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Calgary’s Next Economy: Nutrimeals delivers a ‘home-cooked’ meal convenience

Sam Hale didn’t ever think he’d be in the Calgary food industry.

During his last year in university, the finance major had just returned from an exchange program in Japan. He’d delved into health and fitness and proper meal prep was important to him.

Like many Calgarians, Hale began prepping healthy meals for the week and then packing them up. Toss it in the microwave and voila – a homemade meal is ready.

“That kind of took off, and more people wanted to start doing that. So, we decided to do it for everybody,” Hale said.

That’s how Nutrimeals started.

They describe themselves as a meal-preparation company. They currently deliver across Western Canada with next-day service via their online portal.

App users can login and place orders from the menu – which is rotated every three weeks. You can also purchase multiple items at one time, too. Payment is made on the smartphone.

“One thing that was always in the back of my mind was automation,” he said.

“I wanted to bring the vending machine concept into the mainstream in North America, because it’s huge in Asia, specifically Japan, where I was living.”

In Asia, these meals were available in standalone kiosks. It was often cash based. Hale wanted to up the game and make it fully automated and touchless.

Enter the healthy meal vending machine.

Humble kitchen beginnings

Early on, the mom of Hale’s partner – who happened to be a Red Seal chef – helped them out with the meal preparation.

Today, they have a commercial kitchen with their own team for meal prep.

The meals, once created, are delivered on days specified by the customer. Hale said it’s not really Skip-the-Dishes style, where you order immediately and it gets delivered. Nor is it like meal competitors that just deliver the ingredients and you make the meal.

They prep, cook and package the meals. Clients “click, heat, eat, repeat” as the company’s tagline goes.

One of the goals was to create a meal delivery system that didn’t tack on the 30 per cent charge like other delivery-based systems.

“The food industry is already low margin,” Hale said.

“Think about that that 30 per cent off your top line and it’s probably hard to keep the lights on for some people.”

Right now, they have their own proprietary meal system, but they may build in restaurant partnership for the technology down the road.

From kitchen to kiosk

With automation in mind, Hale said the next step is to set up a chain of kiosks.

The idea is to put the unmanned kiosks in key locations. They’ve even considered putting them into the parkades of multi-family residences to capture the busy, perhaps single, professional.

“For the kiosks, they’re stocked and we predetermine the meals that are going to be loaded in there based on demographic,” he said.

Newer kiosks collect basic information, so they have an understanding of who’s eating what.

Beyond that, Hale said there’s an opportunity to build bigger, unmanned, corner-store style locations. If people have already placed an order for one of the meals, they can conveniently scan a bar code at the door, enter and grab their food.

They’re trying to do this and maintain a level of affordability. Kiosk meals average around $11, while the online average is $13.

“Of course, if you go to the grocery store and cook your own meals, you’re going to save a lot of money. But, it’s going to take a lot more time,” he said.

“It’s an opportunity cost of what you value more – what you want to do with your time.”

Next course: Expansion

Hale said they have a good, scalable model intact. They’re hoping to expand into Eastern Canada and the United States.

Their time in the Junction Program with Platform Calgary is helping them refine what they’ve already done. It’s also linking them with other business owners.

“One thing they really help you do is build that data room,” Hale said.

He said they have much of the information required by potential investors, but it might not always be in the way it should be presented.

Right now, Nutrimeals is focusing on their two-pronged growth: Kiosks and the ecommerce platform.

Hale said they wanted to be first in the autonomous retail side. They expect to deploy more of the kiosks and set up partnerships with other companies.

He said they won’t favour one over the other until one makes more sense.

In the end, they want to be a household name in meal preparation across Canada.

“At the moment, I think to just explore the market and the industry is pretty fun and innovative for us,” Hale said.

“We want to see where it takes us.”