Geneva’s RealEats America wins $1 million top prize in Grow-NY competition

New York is about to get more real. More RealEats America, that is.

The Geneva meal-subscription company won the top, $1 million prize in the competition for start-up companies featured in the Grow-NY Food & Ag Summit ending Wednesday evening.

RealEats was one of 199 companies that originally applied for the competition and one of 17 selected to make pitches for their businesses at the summit. Victor’s The Perfect Granola was one of the four companies that won $250,000 in the competition.  Those two were the only Rochester-area finalists in the competition, which requires winners to establish or expand an operation in the region comprising the Finger Lakes, Central New York and part of the Southern Tier.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (second from left) congratulates the $1 million prize winners of the Grow-NY competition: RealEats of America's CEO Dan Wise, culinary advisor Aliya LeeKong, and chief operating officee Keith Lydon,
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (second from left) congratulates the $1 million prize winners of the Grow-NY competition: RealEats of America’s CEO, Dan Wise, culinary advisor, Aliya LeeKong, and chief operating officer, Keith Lydon.

RealEats founder and CEO Dan Wise said, “We are so thrilled to have won this prize money and are so thankful to New York State for this opportunity. With this prize, we will be able to leverage the amazing resources in the region to take our startup to the next level.”

During his presentation to the Grow-NY judges, Wise said the prize will allow RealEats to add 30 workers to its current workforce of 50 as it expands its market. The company makes fully prepared meals, vacuum seals them and ships them to customers in 22 states. The customers reheats the meal packets in boiling water, cutting out 60 minutes of meal preparation and clean-up a day, RealEats contends.

Many of the ingredients RealEats makes into the meals are produced locally; the ability to source those ingredients and gain additional food production expertise were among the reasons the company settled in the area. The meals are notable for their chef-created recipes and lack of additives, yet have a shelf life of seven days because of their preparation methods.

RealEats is working now on a pilot project with We Work, the chain of co-working shared office spaces, to provide refrigerated vending machines from which workers can purchase meals. Wise said the We Work project will provide the company access to 100,000 more potential subscribers and can be replicated in other settings, such as college campuses.

The company also continues to tweak its menu, said Aliya LeeKong, the celebrity chef who is advising RealEats on its selections. RealEats added breakfast options last year, and in the next month will begin offering mix-and-match options on side dishes and entrees, and bring in soups, too.

Thursday morning, Wise said he was surprised that RealEats beat the other finalists. “I was shocked, actually, and very humbled. There was some really great competition there. A lot of people are doing great things for the region.”

The prize will allow the company to embark on its plans to build out, in two phases, up to 50,000 square feet in the Geneva business center it occupies in that Ontario County city. RealEats will also deepen its relationship with its current suppliers and develop more relationships with local farmers, Wise said.

“To be put in that class and to win the big prize is quite overwhelming. It’s another thing that solidifies our relationship with the region,” he said.

RealEats will bring on board more specific types of employees to further its mission: more food makers, quality assurance staff, customer service workers and process engineers.

Each of the finalists worked with a mentor or two who coached them on developing their business plan and pitch. Wise said it’s hard to quantify how much RealEats got from its mentor, Eric Mozdy, business technology director for Corning Research and Development Corp.

“He is a world of knowledge.  Even had we not won a thing, it would have really helped us to grow through the experience,” Wise said. Mozdy introduced the company to potential partners in pairing RealEats foods with wine, and in packaging, he said. “He wanted to learn about our business and just help make it better.”

A Grow-NY official estimated that 500 hours of mentoring happened in the lead-up to the summit.

Other winners in the competition include Dropcopter, a Syracuse company that programs drones to pollinate crops such as apples, cherries and almonds; and Tileter, a company from Munich, Germany, that has created a grocery store checkout system that scans goods without needing barcodes. Both of these won $500,000 to further develop their companies.

Three other winners of $250,000 were all from Ithaca: Whole Healthy Food, which develops ingredients, such as white beans, into health-promoting foods; Capro-X, developer of a way to turn whey – a waste product of yogurt-making – into a usable product; and Combplex, a company that has developed a laser system to kill mites that are plaguing honeybees.

[email protected]/(585) 363-7275

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.”

[email protected]/(585) 363-7275