Two members of the Yale community are proving that healthy eating and saving time are not mutually exclusive: Zoë Lloyd SOM ’17 F&ES ’17 and Nilofer Ahmed SOM ’16 created Kitchen Table last spring, a startup that provides plant-based frozen meal kits.
Lloyd said that the idea behind Kitchen Table formed between 2010 and 2013 while she worked for Common Market Philadelphia, a nonprofit food distributor that purchases farm-fresh food from family farms and distributes it to public schools, hospitals and retailers. Ahmed’s interest in food and agriculture began when she participated in the MBAs Across America program, which takes business school students on road trips across the country to promote entrepreneurship in small towns and cities. She said that while driving from Michigan to Montana, she worked with food entrepreneurs and developed an interest in the field.
Through an SOM entrepreneurial “speed-dating” activity, Ahmed, who has a background in quantitative analysis, connected with Lloyd, who had previously worked in food distribution. Initially, Lloyd said, the pair worked on Wonkie, a model that buys fruits and vegetables from mid-sized family farms and converts them to high-end artisanal products. However, she added that there was a lack of interest among many farms that sold or donated all their produce.
Lloyd said that it was then that the pair pivoted to Kitchen Table, which produces plant-based frozen meal kits that take 15 minutes to prepare without a microwave. She added that since starting Kitchen Table last spring, Lloyd and Ahmed have placed in six different pitch competitions and garnered $20,000 in funding, through sources including the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute’s Venture Creation Program and the Yale SOM Summer Entrepreneurial Fellowship Award.
“What sets Kitchen Table apart is that it’s all fresh and all current. It has no preservatives because it’s plant-based. You have to use it,” said Justine Jarvie, a senior administrative assistant at the School of Management who tried a Kitchen Table meal kit. “A lot of people see the items in the grocery store but are not entirely sure how to put it together. [Kitchen Table] takes the guesswork out of cooking.”
Maureen Burke, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, said that in general, the market for consumer-packaged goods is extremely competitive and hard to break into because of the sheer number of products available. However, Burke, who has served as an advisor for Lloyd and Ahmed and teaches an F&ES class called Entrepreneurial Venture Creation, said that current trends are working in Kitchen Table’s favor.
She noted that more stores and distributors are now willing to take a chance on new products, starting with a few small locations first.
“[With Kitchen Table], there’s the satisfaction that you’ve cooked something, but there’s also the convenience of pulling it out of your freezer,” Burke said.
According to Lloyd, the team is currently focusing on the production process, including finalizing their approaches to packaging, food safety and commercial production. Ahmed added that there are already establishments interested in launching their product, including three retail stores, Whole Foods in southern Connecticut and most recently, a retailer in Denver, Colorado.
Ahmed added that with an established group of interested customers, the team’s next hurdle is expanding Kitchen Table’s scope.
“We realized that we 100 percent are going to have to work with a branding firm, and for marketing, we will need lots of support for online and offline marketing, including in-store demos and demos at trade shows and food shows,” Ahmed said. “In six months, we will need a [vice president] of sales to manage our growth. But it’s amazing that we’ve been able to get so far with just us two and a team of advisors.”
Ahmed said that the logistics of the product can be complicated, and that she and Lloyd have had to work with several kitchens capable of meeting their needs and understanding their goals. She added that finding the right people and expertise to tap into will represent a challenge, moving forward.
Lloyd stressed the importance of failure during previous iterations of Kitchen Table. She added that earlier in the creation process prototype failed while the team was using a particular type of freezing machine. From that experience, Lloyd and Ahmed discovered a new freezing process.
“Sometimes you can’t prevent the failures from happening, you just have to fail and then learn. And learning to be okay with that, I think, has been challenging,” Lloyd said. “As MBA students especially, you’re not really taught to fail. And if you do fail, you should fail really fast.”
The Yale School of Management was founded in 1976.