Q&A with Catherine Proper, Freshly Inc.
A chef's perspective on prepared meal solutions
Prepared Foods talks prepared meal solutions with Catherine Proper, CEC, director of culinary operations at Freshly Inc., New York. Founded in 2013, Freshly offers consumers a weekly selection of more than 30 fresh, gluten-free items for delivery. It ships more than 750,000 freshly prepared meals each week from production sites in New Jersey, Arizona and Maryland. Proper leads a team of 22 chefs, food scientists, culinologists, engineers and labeling experts.
Prepared Foods: You have quite a team! How is your group structured?
Catherine Proper: The Culinary Operations team supports the commercialization of a new Freshly meal—every week. We’re also responsible for “Culinary Assurance,” which is Freshly’s version of quality assurance. It means our chefs and food scientists “live” on the production floor to ensure specification compliance, product quality and labeling compliance. We also train our team members in culinary techniques.
PF: What’s it like to be a chef there?
Proper: Freshly sits at the intersection of health and convenience; it provides people with fully prepared meals that make it easy to eat healthy. Working as a chef here simply means cooking great food. We are cooking meals fresh daily. Our menu ranges from 30 to 36 meals in any given week and our facilities prepare anywhere from 120-140 different components daily to make finished meals. The most rewarding part is working with other passionate culinary and food professionals who are seriously excited about ensuring the best quality to every single meal that goes out the door. Plus, we get to eat all of the Freshly we want in the office!
PF: What’s challenges you?
Proper: I came to Freshly from a background of Fortune 500 companies with big money and big resources. My transition meant honing several skill sets. In part, it means we can’t afford the time of nursing a project along until it’s 100% guaranteed. We get comfortable with projects at an 80% rate of success, then launch and be prepared for fast course corrections. Secondly, if you’re not sure about the answer to a problem, be prepared to figure it out. We still have a start-up environment, which means sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves, rally the team and dive into the unknown.
Admittedly, commercializing a new meal every week is extremely aggressive. Operationally, however, our facilities never quite have the opportunity to find a steady pace. It becomes an exercise in clear and constant communication, training culinary techniques on a large scale, and cheerleading to ensure that every meal delivers on chef-prepared deliciousness.
PF: How does your team determine what items to offer?
Proper: We launch a brand new meal every single week and sometimes as many as two or three meals in one week for seasonal launches. This pace is critical to our customers. Freshly has a team of dedicated food professionals that manage our weekly menu assortment. It’s truly a cross-functional effort to ensure the right menu mix to give the Freshly customer optimal variety.
Freshly subscribers can customize their order based on subscription size (with four, six, nine or 12 meals per week) as well as dietary preferences (dairy-free, low-carb, paleo, etc.).
PF: What do you like about Freshly’s strategy versus competitive market offerings?
Proper: The Freshly customer is ordering a fully prepared meal. Our consumer-customers don’t want to prep, cook or clean-up. They want to eat a fresh, satisfying meal and get on with the rest of their life.
It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to cook fresh food for customers and have it delivered fresh to them in 48 states. Our meals are delivered fresh, never frozen, and are truly “chef-inspired” throughout our process. From a chef’s perspective, I appreciate the breadth of menu options available to our customers. They range from classics such as Chicken Parmesan or Mac & Cheese; to Chicken and Shrimp with Cauliflower Fonio Grits or Blackened Mahi Mahi with Avocado Lime Crema.
PF: It’s noteworthy that all Freshly offerings are gluten free. What have you learned about gluten free formulation?
Proper: Operationally, we’ve learned that gluten-free ingredients (such as pasta, for example) can be much less robust than their gluten-full counterparts. As a result, we have tested and sourced equipment options (mixers for example) that offer mixing capabilities without destroying the integrity of the gluten-free ingredients.
It also means more veggies! Freshly meals are very veggie-centric by design (a cup of veggies in every meal) so using veggies—where we would have used traditional gluten-containing ingredients—all just amps-up our nutrition facts. It also gives our meals beautiful colors and flavors to match.
Elsewhere, we’ve learned that cornmeal and masa also are our friends for bread-type applications.
PF: Can you share a success story from last year?
Proper: Freshly launched a new Bowls line in 2019. It was basically a “start-up within a start-up.” We invested in a new facility and wanted to get it running as soon as possible. A cross-functional team sourced new ingredients, developed bowl concepts, compiled facility training materials, secured our gluten-free certification and started marketing new products to customers within six weeks of signing on the dotted line. It was a lightning-fast timeline, chock-full of new challenges and super fun—all in one project.
After taking a breath, we’re continuing to refine the Bowls line in response to customer feedback and operational capabilities.
I’d note that three months before we invested in the Bowls facility, we already had been working on a new, 180,000-sq-ft. manufacturing facility and that was an “all-hands-on-deck” situation for the opening. We went from 50,000 meals per week in our new Savage, Md., production facility to 600,000 meals per week seven months later. It was very aggressive growth but we learned so much as a team and continue to refine our large-scale culinary skills and operational efficiencies.
PF: Any personal goals for this new year?
Proper: It’s “don’t slow down!” Freshly has been an amazing ride and in 18 months, I’ve already done more work than I did in three years anywhere else. I hope to continue this incredible pace to support the fast growth of Freshly through delivering freshly prepared meals to all our hungry customers!