How Our Meal Prep Service Survived Pandemic Challenges, High Food Costs & Labor Shortages

Published: March 29th, 2022
TJ Clark
Founder, Healthy Chew
Healthy Chew
from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA
started May 2016
Discover what tools TJ recommends to grow your business!

Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.

Hello, my name is TJ Clark and I am the co-founder of Healthy Chew: a weekly meal preparation service. My company is approaching it’s 6th year in business, which is crazy to think back on all of the awesome things we have accomplished.

Our products are simple, portioned, pre-cooked meals, that are made fresh weekly and sold inside of black bowls. We sell these to a variety of people. Some are looking to lose weight, others are looking for a wide variety of options that change every week, and some people are simply looking for food that is less processed since our meals are never frozen and don't require preservatives.

As we are a weekly service, our revenue fluctuates based on the times of the year. New years, we sell anywhere from $13,000-$20,000 a week, spring we average $12,000-15,000 in weekly sales. Summer averages around $12,000 a week, and October-December people go out of town more often and sales are roughly $4,000-12,000 a week (it varies widely). But thankfully, they always come back to shed the holiday weight usually the first 2 weeks of January.


Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?

The last time we spoke, we were dealing with a lot of the pandemic challenges. Our sales were down and we (secretly) feared that we wouldn’t be able to keep the business running through 2020.

We have since settled in a good spot, as a few of our local competitors closed up shop. We have still had a number of pandemic issues we have been dealing with, such as food costs have nearly doubled in the last year. What’s weirder than that is nearly everything has gone up wildly in price. Things like gloves, cleaning supplies, and meal prep bowls. Even our labor has gone up since our minimum wage has increased 3 times in the last 3 years. For reference, it was $8hr when we started and it’s currently $11hr.

Ask for help. You’d be surprised how many people like myself will take 10 minutes out of their week to pay it forward, because I know what it’s like to be stumped. And 10 minutes of my day can make someone else's entire week/month/year better.

Because of the pandemic, we have spent a lot less time and money on marketing our business since we have had better than expected sales but issues keeping enough employees to produce the food.

We still use mailchimp for email advertising, we use a meal prep software called sendbottle to send twice a week text messages for our customers enrolled in our subscribe n save option that offers a 10% discount on all purchases and automatically places an order based on their previous weeks order. They can skip or opt out at any time. We also use facebook and instagram to post photos of our products. But over the last year we have spent less than $2,000 on advertising.

The majority of our customers have continued to order from us because we have the best customer service out there. We also offer a new dish every month. We ask for feedback any chance we can to ensure we give our customers the products and service they want. And any time there is an issue, we correct it, give them a credit, and ensure they leave with a smile on their face.

Most of the marketing we have done has been word of mouth, asking customers to leave facebook and google reviews if they’re satisfied, and a few appearances on local news stations during the olympics.


What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?

Over the last year, the biggest issue we dealt with as a company was when our entire executive management team quit the same week. We lost all 3 of our full time employees which included our chef, general manager, and sous chef. The story behind that had red flags everywhere, but I did everything in my power to ensure my employees were taken care of during their 3+ years they worked with us.

Story time: Of the 3 employees that quit the same week, the executive chef and our general manager were engaged to each other. They were dating when they first started working for us, and they both started as kitchen assistants.

They were amazing employees throughout their employment. The issue came when we decided to promote one of them to sous chef and the other our administrative manager. I knew that wasn’t a good idea, but my business partner believed it could work since they weren’t under the same management tree.

Now, let’s talk about the executive chef. He was a fantastic employee as well. But right before covid hit, he decided he wanted to teach culinary arts and parted ways with us. When covid hit, culinary schools shut down and he asked if he could have his old job back. Since we already filled it with our sous chef, we gave him the sous chef position.

Back to the couple, this left the business being managed by 2 people who were engaged to each other. Let’s add more to this by saying that the sous chef and executive chef became best friends when they met on the job. They became such good friends that when one of them bought a house, the couple decided to move in with them. So, somehow over 3 years, my 3 longest employees all became roommates.

Now, I knew about all of this, but it was difficult to handle since they had all been great employees. The story doesn’t get much more creative, other than one week I received an email from the general manager saying she was putting in her 2 week notice.

When I asked why, she said that since she completed her bachelors degree, her employment aspirations changed to working at a call center. The next day, the sous chef (formerly the executive chef) sent his 2 weeks saying he was also working for the call center. 2 more days pass and the executive chef ends his shift and says “sorry for the late notice, but I have received an offer to work at the country club and this was my last shift.”

Now my business partner and I are in a state of panic since we have the work of 3 people to do, on top of our current duties. We did damage control by putting job postings everywhere for an executive chef position. But the labor shortage made that take 10 weeks longer than it would have pre-covid. Since we were filling both the sous chef and executive chef, we found 2 good candidates at the same time and decided the best course of action would be to hire them both as chef in training and whichever one did a better job would become the executive.

The end of the story was that we never filled the general manager spot, the person who got the executive chef position is doing a fantastic job, and the sous chef we hired with the executive chef quit and that position has been filled with another amazing employee.

That is the bulk of the interesting things that happened in 2021 since the pandemic has pushed a lot of our focus to be less on growth and more on customer retention. The reasoning was that finding employees was never a challenge until covid. I remember the first administrative positon I ever posted on (the free version).

It was a minimum wage job to answer phones, give company information to walk in customers, stick labels on bowls, and assist customers with both buying grab n go meals and getting their weekly pickup orders. I posted the job and within 48 hours I had more than 250 applicants. Our general manager position was posted on facebook, indeed, and ziprecruiter and received 9 applications in 6 weeks, none of which were qualified aka had any managerial experience.

The overall lesson would be don't put all your eggs in one basket, or in our case, don’t hire/promote a bunch of people who are friends/roommates/lovers as it works great… until it doesn't.

What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?

I have to be honest, I never make 5 year plans because they change so much month to month that they have served me little purpose.

Over the next 1-2 years my business partner and I have decided we are going to sell Healthy Chew. That’s the overall goal. To get there, we have spoken with a handful of M&A groups that pretty much all say the only thing they want to see us do differently is push for growth. So our lease ends June 30th 2022.

We are going to be moving to a larger space at roughly 3,000sqf (up from 2,000sqf), we are going to focus more on deliveries and less on walk ins, which eliminates the need for retail space (which costs more per square foot to lease), and we are going to expand our product line for more upsells.

We have a lot of room for growth in offering both calorie friendly snacks and desserts in addition to their favorite weekly meal preparation orders. Healthy Chew has never had an issue selling more food. All of our business problems have stemmed from scaling the business correctly via, not enough staff, food supply, poor use of our current space, and doing all of that while maintaining extremely high customer satisfaction. So moving locations while hopefully seeing the end of the pandemic should solve most, if not all, of our issues.

Have you read any good books in the last year?

Over the last year, I have actually been a little burnt out on reading. But to fill that gap, I’ve challenged myself to listen to 3-5 ted talks a week on youtube, either during my lunch break or I’ll start it before my commute to the office. My favorite one over the past month was this one:

Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?

Most people I’ve worked with that have issues growing their business are usually struggling with creativity. I started listening to ted talks instead of listening to audiobooks because I wanted to expand what I was learning outside of my typical business book. The best advice I have for people struggling is to ask people for advice.

I’ve spoken to a number of meal prep business owners about issues they’ve encountered and given either solutions I’ve implemented or solutions I would implement if I had that problem. The other advice I’d give is: if you have a problem that you don’t have a solution for, start with any solution. Very bad solutions can sometimes become good solutions with a little (or a lot of) tweaking. But don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get on google, linkedin, facebook, anything and find other people who do what you’re trying to do.

Ask for help. You’d be surprised how many people like myself will take 10 minutes out of their week to pay it forward, because I know what it’s like to be stumped. And 10 minutes of my day can make someone else's entire week/month/year better.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Every January we are always looking for more part time kitchen assistants.

We would also be looking for a part time publicist, as my business partner and I enjoy doing things like the Starter Story, Run With It podcast, and other helpful appearances.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!