In 2014, Home Chef began assembling its meal kits in a 52,000-square-foot former commissary near Chicago’s Midway Airport. Within a year, the company was delivering 70,000 meals per month. Growth continued to skyrocket, setting CEO and Founder Pat Vihtelic on a path to locating a larger facility. He settled on a location in the Chicago suburb of Bedford Park, where he decided to build the company’s first new facility from the ground up.
In early March, Vihtelic stood with the Home Chef team, golden novelty scissors in hand, to declare the facility officially open.
“Scaling operations has been one of the biggest challenges, and that’s why we’ve kept our finger on the pulse of capacity, operational efficiency and other metrics,” said Vihtelic. “It’s been quite a ride, but we’re happy to have a facility that is built to suit our operation.”
Along with network operations in Bernardino, Calif., and Atlanta, the 103,000-square-foot Bedford Park facility provides Home Chef with the capacity to grow well beyond its current cadence of delivering three million meals per month.
“The facility is going to set the standard for how our entire network should operate,” said Vihtelic. “More product innovation. That’s what the facility is going to enable us to do. We know that our customers are interested in more. I think over time, you’re going to see us get more personalization into the meal kits, and break down the wall of what defines a meal kit today.”
In building the new facility, Home Chef had the opportunity to lay out the floor plan to exact specifications. In the eyes of Vihtelic and other company leaders, the potential for the new facility rests with its intuitive, open flow. The vision may prove useful in the fast-changing meal kit market space.
“Realizing that we do not know what the perfect production process is, and we probably won’t know anytime soon, having flexibility on the production floor has been really important to our success,” said Vihtelic.
The ability to configure production space, and then re-envision it as product development evolves, allows the company to accommodate fluctuations that might otherwise disrupt processes. An essential reliance on flexibility extends from Home Chef product lines to research and development approaches.
“Our R&D process is built around flexibility,” said Erik Jensen, vice president, product. “The manufacturing facility is giving us the flexibility we need to change the menu, and we offer flexibility in our R&D process. Flexibility on both sides is critical.”
Home Chef currently offers 14 items on its menu, including a new lunch item. Fruit baskets and smoothies are available as well, all of which were developed based on consumer feedback.
“Our menu changes 100% every single week, which is one of the most challenging parts of the business. It’s also one of the reasons that our customers keep coming back. They can get something different all of the time,” said Jensen.
At Home Chef, menu development is all in-house. The company maintains a culinary team of approximately 10, composed of chefs and product managers. The teams work together to devise dish ideas, and then employ a detailed process to take an idea to a customer-ready meal kit recipe.
“A meal goes through extensive testing. About one in ten of our ideas actually make it onto the menu,” said Jensen. “We do the testing in a relatively short period of time. From idea to recipe could be as fast as 10 weeks.”
When Vihtelic started the company in 2013, he offered customers a fixed menu of three meals per week. He asked if they would rather choose between five meals instead of being dictated three. It did not surprise him when nearly all of them said they would rather choose.
“What we did early on was make the choice that we are going to bend over backwards for our customer,” said Vihtelic. “And get really good at things like forecasting, to ensure that we can add more complexity to the menu over time.”