Champagne wishes and caviar dreams be damned, Brandon O’Dell quipped. Personal chefs are no longer a luxurious perk of the nation’s one-percent — all thanks to Kansas City-served startup Friend That Cooks.
Friend That Cooks
Elevator Pitch: Friend That Cooks is a personal chef service that provides weekly meal prep for busy families and couples. We go into the homes of our clients on a weekly basis to plan a menu for the week, shop, cook, clean up and stock the refrigerator with a week’s worth of healthy, delicious meals.
Year Founded: 2007
Number of Employees: 47
Funding Raised to Date: Privately held
And as the market grows, so too does the repertoire of chefs at O’Dell’s startup, a weekly in-home meal prep service now operating across Kansas City and in 11 cities outside the metro, he said. The personal chef industry is being reshaped as more clients gravitate toward elimination eating plans — like paleo, Whole 30, and keto — to align with their fitness goals, he explained.
“In the beginning, [restrictions were] more out of necessity — because [a client] had to,” O’Dell said. “Now anywhere between a quarter and half of our families have a diet restriction for us to accommodate an addition to us accommodating their personal tastes.”
Learning from clients and adapting to their tastes and needs is nothing new, he said.
“The second client I ever had, had celiac disease and I had no experience with that — but, I had a dedication to cooking from scratch, so eliminating ingredients wasn’t hard to do. I just had to gain some knowledge,” he said.
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A market with full-time potential
In the restaurant industry since he was 14, O’Dell began humbly, he said.
“When you’re 25 to 30 years old, it’s hard to really develop a reputation,” said O’Dell, founder of Friend That Cooks, as he recalled his start in the food service space.
“One day, I had decided that, rather than working for other people [as a chef] part time, I was going to start a business of my own,” he said. “I thought if I took the personal chef business model and turned it into a weekly service and made it more affordable, I could find three or four families to cook for and work for myself. … It became apparent pretty quick that it wasn’t going to be a part-time job,” he laughed.
An entrepreneurial recipe cooked and first served in Wichita, Friend That Cooks relocated to Kansas City as the idea of providing a network of personal chefs to busy families — who want to save time and stick to a budget — gained traction with clients, O’Dell explained.
“I essentially had to start over and it was a lot harder to start in Kansas City because I didn’t know anybody,” O’Dell recalled of the pain points that came with relocating. “[Looking at] the big picture, it was a great move for me because it’s just — it’s a lot bigger market than Wichita, a lot more potential.”
While Friend that Cooks has seen solid and steady growth over the past decade, marketing the company wasn’t as easy as O’Dell initially thought, he said of a seven-year challenge to raise brand awareness.
“I spent years wasting tons of money on print ads and my business grew basically through the death of print advertising,” he explained, adding that digital ad sales and social media dramatically increased the reach of his company.”
Crafting a savory balance for clients, chefs
More than a meal prep service, the chefs at Friend that Cooks build personal relationships with their clients, O’Dell said, noting the company’s secret ingredient for client retention.
“That’s really the essence of our service. We’re not a factory in New Jersey who’s using low-wage employees to box up pre-portioned ingredients and mail them to you,” he said when asked how Friend That Cooks differs from meal delivery services — such as Hello Fresh or Blue Apron. “We have the same chef going to their home every single week. They give them feedback, the chefs ask them questions to create menus for them. We don’t have a set menu for people to choose from. … It’s really what works for that family.”
Passion for the food space continues to drive O’Dell as an entrepreneur, working to innovate the industry he’s spent his career observing, he said.
“There’s this whole quality of life that doesn’t exist in within the food service industry [there’s no work life balance] … That’s one of the big things that I wanted to change [with Friend That Cooks] and I feel that we are impacting it,” O’Dell said. “In the beginning when we were small, like a lot of small businesses, we couldn’t offer a lot. But, we’ve dedicated ourselves to offering more and more of the bigger that we get.”