Updated: May 16
An interview with Heidi Finley, owner of Maven Meals
Maven Meals began a decade ago, with a commitment to provide healthy meals to families across Seattle. And, while they’ve tested several different formats from retail to catering, the core of their business model and their mission continues to revolve around meal delivery. After ten years of steady growth, Maven Meals took 2019 to strengthen their foundation, investing in marketing, ordering/meal design systems, and internal operations….and what foresight that turned out to be. In January, they had their biggest month ever, followed by continued growth in February.
Then, March. The world changed. And, their growth doubled on a dime. Now Maven Meals finds themselves at an inflection point, deeply considering how meal delivery, once a niche business, now offers the potential to fundamentally shift how we get food and build connections.
After a decade in business, 2019 was really a rebuilding year for you, how did that come about?
We closed Vashon (a storefront mercantile) last fall. We made the decision to do that because our meal delivery was growing at a really good pace. Though the Vashon shop was profitable, it was not worth the grief to benefit ratio…it wasn’t worth the distraction. And, we had the opportunity to transition the lease and all of the equipment to another food business owner - that felt good to support another small women-owned business, to give her that opportunity.
At the same time, when we closed Vashon, we had the opportunity to take over the space right next door to our Burien location.
So, you find yourselves recently freed up and heading into the holiday season. You took some steps to strengthen your back-end operations to support more production. Is that what contributed to your growth?
Meal delivery is a lot of work. And for a really long time, I wasn't sure how to get myself out of the day-to-day production. That was really hard because, if I'm in the kitchen all the time, I can’t focus on growing the business or looking ahead. I wanted to take some time to dig in.
The change actually started when a company approached us with a kitchen management software that has literally changed my life. Prior to this software, we were running by gut feeling, which meant we had no practical way of costing every menu item and seeing what our menu mix was on a weekly basis. The software has given me the ability to standardize processes and then, whatever scale we're at, easily figure our out recipes and menu costs.
Tools like that that have really empowered me to get out of the kitchen and focus on the business. It's also really empowered my team as well, to feel like they can jump in and be involved and take ownership of things and they know that they're going to be successful on the other side.
Before the COVID-related shutdowns, how was your business doing? Was it in a growth stage or were you just stable?
We were strong and growing.
Last year was a bit of an investment year. Toward the end of the year, we finally launched our new website. We added in some additional layers of management in the kitchen. After all these years, we hired a marketing person.
For so many years, I was so hesitant to do too much marketing because we were having really natural growth. Every year we'd see 30 plus percent growth. What if, all of a sudden, we double our orders in the span of a couple of weeks? It's going to sink us. But we finally got to the point where we had enough systems and people in place where I felt confident in going all in.
And that’s where we were at. January was the busiest month we'd ever had. February was close on its heels. Then COVID hit in March and we did 95% more than that.
We're literally, year-to-date, up 90% in business. I think if this had happened a year ago, it would have sunk us.
What is driving that growth? Is it an increase in the number of customers or is it growth in your average check value?
Prior to COVID, a great week was 350 to 375 orders with an average order value of $70. Now we have upwards of 600 orders with an average order value of almost a hundred dollars. So, we’ve seen a ridiculous increase.
How did you figure out a path forward, while you are experiencing such incredible growth and while the rules and expectations are changing every minute?
That first week, every decision required us to innovate. One of the first things I did was put together a plan. King County had put out some guidelines for how to plan for pandemic. I saw it and I was like, okay, this is what we need to do…this needs to be our framework. So I took a whole day and made that my priority to figure out the potential challenges, opportunities and the critical points in our supply chain. I figured the biggest potential pain point was our employees and if a staff member got sick.
This was my playbook. And it was my process for getting the plan out of my head and to other people.
Was there a part of that planning and roll-out that surprised you?
I thought the most stressful part of our response would be ensuring the health of our staff. Actually, that’s been the least of it. All of the other pieces – managing our supply chain issues and working to grow our staff –have been the real challenge.
And, once we got through those first few weeks, we were able to step back and ask bigger questions like how can we serve the healthcare workers? How can we help other small businesses? And, how can we put our existing infrastructure to work to support some of these other needs in the community? That's the piece that's been the most powerful and the most gratifying.
Amidst all of this, have you thought about how you might sustain this kind of growth? Or whether you even want to?
One of the things that's driven the growth of our average order value has been partnering with other small businesses who have lost their own distribution through the shuttering of farmer's markets. Before, our order value had a cap because we were only offering meals. But, now our customers can order pantry items like coffee, bagels, cream cheese, hummus: they have more options to buy from us.
In August, before we launched our new website, our average order value was $55 to $60. And before the pandemic it got up to $75, which we thought was huge. But now we're right around a hundred. The pandemic forced us to open up our thinking on what we could sell and what we could do. I want to continue making those relationships with other small businesses.
That’s beautiful: In your growth, you’ve been able to support other small businesses. What’s next?
We were always seeking that elusive 500 orders a week. And, now we're doing 550 or more orders a week, plus we're donating a thousand meals a week to healthcare workers. So, we got over the hump and I can now see what's possible with our business. I definitely want to continue to drive that forward.
For the last few years, my goal has been to buy a building and have an actual commercial production space versus. For the first time ever, I feel like that is a possibility.
What do you wish government understood about your business right now?
The biggest frustration for me is our absolute need for employees - we are having a really hard time finding qualified employees, at a time when so many restaurant employees are unemployed. We simply can’t compete with the unemployment bonus.
Is there anything that you wish that your customers or your community understood?
We are offering the opportunity for our customers to sponsor meals for healthcare workers. We will put our infrastructure to work as long as people want to support it. And, week after week after week, people are sponsoring these meals. After the first week, we thought, ‘this won't last’ but it keeps going.
We really are in it with our customers, to help people stay home and stay healthy. We can do this together.
Let’s end on a really joyful note: you’ve had a big weekend!
Yes, I got married! Our original wedding date was supposed to be May 30th. And, actually quite early on, before they had even shut things down, we saw the writing on the wall. Both of our families were traveling in from all over the country. So, it was at the point where we needed to either start making plans or change the date. And it wasn’t really fair to us, to keep stringing this along. And so we decided, let's just do the legal part of it.
A friend organized it with a couple of our neighbors and friends. They made this beautiful cake and a bouquet and it turned out to be really amazing, very memorable, very special. So, that's totally been a highlight of the quarantine, for sure.
Snapshot from the Pandemic Life
The book you’ve discovered during the quarantine: The Authenticity Project
What’s kept you sane: riding horses
The highlight: getting married!
Where have you gotten support, as an entrepreneur: The F-Bomb Breakfast Club, for women entrepreneurs