Anyone who’s ever been the person responsible for a meal at dinner time knows the feeling that is the five o’clock horror.
Maybe you only had to cook for yourself, perhaps it was just you and your roommate or partners — or perhaps, like Laura Moore, you’ve found yourself cooking for a mixed household that included a student athlete, a couple of senior citizens, a Type II diabetic and a spouse trying to lose a little weight.
But whatever the conditions, the problem presents the same way, supper beckons and one does not have the faintest idea what to eat.
And this moment, DinnerTime Co-Founder Charles Moore told Karen Webster in a recent conversation, is the point when bad habits start to takeover for consumers — Chinese food is ordered, pizza is procured — because despite the high salt and fat contents, they have the immeasurable benefits of being a simple answer to what’s for dinner. And, even when cooking wins out, Moore noted, the person in charge of the galley often feels like they are sort of defaulting instead of providing the right culinary experience.
“In my personal case, it was my wife who said to me, ‘I have this problem every night — I have to come up with an answer for what’s for dinner?’ I helpfully told her, ‘Well, you’re doing a great job,’” but she owned this problem and was stressed about it all the time.”
While many consumers know Moore’s pain, most do not have a degree from the Harvard Business School like Laura Moore does — nor over a decade of experience investing in the food and grocery businesses. Which means the Moores were in a unique position to come up with a unique insight in 2011 when they formed DinnerTime.
“We can solve this problem with math and data. We can answer that answer — ‘What is for dinner?’ — by giving people a set of recipes that fit their needs and take a lot of the guesswork out of mealtime.”
How It Works
There are a lot of sites that help consumers find recipes — Moore noted that Yummly is an excellent example of this done well.
But DinnerTime takes a “different approach.”
“You create a profile that is your usual everyday-type meal — you tell us about what kinds of things you like to eat. Then you add in data about your time budget, the skill level of cook, allergies, dietary restrictions and specific taste profiles. You also can set what specific budget limits you want — and what store do you like to do your shopping as well as what day do you like to shop.”
The site — and the algorithm that powers it — then takes all that data and spins it up into a meal plan for the customer. That plan can be for seven meals or as many as 14 meals. Once the plan is set, the app also kicks back a shopping list that is scaled out to the exact ingredients — and amount of ingredients that will be needed.
And for some customers, they can even go from that list directly to a purchase.
“Our big news two weeks ago is that we integrated with Peapod. With a push of a button you can create your Peapod order.”
The system also learns and knows how to vary the program. So dishes that consumers show special enthusiasm for with a five-star rating, the system marks as a favorite and notes to include in the rotation.
The system is also wired into saving consumers money — by literally monitoring the store ads nationwide to make sure menus optimize around an average cost of $3 per serving.
“We track 15,000 stores nationwide. And if your grocery store is not part of our system, in most cases you can type it in, and we will add it within a week,” Moore noted. “So in one week, you will see salmon as a recommended dish because it is a sale item in the store — the following week, you will get a halibut recipe, because that is what is on special at your favored shop.”
And that focus on savings, he said, is much of what distinguishes DinnerTime from the more traditional meal kit services that abound.
Meal Kits’ Imperfect Fit
For urban consumers — particularly those in high-cost markets like New York or San Francisco — the average $12 serving price on offer from one of the many “meal-in-a-box” services saturating the market is a very good deal.
“To the rest of America or anyone on a budget that doesn’t have high disposable income, that is a lot to spend. We are serving a comparable meal, made at home out of regular grocery items. For a family of four, that saving really adds up,” Moore said.
Anecdotally, Moore noted, some patrons of DinnerTime report saving as much as 40 percent on their food budget, because they aren’t shopping for groceries on Saturday only to get to Wednesday, lose hope and say, “Let’s order some Chinese.”
And the convenience factor, Moore stated, isn’t as strongly on the meal kits’ side — since even those pre-packaged kits can take 30-40 minutes to put on the table, which is a time budget DinnerTime’s parameters can accommodate.
“A frequent issue I hear from people who use meal kits is how long and complicated they can be to get on the table.”
But, he notes, “meal-in-a-box” has an obvious appeal — whereas personalized meal plans are not something with which consumers are as familiar.
Which is why they have an unusual approach to entering the market — with a little help from their friends in the corporate community.
The B2B2C Model
Though DinnerTime does have some customers who find them and sign on for either a monthly or yearly subscription, the majority of their business comes through businesses who buy a corporate subscription and then offer their employees free access to the service.
Because, Moore said, employers have an incentive to keep their employees eating healthy.
“Progressive employers get it that it is important and that 50 percent of all health care costs are driven by chronic conditions that are either preventable or managed through diet. Those health conditions are a huge drain on the budget and that is a huge motivator and ROI for consumers to have access to DinnerTime.”
Health plans — he insisted — are coming around to the same idea and have noted that helping their employees eat better on the front end can save a lot of money in Type II diabetes treatments on the backend.
Selling the employees on using it — that is a bit of the challenge sometimes, “because there is nothing else like this.”
The emphasis is the savings of time and money — and at most corporate partnerships they see a 25 percent sign-on rate in the first year that grows to 40 percent in year two.
“One employer we worked with put a financial incentive — they got to 65 percent employee enrollment in the first year.”
And those enrollees see benefits. One partner with whom they piloted — Blue Cross Blue Shield — saw its employees BMI collectively decline. And among users who noted weight loss as a goal of using the system — 85 percent of members — most saw weight loss of 14 pounds within six months, and 16 pounds within the year.
“This is not a yo-yo diet; it is a lifestyle change.”
A lifestyle change, Moore said, that Americans are increasingly needing, as two-thirds report being overweight.
The competition, he noted, for his service are the fast food restaurants that are offering fast, but empty calories on demand — and thus an easy answer to the question, “What’s for dinner.”
DinnerTime thinks it can answer the question better, while taking a lot of the work out of the choice for the customer.
“Whoever said math couldn’t be delicious?” Moore said.