Amazing recipes: this industry it’s always going to come down to the product, and standing out among the crowd starts at the recipe level. Your food can’t just be good enough, it needs to stand out.
Passion — There’s a ton of work involved in starting a food company. It really, really helps to be 100% bought into and excited about what you’re doing to get you through the tough times. If food and sharing food truly matters to you, it’s all worth it.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Davis and Sam McIntire.
Matt Davis is the CEO and co-founder of Mosaic Foods, a direct-to-consumer startup making good food accessible to everyone by reinventing the $50B frozen food industry. He started the company with co-founder Sam McIntire from his home kitchen, where the two combined their passions for cooking with their desires to expand access to healthy, delicious cooking for everyone. Before founding Mosaic, Matt was an early employee at Blue Apron where he helped scale the operation 25x over the course of four years while building out world-class food logistics infrastructure. He’s a new dad and culinary hacker whose current Mosaic favorites are Moroccan Vegetable Tagine, Spinach Saag & Tofu, Yellow Dal Curry and Creamy Pesto Cavatappi.
Sam McIntire is the CRO and co-founder of Mosaic Foods, a direct-to-consumer startup making good food accessible to everyone by reinventing the $50B frozen food industry. He runs Mosaic’s marketing, brand, and technology teams, and in under a year has grown the company from a home kitchen operation to a brand serving thousands of customers throughout the Northeast and soon to expand to a larger delivery zone. An expert in direct-to-consumer growth, Sam spent the previous 5 years running Elliott Maurice, a marketing consultancy managing high-dollar ad budgets for e-commerce clients such as Soylent, Apartment List, and Reverie. His favorites are Yellow Dal Curry, Jerk Lentil & Plantain Bowl, Spicy Dan Dan Noodles, and Ginger Sesame Noodles.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
MD: I grew up in a household where family dinner was a big deal. I’m lucky to have a mom who was a great cook and a dad who was a real grill master, and we ate home-cooked meals 6 nights a week. One of my first jobs was in the kitchen at a local family-owned restaurant in southern Maine, and I learned so much from that experience. I worked my way up from washing dishes to becoming a line chef. Working in a kitchen is a pretty unique experience, and in addition to the obvious culinary skills, it also teaches you to work quickly and decisively, how to manage your time, and craftsmanship.
SM: Matt and I have very similar stories, though I always like to joke that he’s the guy who’s good at cooking and I’m the guy who’s good at eating. I grew up in small town New Hampshire, and was privileged to have amazing parents who put good food on the table every night of the week. Mosaic is about taking that lucky childhood experience and finding a way we can put good food on the table in adulthood, too.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
MD: Sam and I were meeting up on nights and weekends, trying to figure out how best to hack food to make it easier for folks to get a healthy meal in 5 minutes or less. At the time, ghost kitchens were picking up some buzz, and UberEats was already a multi-billion dollar success story. Everyone was talking about ways to get locally made food to people faster, but the irony is that these models all still meant waiting 30–60 minutes for delivery and involved steep mark-ups. And after all that, you only had access to healthy food if you already did, but you just didn’t want to pick it up. At one point, we walked through the grocery store looking for inspiration and found it in an unlikely place. This was a bustling grocery store, and when we turned the corner to the frozen aisle, there was nobody there. Not a soul. Turns out 50% of shoppers who spend $100 in the grocery store don’t buy ANYTHING from the frozen aisles. We figured, huh. It’s fast, it’s cheap. Now if it could be healthy and delicious (and most of it today is certainly NOT), we’d be on to something. So we went home, started experimenting, and within a couple weeks in my own home kitchen we were making better, healthier, frozen meals than you can buy in the grocery store. That’s when we knew it was time to quit our day jobs.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
MD: We knew that to upend the freezer aisle quality would be everything. But while we’d been home cooks, we’d never produced food at scale or written recipes. So we approached recipe writing like a science problem. One controlled experiment after another we would vary heat times, temperature settings, marinade times, and on and on. We probably cooked over 100 batches of tofu, trying to nail texture and flavor for each component of each meal upon reheat. And then we got to our commercial kitchen, and on the first day we realized pretty quickly that when it comes to food, things vary WAY too much to think about recipes like a science problem. 17 minutes on 375F at 50% humidity, quickly devolved into tasting-as-we-go and just doing the best we could to achieve the texture and flavor we were looking for.
SM: My funniest mistake involves not dressing for the job. I’d bike into our shared commercial kitchen facility in Brooklyn on these hot summer days in shorts and a t-shirt to beat the heat — and somehow I always managed to forget that I’d be spending all day in a freezer once I got to work. One day, I spent four hours packing our meals in a walk-in refrigerator wearing nothing but shorts, a t-shirt, a baseball hat, and a pair of gloves. I was blue in the face by the time we got out of there!
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
SM: There are so many, but in our industry, the biggest mistakes generally revolve around failing to accurately estimate all of your costs. Margins in food — whether you’re a retail brand, a store, or a restaurant — are incredibly tight. That means that small swings in your cost base can have a huge impact on your bottom line. So to succeed, you’ve got to know all of your costs like the back of your hand, including the hidden ones — like distribution and brokerage fees. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have Matt as my partner, because as a former Blue Apron team member, he’s intimately familiar with the costs of direct-to-consumer food distribution. That knowledge has been hugely valuable as we’ve started Mosaic.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
MD: Cook it at home! Share it with friends and family members. Even better, strangers if and when you can find them. Ask a friend to bring it to the office and leave samples out, put a sticker on the package asking for folks to take an anonymous survey. Put out an order sheet and see how many people want in on the next batch. Do whatever you can to get proof of concept with what you have at your disposal today. When it comes to food, the product itself is more important than anything else, so start there, and make sure you’re making something people want to try and when they do, that they come back for more.
SM: That’s exactly the process we used for our oat bowls — a new line that we just launched. We knew we wanted to move into the breakfast category, so we started broad and cooked a huge array of dishes — from breakfast bowls to burritos and more. We spent hours in the kitchen cooking, reheating, and tasting. And we shared the food with as many people in our lives as we could to get their feedback. In the end, the oat bowls we’re launching were the winner by a mile.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
MD: You don’t have to go at it alone. If you’re a great chef, but you can’t quite get the numbers to work, find a business partner. If you’ve got an idea but you don’t know the first thing about food manufacturing, find an operator. The best teams are made up of people who bring different skills to the table, and if you’re going to build something great, sooner or later it’s going to have to be bigger than yourself.
SM: From the outside looking in, it can oftentimes seem like people who run successful businesses knew what they were doing from the start. But the reality of the matter is, they probably learned on the job — and you will, too! So the best thing to do is just get started. Once you’ve got your product, focus on making your first sale; then your first ten sales; then your first hundred. At some point, you’ll look back and realize how far you’ve come and how much you’ve learned to get there. We’re still in the early days at Mosaic, and we’re constantly learning ourselves, but it’s incredible when we look back and see how what at the time seemed like a bunch of very small steps have led us to where we are today.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
SM: That probably depends on who you are. For me, I don’t think that would have worked. Food is a really tough industry, and it requires a lot of proverbial blood, sweat, and tears to build a business in this space. In order to be willing to put in all that work — especially in the early days, when there’s not much reward to show for it — you need to be really, truly passionate about what you’re doing. Matt and I had that passion because we were working on something that we really cared about — from a culinary perspective, a social perspective, and an environmental perspective. I don’t think we would have had that same fire if we’d hired a consultant to come up with our idea in the early days, and without that drive I can’t imagine we would have made it very far.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
MD: The most important thing to consider when taking on outside capital is alignment. Do you, the person investing lots of time (and opportunity cost), fundamentally want the same things as the people investing lots of money? And different investors pursue different outcomes. That’s certainly true across asset classes (VC and PE investors want different things), but it’s also true within them. Get to know the people and the funds they represent before taking on outside capital and make sure that as you relinquish some control of your company and bring new voices to the table to talk strategy, you are generally aligned with their beliefs, the direction they see the company going, and their aspirations.
SM: It also depends on the type of business you want to build. Are you comfortable with slower growth, and more time invested on your part to get something off the ground? If so, bootstrapping may be for you. Do you want to give yourself the opportunity to grow more quickly and shoot for the stars, and are you comfortable sacrificing some ownership in your company and autonomy in order to do that? If so, venture capital is a great path.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
MD: Good manufacturer example: We must have struck out with a few dozen “frozen food manufacturers” before we found our current partner. We kept hearing that our recipes were too complicated, we were sourcing too many ingredients, or, believe it or not, that we were “cooking” too much. And then we realized the problem wasn’t our recipes, it was that the frozen food industry today isn’t built to make products that are as sophisticated as ours. So we started instead talking to folks who cooked prepared foods, catered weddings, etc., and found instead that our product was even easier than what they do today and a great opportunity. Get creative, and if you can’t find someone who already does things the way you want to, don’t read into it, it could actually be validation that you’re onto something novel.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
MD and SM together:
1 — Amazing recipes: this industry it’s always going to come down to the product, and standing out among the crowd starts at the recipe level. Your food can’t just be good enough, it needs to stand out.
2 — Great team: You need the right people in all parts of the business, and especially your culinary team. People who are not only talented but also aligned with your mission and passionate about the product.
3 — Quality on auto-pilot: So many ways for food businesses to fail and the devil is in the details. You can’t afford to be losing customers because you can’t create a consistent experience.
4 — Plan for scaling up: If you’re successful, your old struggle to grow will be replaced with a new one to scale up. It’s important to have a plan so that when demand is up 10x you don’t find yourself choosing between quality, supply, and margins.
5 — Passion — There’s a ton of work involved in starting a food company. It really, really helps to be 100% bought into and excited about what you’re doing to get you through the tough times. If food and sharing food truly matters to you, it’s all worth it.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
MD: Feedback is gold! At Mosaic, we are a DTC business, but ironically, we don’t have very much direct access to our customers. And then there is COVID. At a restaurant when you want to know how you’re doing, the owner walks out and talks to the tables. We took that simple concept and started doing 30 minute Zoom calls with our best customers and the insights we’ve gotten from that experience have been so powerful. Tips for improving the food, quality issues we weren’t aware of, and great marketing and partnership ideas.
SM: Make a product that you yourself are crazy about. Do you find yourself constantly coming back to whatever you’re making? Craving it or eating it regularly, if you’re in the food industry? If so, you’re probably on to something.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
MD: Carbon emissions from rotting food would do more damage to the ozone layer than any country in the world other than US and China. Livestock account for about one sixth of all emissions. By sparking a renaissance for plant-based frozen food, we are going to be able to take a massive bite out of food waste and put good food on every table.
SM: Beyond that, we have a partnership with City Harvest here in NYC. We work with them to rescue and donate two pounds of nutritious food to New Yorkers in need for every Mosaic box that we sell. It’s pretty amazing to think that since we started Mosaic back in 2019, we’ve supported the rescue and donation of tens of thousands of pounds of food under this partnership. That’s a huge impact for a little company and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of as a founder.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire 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.
MD: We talk about leading a renaissance for frozen food, and we believe that is the best thing we could do for the planet. If we all ate just a little less meat and stopped throwing out even half of the $1500 of food the average consumer tosses each year, we could reduce our carbon footprint. We’re not just about making and selling products, we’re also getting into education, and helping inspire consumers to make better use of their own freezers at home to reduce waste.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
My wife and I had our first child a few months ago during the peak of the pandemic, and between wanting to get her a much-needed (and deserved) morning to sleep in, and being cooped up by COVID, I’ve taken up baking as a pretty serious hobby. I can set Adrian up on the counter while I bake the sun up every Saturday and he LOVES it — the sounds, the smells, and the one-on-one time. As part of that hobby I’ve been working my way through the Bouchon cookbook, and I would love to spend a morning baking in one of his kitchens.
SM: I’d sit down with Samin Nosrat. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is such an amazingly simple but effective way of thinking about cooking fundamentals and I’d kill for a cooking lesson with her.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.