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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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Real Eats simplifies meal preparation


With so many choices for meal and delivery services, it can be hard to stand out in a crowded field. But a new Geneva company is trying to do just that with Real Eats.

Marco Ballatori (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)
Marco Ballatori (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

The 13-month-old company is currently shipping 4,000 ready-to-heat-and-eat meals a week from its incubator kitchen in the Geneva Enterprise Development Center. Executive Chef Marco Ballatori said the company expects to be shipping closer to 120,000 meals a week in the next year.

Real Eats’ idea is a catchy one, fueled almost entirely by social media advertising.

“We are bringing a product directly to the consumer,” said Ballatori. “We will deliver to you a full-prepared meal that is nutritious and tasty.”

Unlike meal kits, where you get a box of ingredients and a recipe, or takeout, where you get a rapidly cooling dinner of sometimes questionable nutritional value, Real Eats comes chilled but fully cooked inside vacuum-packed plastic bags. Meals are mostly organic and contain fewer than 600 calories.

When the meals arrive, the consumer places the vacuum-packed bags in the refrigerator and recycles the carton, thermal lining and cold packs. When she’s ready to eat, she puts on a pot of boiling water and drops the bags into boiling water for up to six minutes.

“We give consumers back 60 minutes a day,” said Dan Wise, founder and CEO of Real Eats, describing the company to other startups at a conference in Elbridge, Onondaga County, in September.

Wise followed his family to Montreal in 2007 after living in the New York City area for 12 years. While the idea for the company’s vacuum sealing was conceived in Montreal, he knew he needed a denser population to make the idea work, so he started looking for Startup NY sites, which provide state incentives to companies that locate there. Cornell University was one of the few places that called back, and the staff recommended he talk with the then-city manager of Geneva.

A package of incentives from Geneva and New York State pointed to the city’s enterprise center with its ready-made kitchen.

“Geneva is not the most efficient to ship from, but the amazing support from the city, the county and the state have really helped us,” Wise said. And he couldn’t have dreamed up a better foodshed to be in the middle of than the Finger Lakes region, he said.

Ballatori described a typical customer as someone who is pressed for time, yet wants to eat more healthfully. He cited the UPS driver who started eating Real Eats meals after delivering some of them from the Geneva kitchen. After working a 12-hour day, that driver typically got fast food on the way home. Now after a day of work, he starts a pot of water boiling before jumping in the shower and when he’s dressed, he has a meal like salmon with farro salad in 6 minutes. And he’s lost weight because he’s eating healthier, Ballatori said.

“It’s a really healthy alternative for someone like that,” Ballatori said. And a time-saver for people who appreciate good food and don’t want processed foods.  “We’re really trying to change the way people are eating and give them options.”

Workers prepare ingredients to be used for a variety of recipes on the menu at Real Eats. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)
Workers prepare ingredients to be used for a variety of recipes on the menu at Real Eats. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

Wise said the company hits on the three hottest food trends of the moment: health and wellness, hyper-convenience, and fresh, authentic food.

Currently, Real Eats offers a menu of 18 lunch or dinner options a week, with the menu changing each week. A recent menu included slow-roasted turkey with cherry sauce, paired with wild rice, shallots and garlic. Vegetarian options are included on the menu, but it would be hard to pull together a week’s worth of vegetarian meals without repeating.

“We do not replace the restaurant experience,” Ballatori said, and he should know, as he worked in several high-end restaurants in Rochester and Geneva before coming to work at Real Eats. Pricing averages $12.50 to $14 a meal, making it comparable or less expensive than takeout. If breakfast meals are included in the order, Ballatori said, the average cost would be closer to $9.

Real Eats operates with a staff of about 20. A major shipment goes out each Monday to Albany, a hub for the Northeast. The food arrives in as little as two days, though its vacuum packaging gives the consumer a full week to use it.

Taking the air out, Ballatori said, removes the oxygen that causes the food to start decomposing. The kitchen in Geneva includes a super-cooling process that can take something from boiling to under 40 degrees in less than 45 minutes, which also helps in preserving freshness. Each meal includes two to four packets, such as a meat with sauce, a grain side dish, and perhaps a cold salad that doesn’t have to be reheated. The plastic pouches are the same rigorously tested plastic that’s used in sous-vide cooking, Ballatori said.

Scaling up will change the company, from the number of employees, to the square footage used in the former industrial building it inhabits, to its relationships with suppliers, to its menus.

“As we grow, we need more facilities,” Ballatori said. Wise said the company hopes to have as many as 100 employees next year if expansion goes as planned. He is talking with a range of private investors.

Real Eats is using just a fraction of the building it’s in now and basically plans to add another packaging line and more refrigeration in adjacent space.

“We’re now talking to farms about how much land they’ll use to grow for us,” Ballatori said. “It’s important to use the best ingredients possible.”

While attending the conference in September, Ballatori met the purveyor of Leep Foods’ maitake mushrooms.  Real Eats has been using and shipping Leep Foods’ mushrooms to 22 states inside Real Eats meals. He expects the need for other local ingredients to grow exponentially as Real Eats ramps up.

“A year from now, we forecast we’ll be using 100,000 pounds of potatoes,” Ballatori said.

While one menu is offered each week to consumers, as the customer base increases, satellite menus may be added to include halal, vegan, gluten-free, low-sodium and kosher diets, the chef said. Because the meals are fully cooked, customers can eat them safely without reheating. And, if there’s no ability to rewarm the pouches with boiling water, they can be taken out of the pouches and reheated in a microwave in a pinch.

Ballatori said Real Eats envisions working with nursing homes and airlines to provide convenient, healthful meals on a large scale that don’t require a chef on site.

Currently, the staff creates and packages the meals even before customers place an order, which are typically for six meals a week. Once the shipment for orders leaves on Monday, the staff enjoys a lunch from the leftovers. And what’s left after that goes to the food pantry immediately next door to the kitchen.

The company may be catching a ride on the wave of interest in “clean” or unprocessed eating.

“People wanted this answer to their needs,” Ballatori said. “Here we ride in on our unprocessed horse, so to speak, and answer their need.”

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