As dinner approaches each day, many Americans don’t know the answer to the question of what will be on their table that evening.
Jeff Glasco, co-founder of Happy Food Co., a meal-kit company based in Overland Park, Kansas, saw an opportunity in that question.
“The statistic is that by 4 p.m. each day, 80 percent of people in America don’t know what they’re having for dinner tonight,” he said. “[I thought] what if we made a home-cooked meal convenient by making it available in nontraditional spots?”
Glasco hit his own point of frustration with grocery shopping in 2013 while shopping for himself and his wife, who was pregnant with their daughter. He said they both were busy with work but had become accustomed to cooking fresh food while they lived abroad.
“We weren’t great cooks, though, and we were terrible planners,” he said. “I’d go and do that cycle of walk into a store, wander around, throwing the same thing in my cart. I remember walking out of the house thinking, ‘Why are there so many things to choose from in the store, but I don’t know what to buy to make something that’s good, that I’m going to like?’”
Glasco, along with Kiersten Firquain, also known as Chef K, started Happy Food Co. in 2015. The two met through mutual acquaintances before starting the company in suburban Kansas City.
In 2016, the company launched its direct-to-consumer meal kits, which include all of the ingredients needed to make the meal, already measured and with instructions.
Unlike many other meal-kit companies that require subscriptions or provide only home-delivery service, however, the company expanded its footprint to sell its kits in 60 locations in the Kansas City region, mostly in Price Chopper and Hen House grocery stores. Consumers can pick up kits for sides and main dishes from coolers located in the stores’ produce sections.
In total, the company offers more than 100 recipes for meals. Glasco said the company’s most popular item is its bison cheeseburger quesadilla kit, which comes with chips and ingredients for a green-apple guacamole. His personal favorite of the moment is the chicken taco kit.
Good food for real people
Glasco is not a stranger to startups. He started his company after helping to support other small businesses through the Overland Park-based Archer Foundation, founded by his mentor Jon Darbyshire, who also founded the software company Archer Technologies.
Glasco, too, has a technology background. He started his career at Accenture, a large tech-consulting company. He left to join Archer Technologies, where he worked on a product-development team.
“It was the first time I was creating something,” he said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but that process of creating a product, creating something was something I really enjoyed and had been missing.”
Darbyshire sold the company in 2010 and asked Glasco to help him launch the foundation. Glasco said Darbyshire’s vision was to be one of the area’s first technology incubators.
“In that role, my job was basically to support early-stage companies,” he said.
Glasco said he now believes he’d always been heading in the direction of going into business for himself. Through his work with the foundation, he got a taste of that process.
He said he put together his own business plan for Happy Food Co. apart from his work at the foundation. He completed market research and put his ideas on paper.
When the company launched, other well-funded, subscription-based meal services such as Blue Apron were already at their peak.
“When we looked at that back then, I didn’t think that that business model was sustainable or achievable,” he said. “We have a mantra here: It’s good food for real people, and real people live variable lives, very dynamic.”
By contrast, he said consumers may not use all of their subscription kits or need that many.
He said the idea for Happy Food Co. took off when he connected with Firquain.
She happened to be at a point in her career where she was looking for her next big enterprise — Glasco said she’d sold her prior business and decided to come on board.
He said they each have different but complementary skill sets that they bring to the company.
In the coming year, Glasco said the company is looking to scale back the number of local stores in which it sells its kits from 60 to 10 as it works on new projects.
He said the company is planning to launch in the next year a platform that allows grocery chains to provide their own private-label/white-label meal kits.
He said grocers often are reluctant to make their own meal kits because of structural barriers that exist in their stores, as well as issues with labor shortages and supply chains.
Glasco said despite those barriers, grocers would do well to innovate because in the next decade, they can expect to see consumers buying an estimated 20 percent of their food products online.
“We believe that fresh meal solutions like meal kits will continue to be a very big thing,” he said. “So the question [is] how can we be a strategic partner to enable them to do this stuff in ways that they can execute well.”
The company also is investing in the food-as-nutrition space, teaming with hospital systems, grocers and consumers to help provide food for individuals’ specific dietary needs. The project would include a tech platform where, for example, people diagnosed with diabetes could find products that fit their dietary restrictions.
Already, the company has partnered with an Ohio grocer and hospital system, and the company hopes to work out a deal with a Kansas City-area hospital system.
Glasco said a surprising aspect of starting the business has been the fundraising process.
He called it “surprisingly hard, terribly brutal” and “awful.”
Part of what made the process difficult was the path the company has taken, Glasco said. The company entered the market while subscription meal kits were very popular, and it was difficult to differentiate what Happy Food Co. was doing in comparison to subscription services.
“We thought that we were fundable, but that’s been surprisingly hard for us,” he said.
From the beginning, Glasco hoped to combine technology with food, but the tech side has lagged because of the struggle to fund it, he said.
The company initially raised capital from friends and family, and it continued to obtain smaller amounts of venture capital, he said. Being undercapitalized has put the company at a disadvantage at times, he acknowledged, particularly in terms of investing in technology that could help the company cut its labor costs.
The psychological toll of scarce resources was also another surprise, Glasco said. Experiencing a scarcity mindset leads business owners to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, from cashing in their 401ks to maxing out credit cards and taking out second mortgages on their homes, he said.
“All those things are things that we’ve done, and those are things that I’ve never done before,” he said. “It’s not surprising to me that we had to do those things. It was surprising the mental toll that it took on me.”
Glasco said that area has been his biggest area of growth.
“The mindset you bring each day dictates how successful you’re going to be at selling your company and selling your vision,” he said.