Convenience is king in New York City. Food delivery, from groceries to prepared food, has been a lucrative industry for many years now. New Yorkers lacking the time, means or inclination to cook can call on a fleet of independent delivery services or select options from curated platforms such as Seamless or GrubHub.
However these options can sometimes lack the feel or nutrition of a classic home-cooked meal or be too expensive to cater for a whole family. Now a new sector is booming: meal delivery for families. From investment funds pouring money into this area — more than $1 billion in 2014 to be precise — to entrepreneurs flocking to meet the challenge, meal delivery is hot (or in this case cold, but designed to be heated at home). One start-up that recently launched in the city that’s catering to that demographic is a tech-meets-culinary savvy business: CookUnity.
CookUnity is the brainchild of three co-founders from Argentina who all have backgrounds in food and tech: Matias Serebrinsky, Mateo Marietti and Lucia Cisilotto (Serebrinsky headed up Sony Playstation for Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay before relocating with the company to San Francisco). Despite a plethora of delivery options, the busy manager missed his connection to fresh, family-style meals using local ingredients. As he started to investigate the delivery sector further, the realization dawned on him that “the food chain is completely broken.” Combining his tech know-how with the logistics expertise of fellow co-founder Marietti, who heads up the biggest food delivery network in Argentina (Sushipop), and Cisilotto, who also ran operations for the business, CookUnity was born.
Following help from start-up incubator AngelPad and capitalizing on the high urban density of New York City to test their ideas, the trio launched CookUnity here on the East Coast. The service now caters to a good chunk of Manhattan four days a week and growing. The team’s dream is to expand to areas currently underserved by other meal delivery services such as Queens and other cities.
Like fellow venture-funded star Munchery, CookUnity meals are prepared, cooked and chilled first ready to be reheated by the customer. Working with chilled food means the company can keep operating costs to a minimum by using a decentralized storage model. More importantly for the founders however, chilled food needs to be reheated by the customer, which in turn creates an experience and relationship to the food that might otherwise be lacking in standard takeout delivery. This is crucial for CookUnity. Beyond providing a useful and tasty service, the business’s goal is to provide meals at a price point and quality that families feel comfortable ordering from multiple times a week. With prices ranging from $9-$14 a serving the menu is considerably cheaper than other offerings in the city. It might also explain why after only six months, the small business now delivers over 120 meals a day and growing.
Another factor for CookUnity’s instant success is choice: Customers choose from an ever-changing menu of options, with three different dishes available each day. Options are based on what’s in season. Where possible the company sources from New York’s Greenmarkets or Baldor Foods’ organic line when local ingredients aren’t available. A full list of ingredients is shown on the site for each meal, and the local menu is designed to reflect the tastes and ingredients of the region as well as individual expertise of CookUnity chefs. As the company expands, dishes will change according to customer tastes, local traditions and ingredients. Providing a background to the food and meal is a key part of the business’s appeal, helping customers to identify with not just the finished product but every step of the process. “This is a match-making service for food,” says Serebrinsky.
The chefs who prepare each meal are local, too. Every chef undergoes training and vetting by the team at CookUnity to determine which dishes best showcase their individual style. Most are also private chefs or restaurant chefs looking to branch out or earn extra income. The weekly menu and schedule is then centrally curated by the management team. Every chef cooks 70 meals a day and only prepares dishes each has been cleared to cook during evaluation. Part League of Kitchens-esque showcase, part takeout service, chefs usually specialize in certain styles or cultural cuisines.
Chefs prep and cook meals across a number of kitchens. CookUnity takes advantage of the shared economy model to lease space in professional kitchens, usually between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., when spaces would otherwise be idle. That creates value for restaurants and kitchens who find a new source of revenue during non-business hours. This model also enables the start-up to prepare meals without investing in costly kitchen spaces or equipment.
The CookUnity team also leases a cost-efficient industrial space in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, itself undergoing a food-service related revival, to house a fleet of delivery vans and chillers. Prepared food from kitchens is picked up and stored in distribution locations around the city ready to provide on-demand fresh delivery within 30 minutes of an order. By cutting out the back and forth associated with central warehouses or kitchens, the productivity of each driver is higher, the meals fresher.
Even though the business currently only delivers Monday through Thursday, customers can contact the team via the site’s client chat any day of the week. This is tech-meets-distribution efficiency for food. CookUnity is a prime example of a decentralized, hyper-local food service geared toward the 21st century urban and digital economy. Fresh ideas meet fresh ingredients.
Photos courtesy of CookUnity.