I remember the first time we served 1000 people in my restaurant. It was exhilarating but at the end of the night, we could barely speak. We wanted to give each other a “high five” but we couldn’t even raise our arms. We were physically and mentally spent.
Well, apparently, that was nothing! The team at Freshly is churning out 1 million fresh meals a week. It’s hard to fathom that many meals being cooked, portioned and packaged. Anyone who has worked at a restaurant knows that it is hard enough to get the food from the kitchen to the table in good shape. But cooking, packaging, refrigerating and shipping it to your doorstep—without freezing it—compounds the challenge exponentially. And, designing a meal to be re-heated in the microwave makes it even more challenging.
Freshly is an all-natural, all-fresh, health-focused meal delivery service that was started by Michael Wystrach. The genesis for Freshly was simple. Like many successful entrepreneurs, Michael started with a personal problem. He figured it out and realized that he could help other people with the same issue, and built a business. His problem was how to conveniently eat more healthily without compromising on flavor—something that most of us can relate to.
In 2012, Michael teamed up with a doctor and chefs to create meals—for himself—that were fresh, not frozen, and were both good for you and tasted good. In short order, he began feeling better, and his family and friends commented on how great he looked. They asked him to create the same meals for them, and that was how Freshly was born. In 2015 he decided to scale the idea and established a headquarters for Freshly in New York City, with kitchens across the country.
Most Freshly meal options include meat and poultry. All meals are gluten-free and loaded with vegetables in both expected and unexpected ways. One of the signatures of Freshly is using vegetables where you don’t expect them like pureeing butternut squash to make a silky sauce, using five vegetables to make a more robust marinara and enhancing meatballs with chopped mushrooms. All of this adds up to the bonus of getting more vegetables into your daily diet when you eat Freshly.
I was curious to learn how Freshly could maintain the quality at such a scale. I caught up with Master Chef Thomas Griffiths, the company’s vice president of R & D. Chef Tom is one of 66 certified master chefs in the USA. He taught at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY, for 15 years before working at Campbell’s as a global flavor innovator. If anyone has the chops to oversee a kitchen of this size, he does.
When I asked Chef Tom how they did it, he said, “We focus on one meal at a time, because each meal goes to one person, and each person is special. Quality comes first. If we can’t duplicate the recipe at the quantity that we need, we don’t make it.”
Chef Tom doesn’t create these meals alone. It takes an army of menu planners, creativity, development and scalability to make every single meal. His team includes 6 chefs, 2 culinary nutrition scientists, 2 food scientists and 1 culinary technician. Two of the chefs worked in two of the country’s best fine dining restaurants—Le Bernardin in NYC and Alinea in Chicago—before joining Freshly. And, just like a restaurant, “the test kitchen runs on respect—for the food, the customer and for each other,” Chef Tom explained. Even though it has grown by leaps and bounds, “Freshly still has a start-up mentality and works to innovate and create new meals every day.” he said.
Let’s take the new Freestyle Beef Lasagna meal, for example. Chef Tom and his team were working on a lasagna entrée made with spinach noodles when he came across the idea for a lazy man’s lasagna. They changed their approach and created a deconstructed lasagna with ruffled strips of cauliflower pasta, their five-veggie marinara sauce, chopped spinach, ground beef and three cheeses.
Once Chef Tom and the Meals Portfolio department is happy with the proposed meal, they work with experts from three other departments—quality, health and wellness, and procurement—before the meal can move to operations. For the meal to be approved, not only does it have to check all the traditional boxes of flavor, health and taste, it has to be scale-able. In plain language, can the new recipe be made perfectly 100,000 times or more each week?
If it gets the green light, the meal leaves the test kitchen and goes to operations. In operations, the R&D chef who created the meal works with an operations chef to “bulk up” the recipe and make sure that it can be prepped, cooked and packaged perfectly and consistently before it is added to the Freshly menu. “Everyone is passionate about the mission. We grew fast, but grew incrementally, ” said Chef Tom.
And this is where the “pasta meets the sauce,” so to speak. During the past year or so, the company has increased their volume from 600,000 meals a week to more than a million.
The processes that are in place standardize each meal. “It is essential to make each meal exactly the same, so that when you order it again, it will taste and look exactly as it did the first time you had it,” Chef Tom continued. “All of our food is scratch-cooked, nothing is processed. It’s all real food. We work with farmers to grow the ingredients we need for our meals, and utilize state-of-the-art equipment and technology to implement proper classical cooking techniques on a larger scale,” he explained.
In 2020, Freshly was purchased by Nestle, which will help them continue to scale-up faster and more efficiently while allowing them to continue working autonomously.
With the huge growth that Freshly has experienced this past year, I wondered if, by the time the meals got to me, they would taste as fresh and delicious as Chef Tom described. I was a little skeptical, but I tried five meals and I was pleasantly surprised.
The instructions on the packaging said to microwave the meal for 3 minutes and let it sit for 2 minutes. In true chef manner, the instructions also suggest that you plate the meal on your dinnerware instead of eating it from the microwavable tray. Since the eating experience is also perception—we eat with our eyes before we taste the food—it’s a very smart strategy as the food looks much more appetizing on a plate.
When I tasted the Freestyle Beef Lasagna, I could not believe how good it was. It was a substantial portion of pasta with a chunky vegetable and meat sauce. I fell in love with the cauliflower pasta that tasted just like traditional pasta but with an even better, more toothsome texture. And I appreciated the addition of vinegar which gave the dish a tanginess that made it taste like something I would make myself. Too often prepared dishes rely on sugar when they should add an acidic ingredient to the dish. It was a perfectly balanced dish, full of flavor, and after I plated it in my white French porcelain pasta dish, it was also visually appealing.
But the unexpected winner was the chicken. Chicken is naturally lean and has a tendency to be dry, especially when it is reheated. Not the Freshly chicken. The boneless skinless breasts are baked in a large oven before being assembled and packaged so they are shipped fully cooked. The entrees that I tasted were tender, moist and juicy with just the right amount of sauce to flavor them. I can’t say why for sure (it’s a proprietary secret). My bet is that the Freshly chefs are carefully controlling the cooking process, and cooking the chicken to the perfect end temperature of 165°F but not over it. In case you are looking for a recommendation, my favorites were the Bistro French Onion Chicken and the Zingy Buffalo Chicken. They were both accompanied by vegetables that were as appealing as the chicken, and I felt full, satisfied and not “weighed down” after eating the meals. You can order the fully cooked, ready to re-heat meals at Freshly.com.