Oscar Naziri, Founder of Athlete’s Kitchen, chats with us about his successful Toronto-based company that delivers meal plans to your door. His philosophy is to create delicious food from simple, locally-sourced ingredients to promote a simpler, healthier life.
Athlete’s Kitchen is a company that specializes in meal delivery. While there are many companies out there that do this, where we shine is that we focus on certain things such as gluten free, soy free and lactose free, and we have different meal plans that fit every lifestyle imaginable. We cater for those struggling with diabetes, for those who are looking for a high fat, low-carb or almost no-carb (ketogenic) diet, and for athletes who want to bulk up or trim down. We have these options set up in such a way that clients are able to mix and match online themselves. A client can therefore choose a plan that suits his/her lifestyle during the day, perhaps with a higher carb intake, and then taper that down for the evening. The client is not restricted to one package, such as a ketogenic meal plan. There are different portion sizes available too.
We specialize in meal plans and are focused on the quality of ingredients that go into those meals. We minimize as much as possible and work with only a few select suppliers. We offer simple cooking with big flavors, almost home-cooked bistro style cooking. Sauces are available but everything is made in-house from scratch and there are no artificial flavors or ingredients used at all. There is a scientific side to our meals, in the sense that the food is designed to do something nutritionally beneficial for the body. It is not only about food for fuel. Athlete’s Kitchen is a tasty, flavorful and healthy lifestyle, as opposed to a “diet”, that can be adapted to meet our clients’ ever-changing needs. In reality, what works for you, may not work for me!
Ideally, we like to keep our clients as long as possible, as any company does. We only focus on what we do best. Food is a difficult and costly business, as margins are very slim. Sometimes people are able to budget for our meal plans at all times, others are only able to use our services when they are extremely busy and have no time to cook at home. We do have some clients who have been with us for six years, seven days a week, barring holidays.
100%. We try to buy organic if and when we can. Living in Canada makes this quite difficult due to the very cold climate. Greenhouses do help but we have to import a lot of our produce from the US or Mexico.
In the very beginning, I decided to call the company Athlete’s Kitchen because I believe that there is an athlete in each and every one of us. If we eat like an athlete, we feel like an athlete. I’m an athlete myself, a cyclist. So yes, any athlete can benefit from our meal plans, but that doesn’t mean that others can’t. Our meal plans meet everyone's daily requirements and adapt to all lifestyles.
Every single meal plan that we offer (except the plant-based plan) is geared for weight loss. When I say weight loss, I don’t mean losing mass in terms of muscle. The protein count is high in our meals (at the adequate level that can be digested) so it is hard to lose cell growth, but because of the lower carbohydrate levels, losing unwanted fat is a given. Maintaining or even increasing muscle mass can be achieved if the person is active. We encourage good sleep, rest, activity and healthy eating as they are all inherently interconnected.
For the plant-based meals, it is a slightly different story. As we have chosen to go soy free, protein levels are slightly lower than in the other meal plans. Our plant-based meals are also nut free as there are many allergens out there. Therefore, the plant-based meals are slightly higher in carbohydrates and would be best used in between other meal plans we offer.
When I launched Athlete’s Kitchen as a business in 2014, there were only two other companies doing meal plans, and they were doing it differently. Initially, I was actually following the meal plan myself and the problems that I encountered on a personal level enabled me to structure my business accordingly. For example, I was prepping my meals for the week ahead (chicken, fish, etc.) but then I would see that a few days later I would start to lose freshness and texture. The quality had diminished. I would then take two days in the week for prepping instead of one, go out shopping for organic ingredients etc. Keeping in mind that I was holding down a full-time job in IT, my time was also limited.
I soon realised that all the problems that I encountered myself, I could eliminate for others. I could offer two deliveries a week with menus that constantly change. We are constantly improving our dishes and always offer variety. We have four different chefs now and each of them brings something new to the table.
Our goals from the very beginning were to change people’s lives, and help them understand what healthy eating is all about, without compromising on taste and flavor.
The industry has become more competitive over the last couple of years but I don’t actually try to compete in any sense. I am focused on what we do best and my goal is to continue improving what we do.
This is a huge topic and I have literally been around the world for this. I believe in buying local. When it comes to packaging, I had several options that were one third of the price of the packaging we now use, but I wanted to support the local industry as I also think the quality is far superior.
The problem we face involves recycling. A lot of the green, eco-friendly packaging options do not cater for the meal plan service. There are issues with incorrect sealing, therefore oxygen getting into the food, stackability, leaking fluids etc... I have done several tests with the best brands but I could not justify a shift from what we are currently using. I am still researching the perfect ratio quality/price but what we use now is good quality locally made, recyclable and BPA free.
You have to understand that the meal delivery service in general is an expensive service for both the company and the client. Affordability is one of the biggest hurdles.
Finding suppliers that were in line with our philosophy was a struggle in the beginning. Finding the right ingredients at the right price from the right suppliers was very challenging.
When we started, a lot of our suppliers didn't even understand the kind of things we were looking for. Health food stores would often be the only supplier of one or two ingredients that we needed. We have, since then, narrowed down the number of our suppliers.
Knowing and understanding what our customers wanted and needed also took time.
Delivery was another challenge to begin with. Right at the beginning, I used to do the deliveries myself with a group of friends, and that presented a whole host of problems. There were many teething issues that were soothed away as the business grew. However, as I mentioned earlier, the quest to find the perfect packaging option continues.
We make minimal improvements year by year. I had a list of things that I wanted to implement right at the beginning when we first launched the business. I ended up walking away from quite a few of those things as it was just too much to take onboard at that time. Now that the business has grown and is much stronger, I can go back to my wishlist and can start tapping into them once again.
Typically, I don’t like to disclose information on events that have not yet taken place, but there are some new things coming to Athlete's Kitchen which might take a year or two to materialise. At the end of the day it will ultimately benefit the consumer.
We initially thought that the pandemic would have a positive influence on the business, but in fact it has been quite the opposite. It has been very costly for us on an internal level; having fewer staff members in the kitchen, creating shifts to enforce social distancing. Our internal costs have increased substantially but that's just part of management.
Prices have increased on all fronts and there is a shortage of supply. Even packaging goods are in short supply and prices have increased by 30%.
People, I feel, are more frugal in these times and they also have more time to cook. So I think that a company that delivers groceries to your door would be doing better than a meal delivery service. Obviously it is still a profitable business but the pandemic has reduced the volume of sales dramatically. Staying true to our values and keeping in line with the vision of our brand means that we will not compromise on quality. We will continue to ride out the storm, while staying true to who we are.