Zoni Foods, formerly Kitchen Table, a startup founded by two Yale School of Management alumni that produces plant-based frozen meal kits, has expanded into four Connecticut stores, and is eyeing expansion into other parts of the Northeast.
Zoë Lloyd FES ’17, who co-founded the company last May with Nilofer Ahmed SOM ’16, said Zoni has expanded to two stores in New Haven: Elm City Market and Edge of the Woods, as well as Thyme & Season Market in Hamden and Highland Park Market in Manchester, Conn. The entrepreneurs will also expand to two other New Haven locations this week: P&M Orange Street Market and Good Nature Market on Broadway. They are looking to expand to other natural food stores, including Whole Foods stores in Connecticut, Boston and New York.
According to Lloyd, in the past 10 months, Zoni has finalized its branding and packaging design, improved its production process and launched its products in-store. Priced at $5.99 for a one-serving package, the zesty peanut noodles and coconut curry noodles are two of three meal kit flavors currently offered in stores. The third flavor, sweet potato spirals, will be available in stores in the coming months, Lloyd said.
“We have done testing on the way we process and freeze the vegetables to maintain proper nutrient levels and quality of the food,” Lloyd said. “[This has] been a lot of learning because we’re using an innovative process that manufacturers haven’t used before.”
Lloyd added that traditional freezing technology for frozen foods involves blanching, shocking and freezing foods, but that their process takes inspiration from the culinary world.
According to Ahmed, the company has also faced a brand transition. The team is in the process of legally changing its name from Kitchen Table to Zoni, after realizing that a strong name is one that is unique, easily searchable online, and memorable.
Chris Masterson, an assistant store manager at Thyme & Season in Hamden, said the store decided to place Zoni on its shelves to support a local, small startup with a “fresh look and a fresh taste.” Masterson purchased 24 units — 12 each of the two flavors currently available. After selling well and receiving positive feedback from customers, the store has recently ordered another 24 kits.
Masterson added that Zoni is unique among local food companies in its creation of frozen meals.
“An actual local business that is making a fresh-tasting meal is what attracted me, because most frozen meals are huge productions, so to have fresh ingredients in a frozen meal is a unique thing to have on our shelves,” he said.
To increase brand awareness, Zoni has provided in-store demonstrations. From these demonstrations, Lloyd and Ahmed hope to understand what consumers enjoy about the product, and make adjustments as necessary based on that feedback.
According to Lloyd, Zoni was initially targeted toward young working professionals who are looking to eat more health-consciously, but lack the time or energy to cook a full meal from scratch. Through customer surveys, the founders discovered that the consumer groups were actually much broader, including working parents, the elderly, and those working in careers with unpredictable schedules.
“One thing that sets Zoni apart from competitors, in my opinion, is how healthy and nutritious the food is,” said Ema Tanovic GRD ’20, who first heard about Zoni during its in-store demo at Elm City Market. “[Buying a frozen meal] would normally not appeal to me because of how unhealthy most frozen food seems, but Zoni’s plant-based approach and emphasis on nutrients is totally different.”
According to Ahmed, Zoni’s goal for the remainder of the year is to scale even bigger and begin working with retail distributors.
“It’s great that we can be in independent stores, but our goal for the end of the year is to be closer to working with food brokers and food distributors at a larger scale,” Ahmed said. Food brokers are people with close ties to larger national chains who can create relationships with those companies.
According to Jennifer McFadden SOM ’08, associate director of entrepreneurial programs at the School of Management, Lloyd and Ahmed have a clear understanding of the overall market and the needs of their initial target audience.
“They have found a hole in the existing set of offerings in the frozen food aisle, which tend to be high in fat, salt, and preservatives, and light on nutritional benefits and taste,” McFadden said.
Lloyd said her experiences at a Philadelphia-based nonprofit food distributor inspired her to launch Zoni, and Ahmed said a key influence was her interactions with food entrepreneurs in the MBA’s Across America program, which takes business school students on road trips across the country to promote entrepreneurship in small towns and cities.
Zoni has produced over 1,200 frozen meal kits since its founding.