Chefs on Wheels

Chefs on Wheels

Two Twin Cities entrepreneurs have plans to change the definition of "convenience foods."

Americans have a fascination with food. They love reading about it, watching innumerable TV shows about it—and, of course, eating it. But they aren’t always able to plan and prepare the homemade meals of their dreams.

Two Twin Cities entrepreneurs recently set up businesses to help such people, delivering everything needed to create healthy, locally grown, restaurant-quality meals directly to their customers’ homes.

One is Solo by Bonicelli, founded by Laura Bonicelli, a former producer for commercial food photographers. A self-taught cook, Bonicelli grew up in the Iron Range town of Chisholm. “I had an Italian grandmother and a French mother, and any chance I could, I’d visit other people’s kitchens,” she says. For years, Bonicelli prepared food for friends and family. She got the idea to start her own food-delivery service after providing meals to a friend who was “going through this horrible period in her life,” Bonicelli says.

“I packaged up everything she’d need for three days—breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” she recalls. “Her reaction was so strong and so positive, and the work felt so satisfying, that it got me thinking. I started researching fresh meal services in the Twin Cities, and I decided that there was room in the market for the kind of meals that I could deliver.”

This spring, Bonicelli launched Solo by Bonicelli, a fresh-meal delivery service that offers several meal packages, including a 31-day, three-meals-a-day service that costs around $40 a day per person. She also offers smaller packages, like three days of meals for $150 per person. Typical entrées include a fresh scone or oatmeal with nuts and berries for breakfast; a salad, soup, or sandwich with protein for lunch; and for dinner, fish or chicken with vegetables.

“I don’t cook just Italian food,” Bonicelli explains. “I take an Italian approach to cooking, which means I really love preparing food and savoring the process of cooking.”

Bonicelli doesn’t cook to order for her clients. She sets the menus weekly, depending on availability of fresh ingredients and whatever culinary whim overtakes her. Her customers range from new parents overwhelmed by baby care to people who are seriously ill to those who simply prefer not to cook for themselves.

“I have a couple of clients who have extremely busy lives and move around a lot,” Bonicelli says. “I cook for the whole month for them. They don’t have to go to the grocery store except to buy milk.”

Clients sign up for one of Bonicelli’s prearranged meal plans through her Web site. She offers a variety of packages, and delivers her food twice weekly. Customers then reheat dishes that require it in a pot of simmering water. Bonicelli uses a “sous vide” system to keep her meals fresh: Using a vacuum-pack machine, she seals each meal component in specially designed plastic packaging. That way, her dishes never taste reheated, Bonicelli insists.

“What I offer is an experience,” she adds. “It’s not a casserole.”

The first Solo by Bonicelli clients came via word of mouth. Since then, Bonicelli has been marketing her services on line—via Twitter, her Web site, and her blog, which she regularly updates with recipes and cooking tips. She also posts cooking videos on YouTube.

“I’m featuring a new recipe in a video every week,” Bonicelli says, adding that for Solo, electronic marketing has been remarkably effective: “The other day, I tweeted a thing about freezing herbs. I wrote in my 140 words and by the weekend it went all over the world.

Twin Cities restaurateur Justin Grecco offers a somewhat different approach. He has developed Chef In A Box, a meal-delivery service that ships the raw ingredients that customers can use to assemble and prepare entrées like those served at Grecco’s, his popular St. Croix Falls restaurant.

“We were trying to come up with a way to generate extra revenue in the wintertime,” Grecco notes. “I do cooking classes here that are quite popular, and suddenly a light went off in my head: People would love to do this at home. I can help them eat my food without ever having to leave their homes.”

Grecco immediately began testing packing and shipping equipment. After a six-month development period, he’d settled on the ideal cool packs and safety seals for his ingredients.

Today, customers visit the Grecco’s Web site, where they can choose between five entrées available for delivery: Amish chicken, lobster gnocchi, mushroom-crusted rack of lamb, pepper-crusted filet mignon, and stuffed salmon. Each dish costs between $21 and $31 a serving. The package is shipped overnight via Federal Express and contains the ingredients needed to prepare the dish—plus a DVD with Grecco showing customers how to make the food taste and look just like the entrées in his restaurant.

“The product we are sending the Chef In A Box customers is absolutely the same thing we are making in the restaurant,” Grecco says. “I’m showing my customers how to become the chef. I’m the black sheep of the chef community because I’m showing people the ins and outs. I’m giving away all of my secrets. It’s a gamble I think will pay off.”

Chef In A Box was officially launched this fall; so far, Grecco says, his service’s customers have ranged from “a young kid just out of high school to a 78-year-old lady in Dallas, Texas.” Grecco, who has been in the restaurant business for 12 years—training at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis and working at several local restaurants before launching Grecco’s just last year—has put $100,000 of his own money into Chef In A Box.

“I believe in what I’m doing here,” he says. “There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of buzz.”