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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 9 months ago

Food for Life

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Dinner delivery is no longer a 30-minute pizza race. Several businesses in the region, instead, see a growing surge in nutritious meals brought to customers' front doors.
by: Ted Carter Contributing Writer

Chef Chad O'Connor figured eight years ago he'd do well selling his specially formulated, low-calorie, high-energy lunches and dinners to gym dwellers, the CrossFit crowd and periodic dieters.

He figured correctly. What didn't he count on? High demand from people who just want to eat healthy and have meals delivered. “Absolutely not,” O'Connor says of expectations of catching on with the mainstream of health-conscious people when he started what was then Real Fit Foods in 2010. “I didn't anticipate that.”

But he knew he was on to much more by the time he moved to a Naples warehouse a couple years later, under the name Fresh Fit Foods.

Today, Fresh Fit prepares 7,500 meals a month for about 300 clients, O'Connor says, with a menu of 48 dishes. Nine of 10 clients get the meals sent to their homes or offices. About 80% of his business, he adds, comes from people who want to eat healthier.

Women ages 35 to 55 are both the largest customer segment — and are the best marketers of O'Connor's product. “They'll have their husbands eat it once and then call me” to add them, O'Connor says.

Dinner program clients get four meals a week delivered twice a week. Unless they request a substitution, clients get a six-week menu with designated items for each of the four days. “We don't do the full seven because it becomes overwhelming to people,” O'Connor notes. “People still have the opportunity to go out or make dinner for themselves.”

The makeup of each meal must pass O'Connor's “approach” test. “That is, if I saw it on a menu,” he says, “I would I be tempted to order it.”

After sales growth of 20% each of the past five years, O'Connor, who projects revenues will surpass $1 million in 2018, says Fresh Fit came to a crossroads: Either pull back or invest in space and equipment to accommodate demand. O'Connor decided to expand, which led him to a large warehouse on Brookwood Court in Bonita Springs. The space, which gives him capacity to double his food volume, was already equipped as a functioning commercial kitchen, including a walk-in refrigerator. “We only had to put in about $16,000 to make it what we needed,” says O'Connor, who moved Fresh Fit there in August.

The old space and its visibility on U.S. 41 in Naples had a purpose in O'Connor's first couple of years, when the business sold wrapped meals to gyms from Naples to Fort Myers. “Since we're predicated on delivery, we didn't need the frontage any longer,” says O'Connor, who attributes much of his new sales to people sharing their experiences with others.

Like Fresh Fit Foods, Tampa-based Fitlife Foods, with a similar nutritious, flavorful, made-from-scratch prepared meals model, has seen a surge recently in business. “Delivery has taken off,” Fitlife founder and CEO David Osterweil said in a late 2017 interview. “It's been a phenomenal growth vehicle for the brand.”

In Fort Myers, Dayana Espaillat and Leo Espaillat are on the same kind of roll with The Lean Box, an 8-year-old Fort Myers fresh food preparation and delivery business. With an approach like Fresh Fit and Fitlife, the company targets a similar clientele.

The Lean Box is set to expand amid growing demand from families and individuals. After expansion, says Espaillat, Lean Box will have one space for a kitchen and a new retail space that will offer meals on the go, healthy desserts and snacks. “People get busier and prepping healthy meals becomes a challenge,” Dayana Espaillat says. “The demand is greater now more than ever. People have become more educated on what eating healthy really is.”

O'Connor, likewise, expects nutritional, no-hassle meals will become the preferred option for time-starved people. Asks O'Connor: “What is more convenient than having something dropped off at your front door?”

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