Famed Silicon Valley entrepreneur and advisor Steve Blank has said that “a startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” That’s why it’s not uncommon for a startup to pivot during its lifetime as it searches for that repeatable model.
So I wasn’t too surprised when I saw that First Chop, a company that started out selling protein-only consumer meal kits complete with their own sous vide circulators, had pivoted and moved towards selling more complete meals to businesses.
I originally covered First Chop back in November of 2017, writing:
FirstChop is looking to stand out in the competitive meal shipping space in few ways. First, it only does meal proteins: chicken, beef, lamb, etc.; no vegetables, no starches. Second, all those proteins are cooked, and then frozen and vacuum sealed, so you can eat them on your own schedule. And third, the Bay Area-based company is basically giving away a sous-vide wand so all customers have to do is put the frozen bag of meat in hot water to prepare it.
Turns out that “all customers have to do” was actually big ask.
I talked with First Chop Co-Founder and CEO, Ajay Narain, today who said that there were two big issues with his company’s original plan. First was that customer acquisition costs got too high and it unsustainable to go directly after consumers. The other big issue was that the sous vide element proved too much for most customers.
“Sous vide was too steep a hill to climb.” Narain said, “[Customers] had to understand the benefit of sous vide and buy into the premise that the food would come out better and pay a bunch of money to try it out.”
Spoiler: they didn’t.
It wasn’t just educating them on sous vide, Narain said. Even if they used the wand perfectly, customers still had issues with the cooking method. Sous vide cooking takes a long time. You have to heat the water to the right temperature, then slowly heat the protein, which, in the case of First Chop’s food, took even longer because it was frozen. All in, customers were looking at more than an hour before they got to eat a First Chop meal.
Plus, Narain said, while sous vide heats food to a precise temperature, that temperature often isn’t as hot as people want when they eat. “The food comes out the perfect temperature, but for most people it’s not hot enough. It’s 140 degrees, but you’re used to piping hot food in your mouth.”
Facing all these challenges, Narain and co. decided to pivot this past January, shifting from a direct-to-consumer model towards a B2B model. With the revamped meal service, the sous vide wand is out and carbohydrates are in. First Chop now still fully prepares, cooks and assembles chef-prepared meals, but they are now in two pouches that you re-heat in the microwave. Instead of an hour, meals take two minutes.
First Chop is now aiming to sell to food service companies like Aramark, but before they can do that, the company first has to show some ground level interest. As such, First Chop piloted its new service with an unnamed Bay Area company earlier this year. The company is preparing for a more full launch in the next few months, but Narain said that during its first business trial, First Chop sold as much product than it sold in its first year as a consumer play.
While that kind of initial return is definitely good news for the privately funded First Chop, the company is venturing into a crowded market. There are lots of companies looking to sell into offices through various innovative means. Byte Technologies licenses out smart fridges. Markov pairs its high-tech microwave with a meal kit solution. And the just-launched-in-the-U.S. Genie is a one-touch machine that cooks and stirs freeze-dried meals in a cup. Not to mention all of the office catering startups.
With its pivot complete, now we’ll have to see if First Chop’s pivot has paid off and whether it’s found its repeatable, scalable business model.