It’s a modern truth that a busy work schedule often means less-than-ideal eating habits. Fed up with the difficulties of trying to eat healthy while wrangling hectic sixty-hour work weeks (and wary of their subsequently increasing waistlines), Harvard graduates and friends Nick Taranto and Josh Hix looked to the world of e-commerce to find a viable solution. Plated launched in the fall of 2012 with the unique angle of delivering premeasured ingredients and recipes to hungry customers who have little time for the logistics of grocery shopping.
“We make it so you don’t have to spend time thinking about what to eat, what to buy at the grocery store, and proportioning out ingredients,” Taranto says. “[Plated] takes out all of the inconvenience and delivers the food directly to the door.” The only remaining responsibility that lands on the customer’s shoulders is chopping, cooking, and eating the typically low-calorie meals.
Unlike other online food-delivery services, simplicity is key to Plated’s appeal. Only seven plate options are available to choose from each week, including vegetarian, seafood, and meat options. The meals run $15 per person for non-members and $12 for members, who have the option of a monthly or yearly membership. Taranto explains the chosen recipes aren’t flashy or overcomplicated, but rather simple, healthy, and easy to assemble. This ease of use is key with a growing demographic of millennials and dual-income families without children. “What our customers want is a great thirty-minute mid-week meal. They could care less about who the chef is. What they want to know is, ‘Does it work for me and my lifestyle?’” Taranto says. “While [having only seven items on the menu] seems limiting, it’s actually giving customers a curated experience. You’re not being overwhelmed with choice.”
With this in mind, Plated developed an in-house recipe team to conjure up ideas with attention to regional, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients. The menus for each week remain the same across the country, but food is sourced locally for each order, a tactic that sounds like a logistical nightmare, but one Taranto says is important for several reasons. “[Finding sustainable sources of food] is a big part of the business model, first, because it’s responsible and customers like it,” he says. “Second, when you’re using local products that are in season, the economics are also better.”
Each fulfillment center boasts an in-house food procurement team, which scours the local market for the best farmers, butchers, and seafood purveyors to supply ingredients, which are then taken to the warehouse for inventory, quality control, proportioning, and packaging. From there, Plated relies on delivery partnerships to ensure the food arrives at its final destination fresh and ready to cook—a practice that has only become a reality with advances in transportation and delivery technology over the past five or so years, Taranto says. Each order is delivered in biodegradable, 100 percent recyclable boxes, padded with ice packs and an additional insulation system to keep the food as fresh as possible. The company currently employs about 160 people to get all the food from web to table.
While the process appears pretty streamlined, business is conducted without intricate data systems. Taranto says the distribution model Plated developed is designed to ensure fulfillment centers hardly retain any inventory. “A beautiful part of the model is that everything comes right in and right out,” he says. “We developed an algorithmic forecasting system to keep our waste under 1 percent.” This is an impressive number, considering traditional grocery stores create anywhere from 10–30 percent waste, according to Taranto.
Compared to the behemoth brick-and-mortar grocery industry, Plated’s operational systems are also kinder on the environment. “We did an analysis, and the carbon footprint when you order from us is much lower than it would be if you drove to the grocery store to buy your own food,” Taranto says, because Plated cuts out much of the intermediate transportation. Instead of food traveling from farmer to distribution center to grocery store, then requiring each customer to expend more gas and energy to drive to and from the store, food simply goes from the farmer to the fulfillment center and then directly to the customer.
Technology also plays an important role in gaining and retaining customers, as the company employs social media as a prominent aspect of operations. “Next to kittens and puppies, food is the most shared thing on the Internet,” Taranto says. “Especially when you’ve made the food yourself, so we’re harnessing that pre-existing user behavior and making it easier for people to share their food experiences.”
Between engagement on sites like Facebook and Twitter and the company’s strong referral program (for every person a customer gets to sign up for a membership, each party receives two free plates), business is booming. Taranto says they’re growing at double-digit percentages every month, have raised more than $25 million in venture capital, and are continuing to expand.
While the overall online-food industry is still small (current penetration rates linger around 1 percent, Taranto says, in relation to Europe, where that number reaches 5 percent or higher), Taranto believes there’s a viable future for Plated, as it strikes a chord in the public discourse. As people want to know more about what they are eating, strive to eat healthier, successfully execute good portion control, and cook more, Plated is in a unique position to deliver on all accounts.
“We spent the last two years putting e-commerce and operational infrastructures into place,” Taranto says. “In many ways we are just at the dawn of this industry, so we are very excited to look at future products and add new services and listen to what customers want. We are definitely looking to evolve and grow.”