Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Andrei Calinescu and I am the Founder and CEO of One Life Meals.
One Life Meals is a healthy meal delivery service located in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. We handle the complete process from ingredient sourcing, cooking and delivery. We also work with our clients on a one-on-one basis to understand their requirements and help them select the right plan.
We cook and deliver twice per week to keep the meals fresh. The plan is for 6 days per week, with Sunday as a day off or a “cheat day”.
We offer breakfast meals and entree meals. Entrees can be either lunch or dinner meals.
We have different entree categories to cater to anyone from performance athletes to regular individuals looking for flavorful, healthy, convenient meal options. All our meals have a healthy, lean source of protein, low glycemic carbs, good fats and seasonal veggies. The meals are all portion controlled.
Our most common plan is one breakfast and 2 entrees per day. This plan covers an individual’s breakfast, lunch and dinner meals.
In today’s fast paced world, time management and delegation are a must. One Life takes care of the routine tasks like grocery shopping, cooking and meal portioning, freeing up precious time for our clients. Because we cook on a large scale compared to home cooking, we are able to volume source higher quality ingredients at lower prices than what an individual would pay in a store. This allows us to provide great value to our clients.
In 2018 we made 14,500 meals per month and our monthly sales were $130k.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started One Life Meals in 2014 and it was pretty much the next logical step in my personal and professional evolution. After graduating from the University of Toronto in 2004 (Mechanical & Industrial Engineering) I worked for 5 years in the Pharmaceutical industry.
I moved around and gathered experiences from different departments, including Project Management, Engineering and Operations. I learned a lot during this time about how to manage a new project, create and lead teams, large-scale production, quality assurance and customer service.
Be very honest and real with yourself and the reason you want to be an entrepreneur. Being interested is not enough, you need to commit.
I left the corporate world in 2009 and made my way into the fitness industry. Health and fitness always resonated with me from an early age. From 2010 to 2012 I worked for a big box gym, where I was in charge of the personal training department. This was another great experience, I got to meet and connect with many clients looking for a better body, a better life. The gym system however focused mainly on training, and not at all on nutrition. As we all know, without dialing in the nutrition, you cannot expect a sustainable transformation.
In 2012 I went on my own, and started training clients privately. We trained and focused on the nutrition as well. Within a few weeks, all my clients started transforming. We knew we were on to something!
My clients were all preparing their meals and it worked great at the beginning. After a couple of months however, most of them started to complain that it took too long to shop, cook and portion their meals every week. They were also getting tired of eating the same meals every day. I didn’t want them to quit so I started considering the idea of preparing their meals myself.
I felt that I could do more. More for them and more for myself. I could offer a more complete solution. I had the operations experience from working in the pharmaceutical industry. I had the nutritional experience from preparing my own meals for many years and from working with my personal training clients. I also knew that the corporate life wasn’t for me. My gut told me to go for it. The plan was to start small, grow organically and learn and improve along the way.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Before One Life, I prepared my own meal plan for many years. From an early age I started being aware of what I put in my body, and developed an appreciation for good food and the positive effect it can have on us. Eating out was never really my thing. Working with my personal training clients also gave me a lot of data on what works and what doesn’t for different individuals with different body types and personalities.
I think that the main things that kept us in the game are our stubbornness and our ability to prioritize. By stubbornness, I mean the refusal to quit. We had plenty of opportunities where it did not make sense on paper to continue, but we kept going.
I knew we had to have meal variety and different meal categories, in order to cater to a larger demographic. We created a breakfast meal category and 3 entree categories: Lifestyle meals, Athlete with carbs and Athlete low carbs. The Lifestyle meals offer move variety and flavor and are recommended for the majority of our clients. The Athlete meals are more for super dedicated and focused clients that do not require significant variety or flavor in their meals.
Each One Life meal consists of a source of lean protein, a good source of carbs, mostly low glycemic carbs, good fats and a source of veggies or fruit. We use this framework when we come up with a new meal.
I wanted the meals to be a complete source of macronutrients (proteins, carbs and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). At the same time, the meals had to have enough taste so that our clients could actually eat them, enjoy them and come back for more. One of the main issues with healthy food is the lack of taste and lack of variety. In order for us to retain our clients and actually keep them on the program long enough for them to start seeing results, we had to find ways to add flavor in a healthy way and provide a good variety of meals.
We were also limited in terms of ingredients and cooking methods. It is very easy to add flavor with unhealthy ingredients like table salt, sugar, flour or oil. We had to find a way to do it without these. We also could not deep fry or grill anything. The only cooking methods allowed were baking, roasting and boiling.
This has been one of our biggest challenges, we had to work with many restrictions and I have to admit, the first iterations of meals were not the greatest. Our early adopters played a key role, they were our research and development team, they stuck with us, provided us with valuable feedback and gave us a chance to continue and improve along the way. Needless to say, to this day, we take good care of them, many of them are still with us.
We launched the pilot in 2013 while I was training my clients and looking for ways to make it easier for them to manage their nutrition. For this, I enlisted my mother, who was more than happy to help. Growing up at home, I always felt that she had a natural talent in the kitchen. She had no culinary training, but I knew that she would do her part and do it very well. We split the workload, she started cooking the entrees in her home kitchen. I made the breakfast meals in my apartment. My clients would come and pick up their meals on Sunday, and they were set for the week. The demand for meals quickly started growing, and it became obvious that we had to make a move.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We outgrew our home kitchens so in the summer of 2014 I started looking for commercial kitchen space. Setting up our own kitchen from scratch was not an option. It would have taken too long and cost money we didn’t have. We needed to start right away, in a health inspected kitchen, without any capital investment. I checked a few commercial kitchens that offered space for rent but none of them met our requirements. Either too small, not clean enough, not enough fridge space, not enough packing space, or too expensive.
We got into a project that seemed relatively easy at the start. I was already making my own meals. How hard could it be to cook for a few more people? Definitely much harder than I thought!
Eventually I came up with a plan to approach local restaurants and pitch them the idea of renting space in their kitchen. After many NOs, I found a shawarma restaurant that was not very busy and the owner agreed to our terms for a trial period. This was in July of 2014. My mother and I could use the kitchen on Sundays and Wednesdays and we paid the owner $200 per day.
We began each day shopping for ingredients, then prepping, cooking and cooling the meals. At the end of the day I would hit the road to deliver. I spent the rest of the week developing the other aspects of the business, working on the website, promoting, laying the groundwork for our custom order management system and learning about nutrition, psychology and business management.
Don’t be afraid to remain a student as long as you can. Read, listen and ask questions. In today’s world we have so many sources of information, you have to take advantage.
As more and more orders started coming in, the owner realized that he could make more money helping us than selling his own food. In December of 2014, we took over the restaurant, changed the sign and retooled it to fit our business model. The previous owner stayed with us for another few months and played a key role in our early development. We enlisted more help including my father as a delivery driver and a few good friends that were willing to be paid in meals. Today we have a staff of over 20, including our kitchen team and our drivers, we are still at the same 1,100 square feet location and somehow we’re making the space work.
We realized early in that we could not rely on walk-in traffic alone. We had to develop an online store and reach clients from all over the city. Our first website went up in less than 1 week back in July of 2014. It was built on Weebly by a friend and amateur developer and it cost me $400. It was very basic and not the most user-friendly but it worked. We hit $1M in sales in 2016. In 2018 we finally launched a WordPress site and we saw immediate improvements in our traffic and conversions.
At the present time we get 220 to 290 users per day and 5 to 16 new orders per day. The average order amount is $167. Approximately 1/3 of the orders are weekly subscriptions. The rest are one time orders.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Our client experience
From day one, our main marketing strategy has been to focus on the client experience. We didn’t have much of a choice really, as we did not have the funding to put together a marketing budget. We focused our resources on our operation. We offer free phone consultations through our website and many clients sign up. 4 out of 5 people that book a consultation place an order with us on the phone.
From the initial consultation, to the quality and taste of the meals, the delivery process and the post-delivery interaction, we learned to stay close to our clients, listen and respond right away. This comes very instinctively for us now, we love investing in our clients, and as direct result, the organic word-of-mouth growth has been great!
We recently started running Facebook ads and they are doing well. There is much room for improvement here, especially now with our new website which converts much better. We are running 2 ads with a total budget of $46 per day. We are getting 66 to 96 clicks per day at $0.48 to $0.69 per click.
We are very active on Instagram and it’s working well. We use the platform to showcase our meals and our team but also to educate our clients and communicate important messages. We have 5577 organic active followers, and many of them are clients. This year we are allocating more time and effort to capture higher quality pictures and video and improving our overall strategy. Our product is food and first impressions are very important.
Email works really well also. We have a lot of content to share and it is very well received. Most clients need to see your brand a few times before they purchase, and email is great for that. Email is also an effective reminder for past clients to order again.
We have close to 5000 subscribers and we aim for 2 emails per month. Most of our subscriptions came through the website. I personally don’t like being bombarded with newsletters so we don’t overdo it ourselves. So far we have been focusing on practical life hacks and tips on how to stay focused and disciplined. Many of our subscribers are past clients that took a break.
Our open rates are good, we’re averaging 24% - 53%, much higher than the 10% industry average. We need to work on our click rates which are at around 1.2%.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We have been growing steadily at around 15% per year for the past 3 years. Very representative of our mainly organic marketing strategy. This has allowed us sufficient time to deal with our growing pains and improve at a good pace.
January 2019 was an amazing month for us, our sales were $180k, up 29% from January 2018. Even though January is the busiest month of the year for us, we’re excited about the great start and the plan is to hit $2M in sales this year.
Our retention rates were very good in 2018, 43% for the first 30 days and 31% for the first 90 days, but this year we can do better. Acquisition is important but retention is more important. We want our clients to stay with us long term, develop a healthier lifestyle and see results. That’s a win-win for everyone. This year we’re working on ways to stay more connected and engaged with our clients during their first weeks with us.
From an operations perspective, besides developing our meals and the online store we also had to create a custom order management system, an inventory management system as well as a delivery dispatch system. We looked for existing solutions but we did not find anything that would suit our model. There are many options for regular restaurants with immediate deliveries but nothing for semi-weekly meal delivery companies like us. Being a bootstrap startup, we had to develop all our systems ourselves from scratch. We pushed Excel spreadsheets to their limits and had to piece different web apps together to make things work. Somehow we managed, but there is still much room for improvement.
Continuous Improvement has always been a pillar for us, and today we are in a position where we can manage our day to day operation well enough so we can allocate time for process upgrades. We are now working on switching to a proper CRM system and implementing a delivery management system.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The whole experience from the start has been a series of lessons and growth opportunities. We got into a project that seemed relatively easy at the start. I was already making my own meals. How hard could it be to cook for a few more people? Definitely much harder than I thought!
Be very honest and real with yourself and the reason you want to be an entrepreneur. Being interested is not enough, you need to commit. There is a lot of glory in being your own boss and making your own rules but the struggles are very real as well!
The tricky part is that there are no significant barriers to entry in this space so it seems very attractive to get in. It is however very difficult to scale up from making a few hundred meals per week to making a few thousand meals per week and actually turn a profit. Since we started, we lost count of how many local meal prep companies have started and went under.
I think that the main things that kept us in the game are our stubbornness and our ability to prioritize. By stubbornness, I mean the refusal to quit. We had plenty of opportunities where it did not make sense on paper to continue, but we kept going. Each time, we got a little further.
In terms of prioritization, I quickly learned to focus on our team and our culture. In the meal prep game, there are countless details that have to be right, in order for a client to receive their meals on time, enjoy them and actually experience healthy results. Without a dedicated and involved team, that will never happen. Main learning here, take care of your team and they will take care of your clients.
A huge advantage is that we are a family business. My mother, my father, my aunt, and three cousins all work with us. Mama and my aunt work in the kitchen, two cousins handle our customer service and order management and my father and the other cousin are drivers. Having the comfort of being surrounded by family really allowed me to be brave and take the necessary risks knowing that someone will always have my back.
Mama specifically is a major force behind One Life Meals. Her creativity and magic in the kitchen has sparked our culture. Our culture is one of our biggest strengths. My cousin Amy is now in charge of order management and online customer service. One of the most common compliments we hear from our clients is that our customer service is second to none! Very grateful for my two main ladies, their support and leadership allows me to stick to my vision that nothing is impossible.
Some might have had different experiences, but in my case being able to recruit within the family was very helpful. I have to mention however that working with family can be challenging. I had to quickly learn and apply effective communication skills and empathy, which might not be a bad thing as a leader and entrepreneur!
The fact that we went the bootstrap route really shaped and defined how our company evolved since 2014. Did I make the right decision? I hope so, especially since this was my first serious venture. Without funding, I had to be the marketing guy, health consultation guy, operations guy and logistics guy. Overall, I feel that I did a pretty good job, and picked up skillsets that I am very excited and grateful for. On the flip side, I also did not sleep for the first 3 years. Would I go for funding for the next venture, hire key professionals and keep my sanity? Most likely!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use MailChimp for email.
Accounting is on QuickBooks.
We are still looking for the right CRM and delivery management system and are always investigating and testing new technologies.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I am a big fan of audiobooks. Huge life hack for me, I put one on while I exercise or drive to optimize my time.
My strategy is to alternate between Leadership, Psychology, Health & Nutrition and Business Management. Make sure you take time to apply your learnings as you read or listen. Theory without application doesn’t work.
Here are 3 of my favorites:
This book really helps you understand how habits are formed and how they can be changed. Habits are at the core of what we do, and learning the science will help you better understand yourself and your clients.
Even though this was written many decades ago, it is still very applicable. Great learnings here on how to connect with your team and clients.
He really gets it! Great job explaining our neurochemicals Dopamine, Endorphins, Serotonin and Oxytocin and how they apply to food and any other source of pleasure. It really makes you understand why we do what we do.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Be very honest and real with yourself and the reason you want to be an entrepreneur. Being interested is not enough, you need to commit. There is a lot of glory in being your own boss and making your own rules but the struggles are very real as well! If you have a low tolerance to pain and stress, a 9-5 job might be better for you!
Learn to set small daily goals, celebrate their accomplishment and continue.
If you are crazy enough to crave the super highs and super lows, then get started! There’s always room for more stubborn entrepreneurs and cool solutions!
Here are 3 pillars that have really worked for me:
HEALTH AND FITNESS
As you start building your product, service or empire, it’s easy to forget about your own physical and mental health and fitness. Many entrepreneurs make that mistake and regret it after.
Learn to balance and make time for yourself along the way. Go to the gym, eat well and get as much sleep as you can! You will see gains in your output and performance as well!
Don’t be afraid to remain a student as long as you can. Read, listen and ask questions. In today’s world we have so many sources of information, you have to take advantage.
Surround yourself with individuals that know something you don’t, ideally related to your project. Use your free time wisely and strategically, always look for learning opportunities in every daily activity.
Develop a Continuous Improvement mentality early in the game! It’s very common to set aggressive goals but then not know how to progress on a daily basis, get frustrated and fail. Learn to set small daily goals, celebrate their accomplishment and continue.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for kitchen staff, drivers, customer service staff, content creators and anyone else that believes in our mission and wants to be part of the One Life family!
Where can we go to learn more?
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