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WeCook Meals: The other side of the pandemic

Entrepreneur’s corner | Jan 8, 2021

Étienne Plourde, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of WeCook Meals, is almost reluctant to admit that his company has greatly benefitted from the pandemic. However, the organization had already strategically implemented a number of elements in advance, with a view to taking advantage of a rapidly growing market.

For some industries and for many companies, 2020 has been an extremely trying year. Such is not the case for WeCook Meals. In its seventh year in operation, this home-delivered meal business saw 400% growth compared to the previous year!

Thanks to the ready-to-eat concept, our clients avoid an average of six to eight hours of cooking per week.

While a number of competitors, including Goodfood, HelloFresh and Cook It, are focused on the ready-to-cook market, WeCook opted for a distinctive offer, beginning in 2013 when it was founded, namely the ready-to-eat sector. As such, every week, the team at WeCook offers a menu of 14 healthy, balanced and varied meals, at the price of $10 or $11 per meal. Choices include salmon filet with creamy dried tomato sauce, grilled pork tenderloin steak with 6 spices, beef steak with red wine sauce, balsamic chicken thighs and smoked onions, vegetarian beet salad with bell pepper relish, and much more. “Thanks to the ready-to-eat concept, our clients avoid an average of six to eight hours of cooking per week”, explains Étienne Plourde, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of WeCook.

Preparing for the future

The collateral effects of the current health crisis, including the closing of restaurants and reduced access to groceries in the spring, played a significant role in the expansion of the home-delivered meals industry. However, the spectacular growth of WeCook Meals is also attributable to strategic decisions that were made before the arrival of the pandemic in mid-March.

For example, in November 2019, WeCook opened a second facility in Dorval, joining the original in Saint-Hyacinthe, which was inaugurated in 2016. “This set the table for a significant increase in demand.” The Montérégie facility specializes in snacks, which is a category of food that can be produced in very large quantities in advance without sacrificing quality. The new facility in Dorval is dedicated to prepared meals.

Soon after arriving in the Montréal area, the Company took advantage of the opportunity to transform its identity, changing the name from Nutrition Fit Plus to WeCook Meals in January 2020. The new name solidified the transformation toward focusing on the general public, which had begun in 2017. Prior to that, the organization focused more on meals for athletes, active individuals and those who were in training. However, even back then, sensing a growing interest among the general population, the management team at WeCook refocused their efforts accordingly.

Standing apart by going against the grain

Another initiative that proved to be successful was introduced in the early days of the general lockdown and health emergency. Étienne Plourde recalls: “The entire industry experienced a massive wave of clients unsubscribing out of panic. We saw it as a great opportunity. On the one hand, media were offering incredibly low rates, and on the other hand, there was suddenly less advertising, which meant a greater chance of getting our message across and increasing recognition.”

That being said, it was a bold approach, because thousands of Québecers who now had time on their hands also discovered the pleasure of cooking. In light of this, the context was not favourable to home-delivery of meals. “However, we understood that the trend would calm down and these same people would eventually return to seeking other meal solutions. We just had to be prepared to absorb a considerable increase in volume at any time.”

Taking the road less travelled

In addition to these recent measures, WeCook Meals also devoted a number of years to educating consumers with respect to the ready-to-eat concept. At the time, their understanding of this category was often limited to shepherd’s pie, Thai chicken and commercial frozen meals that were high in sodium and saturated fat. “People didn’t know that they could order high-end meals online, like orange duck breast or peppered bison steak. We had to explain it to them, and we had to prove to them that these meals could be preserved for several days with no decrease in quality and no food risk.”

The first years of operation for WeCook Meals were also a time for experimenting, primarily in terms of recipes and logistics. Étienne Plourde explains: “If we had been making apple juice, we would have used the same recipe every day and produced a very high-quality juice product. However, because we offer different meals every day, we have to adjust constantly. From one week to the next, our deliveries of carrots, broccoli or asparagus are never the same. The same goes for meats. If our chickens are larger than we expected, we have to adapt. In addition, we offer our clients the option of personalizing their meals in light of dietary restrictions or specific diets, for example. It gives us a competitive advantage, but this added value brings its own set of challenges.”

Growing with the competition

On this subject, Étienne Plourde recognizes that, at the beginning, he was somewhat naïve as an entrepreneur. “I thought that, within six months after opening, the bulk of our challenges would be related to sales and marketing, because we would have solved any production problems by then. Of course, the reality of the situation was very different. On the other hand, because the market was less crowded between 2013 and 2017, it was the ideal time to work out the kinks through trial and error.”

By his own admission, Étienne Plourde believed that the key challenge would be logistical, but he has a positive view of the strong competition that has emerged in recent years. “We pioneered the ready-to-eat market, and as a result, we have acquired a certain expertise. For their part, our competitors must deploy significant efforts and invest considerable amounts into research and development. This allows us to observe them from a distance as we learn and take advantage of their trials and errors.”

Better years ahead

Over the long term, [the impact of the pandemic] will have been favourable for us. It has proven to consumers that it is easy to order nutritious and healthy meals online that free up their time.

With this in mind, Étienne Plourde looks forward to the future of his company, and his industry, with great optimism. “In 2017, the online prepared meal industry across Canada represented approximately $100 million. Three years later, it jumped from between $300 and $400 million. In 2025, it is expected to reach $2 billion. On a national scale, we expect to become the leading player in the market by 2022, delivering more than five million meals per year.”

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the current pandemic, it has created new eating habits among consumers. “Over the long term, its impact will have been favourable for us. It has proven to consumers that it is easy to order nutritious and healthy meals online that free up their time.”

How PME MTL made a difference for WeCook Meals

“We contacted PME MTL when we moved into our new facility on the Island of Montréal. We were not able to set up in Saint-Hyacinthe or on the South Shore, because there were no buildings that could accommodate us, and we couldn’t build a new facility in the short time available to us, not to mention the fact that labour may have been difficult to find.

Therefore, we proposed the potential creation of 300 jobs in Montréal over 12 months, and 1,000 jobs over the long term. We were in a race against the clock, so PME MTL became a valuable preferred partner in terms of obtaining financial assistance quickly, which was facilitated by our healthy financial situation.

We now maintain excellent relations with PME MTL. The people there understand our industry and they always ask the right questions. In addition, their door is always open and they are constantly in solution mode. From a logistical perspective, their marketing and innovation experts provided us with invaluable support when we needed to acquire specialized equipment for specific tasks.”

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WeCook Meals is supported by PME MTL West-Island.

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