A convenient way to eat healthy

Font Size

Green salad

Green saladBy Zsarlene B. Chua, Reporter

Food delivery services have always hinged on serving the need for convenience, especially for those who can barely find time to cook or do their groceries. And while fastfood options abound and beckon — because a two-piece Chickenjoy is a great temptation — there are those who look for healthier options.

Enter diet meal delivery services: these are services which offer a week’s worth of healthy meals for a set price, delivered to your home or office, which can sometimes be customized depending on the customer’s dietary needs or restrictions.

A cursory search would reveal more than a dozen healthy meal delivery options, ranging from those offering affordable yet healthy meals to those that cater to people who want to follow a specific diet regime.

“Filipinos now are generally more health conscious,” chef Barni Alejandro-Rennebeck, owner of the Sexy Chef, told BusinessWorld during a July 28 interview at their commissary in Quezon City.

Now more than a decade old, the Sexy Chef, which specializes in specific diet plans from South Beach to Paleo, is inarguably one of the pioneers of the movement but Ms. Alejandro-Rennebeck admitted that it was an uphill climb. “A decade ago, a service like us was unheard of… we were the only diet food delivery service [in Metro Manila],” she said.

“And it’s only now that Filipinos have started to become health-conscious. Millennials now, everything they post is about them working out or eating healthy. It took a long time for us to catch on. So it was good we started out small,” she said.

The company — inspired by Ms. Alejandro-Rennebeck’s need to adopt a healthy lifestyle after years of being sickly — grew from serving meals to friends and cooking in her grandmother’s kitchen, to having its own commissary which employs 40 people in the kitchen and eight in-house delivery riders.

“My first recipe was a simple pasta pomodoro dish which I had Rachel [Alejandro, her sister] try and she loved it. That positive response encouraged me to create more healthy recipes,” she said.

Singer/actress Rachel Alejandro co-manages the business with Ms. Alejandro-Rennebeck.

“Back in 2004, South Beach diet was all the rage and Rachel bought me a cookbook and since there were quite a few ingredients not readily available in the market, I decided to ‘Filipinize’ it a bit by substituting more common ingredients,” Ms. Alejandro-Rennebeck said.

The South Beach diet was introduced in 2003 by Arthur Agatston, an American cardiologist and celebrity doctor, and is mainly comprised of high fiber, low glycemic index carbohydrates and lean protein.

“At that time, both Rachel and I were following the diet and she told me that since I was cooking for her, for her manager, and a few of our friends, it may be time to make it into a business as the people I was cooking for were losing weight,” she said.

During that first year, they had about 20 customers because that was all their grandmother’s kitchen would allow — they had to move to a bigger space after six months of operation.

Now the Sexy Chef offers seven core diet plans: their signature South Beach Diet, Belly Trimmer (which includes superfoods), Pounds Away (which provides 1,200 to 1,400 calories a day), the gluten-free Paleo diet, the Eat Clean Detox, Fat Flush with Sexy Beast (which includes all-natural cold-pressed juices), and Keto (based on the Ketogenic diet which follows a low-carb, moderate protein, and high fat principle) alongside the more affordable Fit Meals which only include lunch and dinner and are customizable based on preference.

The Sexy Chef — which also caters — currently provides meals for more than 100 diet plan customers and 100 Fit Meal customers every day.

“We cook and deliver around 1,000 meals a day,” said Ms. Alejandro-Rennebeck.

While the Sexy Chef was once the only service of its kind, it has since been joined by other players, many of which offer lower-priced meals which admittedly lured away a lot of its customers.

“The business was good until 2013 because there were no competitors,” Ms. Alejandro-Rennebeck admitted, adding that their competition started gaining ground in 2013.

One of those competitors is Plan:Eat Program which considers itself the most affordable healthy food delivery service in the Metro as its week-long meal plans start at P1,200 for five days.

In comparison, five days of Sexy Chef’s Belly Trimmer meals cost P5,125.

“My first customers were my sister’s barkada (group of friends),” Patricia Quizon, owner and dietician of Plan:Eat Program, said in an interview on July 26 in Makati.

Much like Ms. Alejandro Rennebeck, Plan:Eat started with a personal need to find healthier food options — this time, the owner’s sister who needed to lose weight. Back then, Ms. Quizon’s sister was subscribing to meal delivery services but Ms. Quizon found that the portions were too small for her sister and that she was starving.

“She was losing weight but not the healthy way,” she said. After pointing this out to her, Ms. Quizon was encouraged to create a menu that would better suit her sister and she did.

After a while, her sister started to lose weight and her friends got interested. Soon, Plan:Eat was born.

“In 2013, postpaid plans for mobile phones were all the rage, right? So we decided to tailor our menu the same way,” Ms. Quizon said.

The Plan:Eat Program offers meal plans from P1,200 (which serves meals with a total of 1,200 calories a day) to P1,800 (which serves meals totalling 1,800 calories).

“Being a dietician, my biggest pet peeve is people complicating nutrition. Nutrition isn’t ‘cakes are bad,’ ‘white rice is bad,’ ‘bad this,’ ‘bad that.’ It’s just everything you eat, you need to moderate it,” she explained.

So unlike other services, Plan:Eat usually offers white rice, sometimes sprinkled with bacon, and panna cotta for dessert. It recently introduced themed weeks: Mediterranean, Filipino, etc.

It currently serves 800 to 900 individuals a day, excluding companies that order lunches for their teams for the day (“around 200 corporate meals”).

Again, similar to the Sexy Chef, Plan:Eat started in the Quizon’s home kitchen but it will be moving to a new commissary by 2018. Plan:Eat currently employs 30 individuals in the kitchen and outsources around 40 riders who deliver meals across Metro Manila.

For busy office folks, meal delivery services provide convenient and nutritious meals for an entire day as many services offer meals from breakfast to dinner with small snacks in between. The services are particularly convenient because meals are typically delivered the night before or in the very early morning and the only thing a customer needs to do is to pop it in the refrigerator and heat it up when it’s time to eat.

“I’m very happy with the food. With the service, it varies. They are a small group, with a small outlet. So sometimes there are inevitable delays,” said Marco Sindiong, a PR executive, in an online interview.

Mr. Sindiong has been ordering his lunches from a small service in Makati called the Greenery Kitchen since February and each meal costs P100 and is delivered fresh to the office.

“For a vegan in Makati, they are a godsend,” he said, adding that he will continue ordering from this particular service.

Since food companies, especially delivery ones, have to deal with transporting meals in an uncontrolled environment — under various weather and environmental conditions — spoilage is a real problem.

“We had a problem with spoilage during our early years, mostly because of delivery times as riders have to deliver several meal packages a day and sometimes the meals delivered are left at the guardhouses or lobbies for too long [and] they spoil,” said Ms. Quizon.

She added that it became a huge problem for them as almost “30%-40%” of the meals they delivered spoiled which isn’t good for business — they had to process refunds.

“I was at a loss because I didn’t want to use preservatives so I called my old boss and asked for advice and I was advised to invest in a blast freezer,” she said.

The use of the blast freezer almost entirely solved the problems for them as less than 10% of the meals they deliver are reported to have spoiled.

“It took us many years to perfect and prevent spoilage,” said Ms. Alejandro-Rennebeck, noting that now less than 5% of their meals spoil and that the problem is, most of the time, not due to them anymore.

“We don’t leave meals at lobbies, at guardhouses, but if we had to, we get the customer to sign a waiver,” she said.

She added that her staff are often the ones who have to try and see if their current menu items would easily spoil during transport, and since she didn’t want to blast chill their meals (“especially for rice dishes, the quality lowers”), they decided on limiting the number of deliveries their riders make and pack everything with ice from top to bottom, with instructions to the customer to immediately refrigerate the meal.

Because of the popularity of meal delivery services, competition became stiff. The Sexy Chef’s Ms. Alejandro-Rennebeck admitted that in 2013, when many new players entered the market, business went down and she toyed with the idea of closing shop.

“We were losing customers, and as I was looking at how [the competition] can keep their prices lower, I realized other services were offering ensaymada (a sugary local bun) for [a] snack among other things. I thought then, ‘should I sell out and sell ensaymada as well [to attract more customers]?’ but I decided I’d rather close down than not be able to stand by my principles,” she said.

The Sexy Chef hired a consultant who helped them re-brand and re-package the business.

“I was told by our consultant that we didn’t need to lower our prices. We had to remind our customers why we’re the premium choice,” she said.

What it did have to do was pare down the selection to the core diet plans and introduce the more affordable Fit Meals. Packaging was also improved and Ms. Alejandro-Rennebeck said she had to take mobile photography classes and lessons in food plating

“[After the changes, customers] returned,” she said, adding that the key to surviving this business is to “keep evolving.”

“Of course people always want to try something new [but] the customers are not stupid, they will go where they feel service is good,” she said.

“Now? Competition doesn’t bother me so much anymore. We have our fair share of that pie,” she said.

Plan:Eat’s Ms. Quizon said that while there are many players in the market now, she isn’t especially bothered by the competition because she still offers one of the most affordable options.

Having been in the business for almost four years now, Ms. Quizon has begun to look beyond Metro Manila, planning to expand into other metro cities in the country like Cebu and Davao. She feels “there is a market to be served in other cities.” No definite date has been set for this expansion as they are currently talking with several prospective partners.

Aside from expanding beyond Metro Manila, Plan:Eat is also looking to create ready-to-eat meals which will be sold in healthy grocery stores as a way to reach more people and have them try Plan:Eat’s food.

The Sexy Chef meanwhile, expects to evolve into a “one-stop-shop for healthy [pre-prepared] meals and healthy products,” and is currently “looking to partner with a company early next year.”