Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! My name is Lyla and I am the founder and owner Full Belly Fare, Handcrafted Dinners Delivered, in Portland, Oregon. We offer an array of delicious food products, with a menu that emphasizes organic ingredients, changes weekly, is customizable to nearly any special diet and is hand-delivered to customers’ homes or places of business once per week.
Full Belly Fare customers are a diverse but specific subset of the general population! Families with new babies or young children, people recovering from or experiencing illness or injury, senior citizens struggling to live independently, and busy professionals all find our service invaluable. While many of our customers require specialized dietary modifications, the majority do not. Our food is appealing to almost any palate! The primary goal of Full Belly Fare is to ease people’s lives by taking care of the daily food requirement aspect - something that many people find daunting!
When Full Belly Fare opened in 2014, we made deliveries to an average of 10 households per week. Now we average 35 or 50 households per week, and we’ve also expanded our menu beyond a few weekly meals to include a wide array of “pantry” items that are available every week and make our customers’ lives even easier!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
After more than a decade in catering and food service, I left the industry to raise my children. During that time, I focused my passion for food on feeding my family and friends. In addition to my food prep background, my other professional focus has been on human services from an early age. I started out at the tender age of 17 workings with adults with mental illness (actually providing job training via a catering micro business!), and went on to work with homeless adults in a variety of roles, and finally, after my children were born, I worked for more than a decade with new families, providing allied healthcare services, parenting education, and more.
Once my children were grown, I was inspired to merge my human service background while turning back toward my roots in food. At the time, I had several friends struggling with chronic illness, who had very specialized dietary requirements and lacked the ability to meet their own needs in that realm. Seeing this gap in service in the community reignited my desire to offer anyone and everyone the pleasure of good food, made with love, that meets each individual person’s unique needs!
I did a crowdfunding campaign that offered gift cards for the service in exchange for “pre-investment”
Full Belly Fare was born from my desire for everyone to have access to flavorful, wholesome foods at a lower cost than restaurant food of the same quality. I knew there was a need from personal observation and it quickly became apparent that I had not overestimated that need! Full Belly Fare has many long term customers, who receive most or all of their weekly nutrition through our service! We also have many customers who come to us because loved ones purchased gift cards for them during a time of transition. I am constantly reimagining how to meet the varied needs of the wider community, and am deeply inspired by the stories I hear from customers about what brought them to Full Belly Fare and how our service has impacted their lives.
For example, the message below still means a great deal to me - and I receive similar fairly regularly - this is from a customer who is the (older grown) son of a 90 something-year-old woman and he sent her meals every week, throughout her last days in hospice even, via Full Belly Fare! It is always so thrilling for me to hear about a real person who is truly helped by the food we make - not just as food/nourishment but mentally and emotionally!
“My mom says ’It's so good, like eating at a very excellent restaurant’! The food is just so good, Mom and her caregiver rave about it, arrival day and unpacking has become a high point of her week. The anticipation, as well as the taste of the food, has raised her spirits so much. She is no longer so clinically depressed. Thank you, Lyla and crew/team...your food has effectively increased her quality of life, her view of life....food made with heart, soul, passion and yes love, can make all the difference in one’s life!"
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
When I first launched Full Belly Fare, I started by offering exactly what I enjoyed preparing for my own family, comprised of diverse tastes. I would often make 2-3 different versions of a dish for my family, to please everyone’s palate. So it was a no brainer to me that we must not be the only family with such different requirements among its members!
I offered the same dishes I enjoyed cooking, with the same (and more) variations. And people loved it! Over the years, I have diversified my menus by collecting favorite recipes from cooks I respect, and testing them in my own home kitchen before offering them on the Full Belly Fare menu.
I am a bit on the impulsive side, so I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning! Primarily, I severely underestimated how much labor the production would take every week - I started out thinking I was going to do it ALL by myself! I learned after the first weekend of prep that that plan would probably quite literally kill me! I quickly added a prep cook/dishwasher and then a couple of months later, another. The team grew over the course of the first 2 years to be its current size: 11 part-time employees!
I also made a lot of mistakes - or rather learned on the fly - what works and what doesn’t with regard to labeling and packaging. So the early weeks were bumpy, but the food was good enough and my personalized and responsive customer service notable enough, that my customers stuck with me through trial and error! Many of the mistakes impacted our production time/labor costs, not so much the quality of the food or the customer experience, so that helped as well.
Full Belly Fare was born from my desire for everyone to have access to flavorful, wholesome foods at a lower cost than restaurant food of the same quality
We are constantly evaluating our processes and products and tweaking things for better efficiency and consistency - whenever we make a change we all marvel how we ever did things the “old” way!
In the beginning, I didn’t have good photographs of my product - so I asked customers to send me theirs - and some of them were surprisingly good - and human! Later, I did hire a food photographer because it ended up being essential for the adequate menu display. Here’s an early photo of one of my customers enjoying our Asian chopped salad - her mom was blown away by her interest in eating this “rainbow of food”!
And below is an early set of my crew working on a Thanksgiving appetizer menu!
Describe the process of launching the business.
My intent from the outset was to have a low risk, low-cost business. I mostly succeeded with that - I did a crowdfunding campaign that offered gift cards for the service in exchange for “pre-investment” - and used those funds to pay for licensing, commercial kitchen rental, website design and hosting, and all the incidental costs of starting up a business. This also served the dual purpose of creating my first customer base - they had the gift cards so of course, they were going to order!
I was extremely fortunate to have a friend who was a website designer who wanted more e-commerce experience to volunteer to design my website and eCommerce solution! I do not know what I would have done without her, as the costs of such a solution would have made a low risk/low investment business impossible!
We worked collaboratively (remotely, she lived in another state) on the site together and that was a great experience - I would propose concepts/reports/info I needed to be able to both convey and collect and she would design a report or a solution for the requirement, and we would then tweak it together until it served the purpose.
Once I launched, the customer base grew exponentially - it doubled in the first year, and then doubled again the second year. The average order value also grew, and over that time I re-evaluated my prices and my minimum order requirements and altered those as well to bring them up to the level required to meet expenses. I also expanded my delivery zone.
The two biggest lessons I’ve learned are:
- Labor requirements are far greater than I expected them to be and are by far the biggest cost of doing business. I am dedicated to paying decent wages and refuse to run a business that requires the exploitation of anyone, so my prices have to be higher than they might otherwise be if my business ethics were different.
- Not everyone is the ideal customer, and if someone wants your product to be different than it is, then your product is probably not for them!
If you have outstanding feedback from most of your customers, you probably don’t need to worry about retaining every single customer - if someone’s expectations or requirements simply aren’t a good fit for what you are capable of offering, it’s truly ok (and desirable!) to let them go - you offer what you offer, and hopefully with some flexibility, but you don’t have to change your business to suit everyone in the world!
Conversely, however, some of my customers have had the best ideas/suggestions! I have frequently incorporated those suggestions and requests into my regular processes with great success! For instance, it was a customer who suggested to me years ago that it would be helpful to have the option of packages and samplers rather than only being able to wade through each week’s menus and pick and choose exactly what was desired each week. My customers are busy and so easy “curated” options turned out to be very helpful for many! I added Samplers and many packages and they are all quite popular.
Full Belly Fare’s distribution is via home delivery. Several of my employees deliver our meals to homes and offices each week. Our kitchen isn’t open to the public, so all sales are done online through our website.
Like any food business, a significant amount of our operating budget goes toward purchasing ingredients. Our focus is on local, fresh, and organic so our food costs, like our labor costs, are higher because of our business ethics.
By far my greatest accomplishment is the forging of a fabulous team of employees who are loyal, dedicated, talented, and trustworthy
As a hyper-local business, our email list consists almost entirely of previous and current customers. Our social media following is similar, and most of our new customers come from word of mouth and basic internet searches.
We rarely run ads and instead focus on creating strong partnerships with businesses that also serve our clients. For example, we offer a special postpartum package for new families and have teamed up with a local massage therapist so recipients receive both meal delivery and postpartum massage.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
First and foremost, I offer exquisitely personal customer service. I answer the phone 99% of the time and return calls immediately when I have missed one. I respond via email and text, generally within the hour of a customer contacting me, usually much sooner. I do my best to accommodate human errors and to make each customer’s experience as seamless and nurturing as possible.
Want to add something to an order after the ordering deadline? Usually no problem! Have a problem with a product or something missing from a delivery? Refunded or credited immediately! Have a last-minute appointment and won’t be home for the delivery? We figure something out!
I know how much I appreciate being accommodated as a customer and I try my best to offer my customers that same accommodation. After all, meal delivery and other luxury services are designed to ease someone’s life not make it more complicated!
In order to increase orders and retain customers for the long term, I send out weekly “renewal” emails to anyone who ordered for a recent week’s delivery but hasn’t ordered for an upcoming week. The email contains tantalizing photos, reminders of the delivery deadline, and the next week’s menu, as well as any promotions going on or new additions to the menu.
One of the most common mistakes made by food business start-ups is not understanding the real costs
Again, my customers are busy people, otherwise they would probably be cooking for themselves - therefore it’s easy to forget to order even if the intention is there! The emails definitely bring in renewed orders at a higher rate than before I was sending them.
The only geographic expansion that would really be possible, due to the hyper-local nature of Full Belly Fare’s distribution, would be if I were to expand into shipping. I am reticent to do that because one of the tenets of my business is local sourcing and environmentally friendly practices. I have also thought about the notion of franchising to maintain the local nature, but that would be quite a way down the line.
I would like to expand my customer base however and would love to get some of my pantry menu items into local retail stores, corporate snack vending stations, etc. We currently contract to provide bag lunches for a local women lawyers group, monthly, and that is another area of potential expansion, to offer bag lunches for meetings and conferences.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Full Belly Fare is struggling recently to be profitable - however, I am extremely optimistic that the changes we are making this year will shift that very soon! Primarily, I am awaiting the long-anticipated launch of our new website, which will allow me to collect delivery fees easily from customers who live outside my free delivery zone and will also enable state tax collection for a neighboring state so that we can market to customers in that state and grow into that region.
In addition, the new site will enable anyone to easily set up a group gift contribution campaign to benefit a loved one or colleague who is going through a life transition or experience that would benefit from meal delivery. I already offer this - but it’s manual on my end, and having it automated on the new site will make it much easier for customers to engage with the group gift option.
My short term goals are to heavily promote those new features and then evaluate the revenue impacts of those changes and hope to see significant profits from those changes alone.
Longer-term, I plan to intensify my referral incentives and grow both my subscriber base and my gift card sales - Meal subscribers and gift cards/group gifts are the bread and butter of my revenue and expanding the base of customers who engage with one or the other or both will have a significant positive impact on revenues.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
My primary mistake was being overly trusting of other vendors/business relationships. This is a theme throughout my life - I value ethical business practices and follow-through and therefore I always assume that others do, too. I have lost a great deal of money and time via trusting a web designer who was going to redo my e-commerce site and dragged it out for years, after having been paid. I am now working with a trusted colleague and feel confident it will launch soon, but in the meantime, the impact on my business has been severe.
I have also made many good decisions, and several of my innate traits have served me well in my endeavors with Full Belly Fare. By far my greatest accomplishment is the forging of a fabulous team of employees who are loyal, dedicated, talented, and trustworthy. I believe strongly in treating people with dignity and trust (see where the trust has been problematic for me above), and those tenets have mostly paid off significantly.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Facebook groups and communities have also contributed to our growth as clients tag us when someone is looking for the kind of meal delivery we do.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I am actually not one for “business development” books etc - although maybe I should be! What has served me the best I think in terms of influence, has been my lifelong study of communication skills - through professional education, but also through simple life experience and interest.
I have also always been focused on the tenets of good customer service, since my very first jobs both in the food and human services fields, and by focusing less on the concepts of sales (making a sale, marketing a product) and more on the notion that authentic human connection and empathy and true service will naturally make the sale, I feel I have forged a “brand” rooted in these values that stands on its own. In that sense, I would say the most influential books and other resources have been focused on relationships, communication, parenting, and social services!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I think one of the most common mistakes made by food business start-ups is not understanding the real costs. If you are planning a food business start-up, do your research!
All the costs really add up - the licensing, space rental, equipment, insurance, etc.! Also, do NOT underestimate the labor involved, and the true value of having dedicated help who will stick with you so you won’t have to constantly rehire and retrain new people. It’s worth paying more for good help, but you must build those costs into your pricing.
It’s also so important to research licensing requirements and make sure you have all your ducks in a row with that. Each region is different - talk to people who have done it already and be willing to pay for their brain cycles in sharing their wisdom with you!
Lastly - in any field, but especially the food business - plan ahead! Think of all the things that could go wrong - from keeping the food fresh and sanitary to packaging and transporting without spillage, to what to do when something goes wrong - and plan for that scenario with the customer’s experience at the forefront of any solution you devise!
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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