Meal ideas. We’re listening!

3 No Pots & Pans meals in containers

Since we launched, I’ve spent most weekends searching for fresh, new meal ideas, then test cooking them at home. Some make the menu. Some don’t. I’m constantly on the hunt for new ideas.

But the food universe is vast and the areas of it we each explore may be quite different. While I focus on choices that hold well through our cook, cool, pack, reheat cycle, I know that you can help expand my thinking.

So here’s my appeal to you:

Tell me what you’d like to see on the menu. Share rough ideas, concepts, or even full-fledged recipes, if you like. If it makes sense for our menu, we’ll offer it for sale and bring you some free meals.

 

Meals for days!

No Pots & Pans Grilled Mahi Mahi with Pineapple Salsa

 

I had this for dinner last night. We made it last week. It was still fantastic.

That’s right – you can order our meals, fill the fridge, and enjoy them for days. We make menu decisions based on what holds up well, so you can enjoy a fresh and healthy meal when you want it.

Need meals for a couple days? Order a few and enjoy them on your schedule. If it’s a salad, eat that first, but most of our meals stay fresh for a few days after you receive them so that you can take a couple nights off from cooking.

Trust me, popping this in the microwave for just 2 minutes, eating it right out of the fiber container, and having nothing more than a fork to clean up is an amazing experience. Try it. You’ll love it.

Our Story… continued (part 2)

Ordering pizza again? Eating crummy leftovers or having cereal for dinner?

I’m not judging. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. We’re busy and often don’t have the time to plan and prepare the meals we’d much rather eat.

So here we are. We make food. It’s that simple. See some of our past menu items here.

We cook, chill, and pack real meals so they’re ready for you to heat and enjoy in just minutes. Our compostable containers are both oven and microwave safe. Pop the cover off, stick it in the microwave for two minutes, and eat dinner right out of the fiber container (again, we won’t judge); a great meal ready in minutes. Enjoy!

Last week’s Pomegranate Chicken (Chicken Fesenjan)

No Pots & Pans Chicken Fesenjan

 

Learn more about No Pots & Pans via this blog, our Facebook page, or some of the press we’ve received.

 

Our Story

 

Andy Horvitz, founder

I’m Andy Horvitz- entrepreneur, foodie, and dad. I founded No Pots & Pans to offer a healthy and convenient meal solution to people like me and families like mine.

I love to cook and I’m pretty good at it, but with two young kids and my wife and I both working, it’s hard to find the time. Since pizza and Chinese are all we can get delivered in Hudson and the frozen prepared stuff is garbage, I started this business to offer a better solution.

How we cook:

In short, probably like you would at home, if you had the time:

  • Fresh proteins, vegetables, herbs, and spices
  • Light use of butter, cream, sugar, and salt

Our menu changes weekly and we’re constantly testing and introducing new items, while bringing back some of your favorites from time to time.

Where we cook:

While I’m aware of several food startups that have ignored regulations and are using residential kitchens, I chose a different path. We’re licensed as a restaurant; we just don’t have any tables. We work out of a commercial kitchen and are a licensed food establishment. I’m a ServSafe Food Protection Manager and we strictly adhere to best practices when we cook for you.

 

On-demand “apocalypse”?

No Pots & Pans isn’t yet available on-demand, but that’s where we’re going. Not yet being in the on demand business, I recognize that I’m not the best person to comment on the alleged on-demand “apocalypse”, but the idea seems ludicrous to me and I’m heartened to see that I’m not alone.

 

Mark Twain tales of my death

(obligatory)

 

So, SpoonRocket shut down. Bad for them, but a harbinger of a broader collapse in the rapidly growing on-demand economy? I think not.

SpoonRocket sold and delivered hot meals for under $10 (previously under $8) and in under 10 minutes. They built their business by targeting college markets. I expect those factors combined to drive an average order value of ~$15. That’s a tough business when the cost of delivery is a least $3 and probably closer to $5.

Mentioned in the story of their failure was the fact that they had achieved positive contribution margin. If that bears mentioning and you’re in the food business, you’re not charging enough. SpoonRocket’s failure isn’t a commentary on the on-demand economy. It’s more proof that lower tech consumer businesses like ours must try to make money, and FAST.

There will be more failures in the on-demand space — the race to the bottom in delivery, Uber for pets, etc. — enormous opportunity remains in bringing differentiated, high quality services to customers. In the food business, Munchery, Sprig, and the meals-by-mail businesses continue to thrive.

Prove to me that customers don’t want more choices, better services, all available when and where they want them and I’ll believe the apocalypse is underway. Until then, don’t believe the hype.

Bostinno / About Us

Thanks Bostinno for last week’s mention. I thought I’d use it as an opportunity to expound upon what we do:

1. We’re not an app.  We’ll have one eventually, and likely sooner than later, but not yet. We’re an e-commerce business.

2. We cook.  Different from some of the businesses mentioned in the story, and those popping up every day, we make food. Foodler is a great business, one that does something very different from what we do. If you live in the ‘burbs, that difference is enormous — what’s the point of a delivery service if your local options stink?

3. We’re legal.  We cook in a commercial kitchen and are licensed as a restaurant (just don’t have a dining room). If you want to sell food in Massachusetts (or 48 other states), you need to be licensed and work in a commercial kitchen. We are and we do. Selling most foods, and any decent meals, from a residential kitchen is illegal.

 

Like Blue Apron? You’ll LOVE this!

Blue Apron

 

Like Blue Apron?  You’ll LOVE this!

 

Ok, I’m biased. But here’s my take…

 

What I like:

  • Convenience
  • Quality ingredients
  • Menu variety

What I don’t like:

  • Not great value (got salmon this week? great. another meal is going to be cheap and boring.)
  • Still takes an hour of prep, cooking, and cleanup
  • All that packaging!

If only there were a solution that offered the good parts without all the bad!  That’s why we’re here.

We deliver fully cooked, prepared meals. Zero prep, just heat and eat.  And for bonus points:  our packaging is compostable.

Try it. You’ll love it.

A typical week…

If you’re like us, and I know many of you are, getting family dinner on the table gets progressively harder as the week wears on. Weekends offer time to shop for groceries and plan meals. If you’re really good, you might even do some high-intensity cooking on Sunday that covers the early part of the week.

But as you get to humpday and beyond, both grocery inventory and the cooking spirit decline.  The difficulty of making dinner often looks something like this:

 

Weekly Dinner Difficulty

 

That’s why we’re here. Skip a frozen dinner or pizza night and have us deliver something better!