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Andy Sartori of MealPro: “Focus on creating value long term”

Focus on creating value long term. Any time I come to a fork in the road, I choose to prioritize the long term benefits over instant gratification. This is critical to financial investments as it is to strategic decisions. As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A […]

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Focus on creating value long term. Any time I come to a fork in the road, I choose to prioritize the long term benefits over instant gratification. This is critical to financial investments as it is to strategic decisions.


As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Sartori, founder and CEO of MealPro , a “cloud kitchen” company that is changing the future of catered food by customizing meal preparation. In 2016 Andy Sartori transitioned the company from an idea on a piece of paper to real products, customers and profitability the old fashioned way: through scrappy smarts, elbow grease, and paying customers (not venture capital). Currently, MealPro is headquartered in a 10 thousand square foot commercial kitchen in Sacramento, CA.

Andy holds a B.A. in Business Management Economics from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He is also an angel investor in early stage food and online consumer startups.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstoryand how you got started?

I have always been a food and fitness enthusiast, since I became a competitive tennis player and I joined the Varsity team in my high school in Cupertino, CA. Later, in college, I developed a deep interest for web development and online marketing.

After graduation I thought: “What if I can combine my digital skills with my passion for food and fitness, on my own terms, as my own boss?” So, I decided to leave my career in enterprise and take the plunge in entrepreneurship. My first venture — commodity food and beverage products distribution — was actually a “learning experience”, to put it mildly. The market was difficult because its low barriers to entry allowed in a multitude of competitors and stymied growth potential. There was little technology leverage, and logistics was a nightmare. So, I came up with its polar opposite: an online meal catering service with customized offering, extensive use of digital technology, and automated operations. My initial venture gave me a glimpse on the tastes of a significant sample of professionals in my area, and allowed me to build the first menu — small, but appealing.

What was the Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I was out with friends to grab a bite. While eating, I noticed two of my colleagues ordered the same meal. Both were on a diet but differed in a lot of ways — gender, lifestyle, body type and much more. My female friend was eating a little too much for her diet, while my male friend was eating too little.

I realized that restaurants are too standard, but people are very much unique. For this reason, I started MealPro.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I invested all my savings — and then some — to retrofit our new facility, a former donut shop, with the necessary equipment to be able to serve Customers with adherence to strict quality guidelines. For the first few weeks however, orders just trickled in way below the break-even level and I watched my cash slowly evaporate. Why was the market not responding? I reviewed our digital marketing approach over and over again, fine-tuned it, but still nothing seemed to happen. Then, new business started coming in, the first few Customers reordered, and my bank account received some much needed relief. I had learned that there is a delay between my actions and the market response, and my financial means were just barely enough to bridge that gap.

I was still uncertain if I had picked the right path for my career, and my former boss was beckoning me to come back to her team. Friends and family were shocked that I had taken so many risks, I was tempted to give up, but I remembered why I started, kept going through the rough patch, and here I am.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Today, MealPro operates out of a 10,000 square foot commercial kitchen and warehouse facility. We employ 20+ people and produce 2k+ meals per day.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or takeawaysyou learned from that?

I started with very little working capital (a little over 30k dollars) — and it nearly killed us. I was concerned I would run out of cash just before we turned the corner to a profitability.

In hind-sight (and since we made it) not having huge cash reserves was probably a blessing. When we hit a problem we could not just throw cash at it — but we really had to think outside the box to find a solution that did not require an outlay of money. Frequently the solution was improving the product (adding zero calorie spices to create different flavor profiles), improving customer service, improving the UI on the website — all elements that have low cost but high impact with our customers.

Overall, being low on cash helped us improve the business model and we were profitable almost from month one. When you are capital-efficient from day one you’ll find there is a lot more room to grow.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We have many competitive differentiators. We provide generous portions of natural tasting healthy meals, with a lot of protein and veggies to be customized for individual diet and fitness objectives. Our Customers include athletes, fitness-minded professionals, as well as seniors with medical conditions that require a very specific diet. We can serve them all and affordably provide them just what they need, because we have our own state-of-the-art facility that gives us control over each stage of production. Many of our competitors rely on third-party commissary kitchens to fulfill their orders, where they do not control ingredients nor quality standards. I sometimes answer Customer hotline calls myself, to get a first-hand feedback and to spot emerging trends. I actually enjoy getting to know them through a direct conversation, I feel it helps me doing a better job.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not burn out”?

If you are an entrepreneur, or if you want to become one, you are probably overworked and stressed out like me. What will give you the grit to go forward is enjoying what you do. Make no compromise on that — if you cannot have fun in your daily job, it will be much more difficult to succeed.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am in close contact with another prepared meal entrepreneur, who has been in business for many years. We are not necessarily competitors, because we address different demographics, and we have gotten to know each other pretty well over the last couple of years. For me it is very beneficial to compare notes with him, for example when I am looking for a new supplier or I feel a vendor is ripping me off. I feel this informal collaboration is a win-win, and is developing into a true friendship.

Ok thank you for all that. Now lets shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

In my business, an emerging need brought forward by the pandemic is what I call “meals for mom”. Think of all those seniors, still active enough to live in their own residence, now rightly concerned about the risks of going shopping. They are a new demographic, they depend on our services, we all have a social responsibility to help them out.

Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

In my business, an emerging need brought forward by the pandemic is what I call “meals for mom”. Think of all those seniors, still active enough to live in their own residence, now rightly concerned about the risks of going shopping. They are a new demographic, they depend on our services, we all have a social responsibility to help them out.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Many founders and CEO’s have strong opinions and rely on what they have seen work in the past, understandably so. As a result, they tend to have pre-conceived ideas to guide their decision making process. In a new business, similar as it may be to their previous one, this can be a trap. Demographics may be marginally different, market response may be delayed, the supply chain may have an unexpected behavior, bottom line they may hit all sorts of unexpected issues. The overarching principle is to be always data driven in your decision making, not gut-driven. An eCommerce business lends itself to data collection across its business model, often it is too much data. To be successful, you need to be able to make sense of all the data, and spot trends early on.

In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Customer Service. Regardless of how sophisticated your eCommerce platform is, a percentage of your Customers will want to talk to a real person when they have a problem or simply to get the comfort to make their buy decision. We consider our Customer Service department one of our competitive advantages, they make almost a hundred Customer calls per day.

Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?

HotJar. It tracks what you visitor did on your web pages, where he clicked, how long he spent on any given feature. This is a dramatic insight into the Customer’s mind.

As you know, conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?

One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

I always tell my team to focus on making our customers successful. Then, when customers come back they make us successful. Short term profit is secondary. We do not lock our customers into a subscription like many of our competitors and we are quick to make our wrongs right even if it includes issuing a refund or re-sending an order. I think our customers appreciate our approach and over time we have gained the reputation of being a trusted brand.

One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?

This is a prevalent issue amongst brands and consumers are aware of this. A lot of ‘noise’ or ‘buzz’ can be generated online and if these unfair statements remain outliers we can consider them the cost of doing business and move forward with our roadmap of continuous product improvements and the continuous elevation of user experience.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • Having a technical understanding is invaluable. For example, knowing the basics to html, Javascript and css as well as some basic design principles can help you implement ideas or at least communicate them better to people around you.
  • Enlist support. Build a network of people you can call upon for advice. A product expert in each category e.g. (Designer, Web Developer, Accountant…) that you can approach for very technical advice.
  • Build a product that other people want to buy. Listen to feedback, see what is working and let the desire to make your customers happy drive the product development roadmap.
  • Be paranoid about listening to the market. The next trend is out there already, be the first to recognize it.
  • Focus on creating value long term. Any time I come to a fork in the road, I choose to prioritize the long term benefits over instant gratification. This is critical to financial investments as it is to strategic decisions.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think there is an opportunity to create a social media platform that reviews food delivery options and services. More and more professionals realize that their busy life is ill-suited for grocery shopping and for cooking your own meals, and I am sure that a forum where they can compare experiences and discuss their very own approach would quickly become popular.

How can our readers further follow you online?

MealPro: www.mealpro.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mealpro/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mealpro

Andy Sartori: www.andysartori.com

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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