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Geneva’s RealEats expanding fast

Geneva’s RealEats expanding fast

Dan Wise, founder and CEO of RealEats in Geneva, likes to say that at 4 p.m. every day, someone in every household in America has to make a decision about dinner.

And that decision usually pits healthy against easy.

From left, Marco Ballatori, executive chef, and Aliya LeeKong, head of culinary, at RealEats
From left, Marco Ballatori, executive chef, and Aliya LeeKong, head of culinary, at RealEats

Since RealEats began in fall 2017, the startup company has been shipping healthy and easy meals to customers in 22 states, and the staff has grown to more than 30.

Now a $500,000 state grant and another $3 million in tax credits will be available for RealEats to expand further, swelling the company to 400 workers and a larger and deeper footprint in the next five years.

In November, the company was shipping 4,000 meals a week; by next year it expects to sell 120,000 meals a week and be well under way on its $2 million expansion plans.

“We have landed at the intersection of the three biggest trends in the food industry,” said Wise, meaning healthy food, fresh ingredients and hyper-convenience.

RealEats delivers pre-cooked and portioned meals to customers, who order weekly over the Internet. The customers pop the vacuum-packaged food into the refrigerator for up to a week and rewarm them in boiling water when they’re ready to eat.

Former state Sen. Michael Nozzolio, who continues to work in economic development, said RealEats “had just a great new story for what we’d like to believe is a new age for food production, food preparation and delivery.” Supporting a company like this can have a huge economic impact on the Geneva area, he said.

Even more, said City Manager Sage Gerling, the company’s culture matches Geneva’s triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental impact. Additionally, it fits in with Geneva’s new identity as a food entrepreneurship hub. That’s one reason the city arranged to have RealEats be its first tenant in its incubator kitchen space at the Geneva Enterprise Development Center. 

RealEats has begun hiring as a first step in its expansion, but Executive Chef Marco Ballatori notes there is only so much space in the company’s home at the Geneva Enterprise Development Center where those new employees can go until more kitchen and refrigeration space is added.

RealEats delivers pre-cooked and portioned meals to customers, who order weekly over the Internet.
RealEats delivers pre-cooked and portioned meals to customers, who order weekly over the Internet.

The center, though, has plenty of space to convert and Wise said the company’s chief planner is working on plans for the buildout.

In the meantime, though, RealEats can expand production by adding a second shift, Ballatori said.

“Putting more shifts into the same space, it solves part of the problem for a little while,” Wise said. “We still need more space and cooling space.”

Adding another shift will have a side effect of creating additional shipping days for customers to choose from, Wise said, thus making RealEats more attractive for more people. Currently the company ships on two days a week and that can expand by two more, he said.

Where are those new customers going to come from?

“Our  marketing team is working pretty hard to drive customers in. We’re all chomping at the bit to output even more food,” Ballatori said.

“We’re trying new things digitally to expand our market,” Wise said. “We’re learning more and more about that customer and really trying to understand what they like about what we’re doing.” So far customers seem to have a concern for health, a desire for convenience and place a premium on fresh, real ingredients, Wise said.

“The key to improve the customer experience is learning about the customer. As part of e-commerce, we have opportunity to know if they like chicken on Wednesday or turkey on Wednesday,” Wise said.

Though RealEats still seems quite new, it already has amassed a significant amount of data from its orders so far. “We have customers who have been with us more than 60 weeks in a row,” Wise said.

As RealEats drills down into customer preferences, it will work with local food producers to plant, grow and deliver more ingredients.

“Our forecasting is getting better and better,” Ballatori said.

RealEats has hired celebrity chef Aliya LeeKong as head of culinary to help plan meals and menus with an emphasis on seasonal availability of local ingredients.

“We’re hopeful that with some predictability, we can go to the local sources of ingredients and ask them to produce certain quantities,” Wise said.

Farmers will not be the only ones benefiting from RealEats’ growth, Nozzolio noted.

“It will have tremendous economic impact for the region. The region has been challenged economically. We’ve seen growth in the city centers,” he said. “The unemployment rate has been at great levels, nonetheless it has not presented great career opportunities.”

The 400 jobs RealEats will create are not just in food preparation, though that’s a large part of what they do. Ballatori said he’s looking for workers with solid chef skills, similar to what’s required in a high-end restaurant kitchen.

“We need cooks, we need clerical work, customer service, packers — people portioning food and getting them in bags,” he said. “People who can work with a sense of urgency and very good math skills” to figure out portions. The company will also create new positions as it expands, such as a supply chain manager to take over those duties from Ballatori.

“We all are really looking forward to this opportunity. We want to make a deep impact in this area,” Ballatori said. “Because of the government’s commitment, we have a chance to do that.”

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