Tomato Sherpa looks to up the earnestness in the online food space


fooooodThe inability of overworked young professionals to feed themselves – what with their healthy levels of disposable income and complete lack of free time with which to enjoy it – has become so pronounced that an entire industry of healthy food delivery services has cropped up to make a profit from stopping us from shovelling takeout into our faces.

Munchery, Sprig, and Chefler are all newish market entrants, delivering home-cooked meals to the doorsteps of hungry San Franciscans. Companies like Plated and Blue Apron offer up recipe kits and raw ingredients so customers can still experience the joy of cooking without the crunch of having to think about what they want to make. It’s an evolving space with a lot of companies looking to take out the market and establish themselves as top dog.

On this growing pile we can now add one more. In August last year, Tomato Sherpa set up shop in a 4,000 square foot space in Berkeley, delivering recipe kits and healthy ingredients across the Bay Area.

Founder and CEO Stacey Waldspurger isn’t fazed about trying to keep up with the competition. She says that she had the idea for Tomato Sherpa in 2010, in a pre-Plated, pre-Blue Apron, pre-everyone else world. She was at the Presidio Graduate School studying business and outlined the company model as part of a school project. Upon graduation, she had a child and understandably the plan got buried among more important life developments.

Plated covers 80 percent of the country. Ultimately Waldspurger thinks that it is a good thing not being the first person in the market selling semi-prepared dinner kits. “It was very convenient for me in a way, because I was no longer trying to describe it to people,” she says. “I try to think about it like it was a positive thing.”

Tomato Sherpa’s point of difference is that it goes straight to the workplace to pitch its products. Rather than waiting on word of mouth, or marketing its product against more established competitors, it has partnered with IDEO, LinkedIN, Mercer, OpenDNS, Pandora, Plum Organics, Trion Worlds, Workday, Zynga, and Lyft. It is a network of corporate partners that Waldspurger says she’s built out through personal connections and word of mouth.

Waldspurger thinks that this is an improvement over other business models. “The HR departments give us access to the employees, they’re invested in our success and they serve as an advocate for us in the workplace,” she says. “But it’s also an efficient marketing and delivery system. We’re walking into a workplace and dropping off 25 or 50 bags in one go and getting more opportunity to get out in front of our customers.”

Tomato Sherpa food kits go out twice a week. The minimum order is $ 17.50, but Waldspurger says the average spend is $ 35. Subscribers can get up to four meals a week, although she says that it will soon be seven. It does home delivery and has a range of pick up points. Office workers within certain zip codes across San Francisco, San Mateo, Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville can get free delivery of their meals. The catch is, after the first delivery they’re going to get a little card with their food asking if Waldspurger can come and visit and get the rest of their office hooked.

Waldspurger thinks that the workplace idea is a winner. But outside of this, she’s relying on a good old fashioned dose of love and earnestness to set Tomato Sherpa apart.

“We use reusable packaging and sustainable bags. The totes we use are really nice and could last forever,” Waldspurger says. “It’s really pretty presentation. We want it to be like you’re opening a gift.” She views the company’s affiliations with HR departments across the city as an investment in “wellness.” Tomato Sherpa’s meals are sourced locally whenever humanly possible from suppliers it lists proudly on the company website and at the minimum, all ingredients used are organic. The company is planning on hosting regular food events to keep its customer base engaged.

Tomato Sherpa is an idea that could be expanded, Waldspurger says. Within two years she wants it to be in Los Angeles and the East Coast. She thinks that tying the business in closely with HR departments across the country and the growing push for workplaces to look after their employees and provide benefits to them is the key for Tomato Sherpa to take off.

The company is another in a long line of food startups to show off that food can be profitable and scalable. It’s becoming less of a topic of debate. Waldspurger says that Tomato Sherpa’s kitchen space has the capacity to send out 10,000 meals a month. It’s running at a fraction of that now but if the company hits its limit the profit margin for its food kits would be 50 percent.

You can’t knock the potential of the food delivery space or Waldspurger’s enthusiasm. Tomato Sherpa has its point of difference and she is cognizant that it is a space she shares with many other companies. The issue Tomato Sherpa faces is the same as its competitors – there’s logically not enough room for all of the smiling, shining companies running with investment money and exploring new markets and models to prosper in the long term. Some of these companies aren’t going to survive. They’re going to have to be very good and determined to make the cut.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]