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My Muscle Chef: Producing a convenient route to nutrition

In both working full-time and trying to maintain a solid foundation for a health and fitness journey, Tushar Menon and his brother, Nishant Menon, noticed that for time-poor consumers like them there were no options in the Australian market for healthy, hearty, high protein ready meals.

While there were ready meals intended to promote weight loss, there was a gap in the market for active consumers who required more energy.

With the added incentive of wanting to start their own business, My Muscle Chef was born in 2013.

The key elements the brothers wanted to address were time on the one hand, and convenience on the other. Additionally, at the time the company began, buying a healthy meal was expensive.

But My Muscle Chef co-founder and CEO, Tushar Menon, said before they could overcome these factors, there was a steep learning curve.

“The biggest challenge when we started was that we didn’t have any experience in the market; it was a huge learning curve to understand the requirements of running a food business,” he said. “Also, the fact was that we were dealing with a perishable product, so it couldn’t be produced in big runs and stored in an ambient facility. Our meals were frozen at the time but still perishable, so understanding transportation and storage and how to produce it in a safe environment was critical.”

Almost ten years later, having attained a sound understanding of these logistics has benefitted the business. It also translated when they ventured into producing fresh meals rather than frozen. Wanting to steer away from a modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) sealed model – which uses a tray with a top seal that preserves the product for 10-12 days – My Muscle Chef turned to vacuum skin packaging to maintain quality, prolong the shelf life and assist with logistics.

Vacuum skin packaging aims to keep the oxygen out of the product, which preserves it for 14 days and ensures the flavour is as good on the use by date as it is when produced.

After researching and locating suppliers, they trialled the packaging.

“The trials were successful and at first, we were a little uncertain because no one in Australia was doing that yet for ready meals,” Menon said. “But we were confident the positives would outweigh anything else, and it was the best decision we ever made.

“The quality of the product when vacuum sealed is second to none and the food doesn’t move around, so from a presentation perspective it was great and from a taste and quality perspective it was incredible.”

Building a connection

Another important aspect in building the business has been forming transparent relationships with partners and suppliers, especially in delivering their cold chain products. Menon says one of the biggest challenges has been ensuring that the correct temperature is maintained from when the product leaves the facility to when the customer receives it. They key to this communication with a trusted network of partners and suppliers.

“Delivering cold chain products is always challenging. Maintaining that temperature from start to finish is important for our products,” he said. “We are very lucky that we have a great team that we have worked with for a while now who understand our requirements and our high standards in terms of customer service.

“We’ve built that relationship over a long period of time, and it runs smoothly. If you don’t get that right, it is a huge challenge because otherwise you are chasing stock across the country. Having clear visibility is key and that is a strength for us. Our delivery success rate is at over 99 per cent.”

The ready-made meals manufacturer now distributes more than three million healthy and fresh meals, drinks, and snacks per month to over 4,500 suburbs nationwide.

Menon greatly attributes this success to customer research, which was conducted in 2018 to better understand their target market and why customers chose to purchase their products. This had a massive impact on the My Muscle Chef brand.

“The real turning point for us was when we spent some time reflecting on what we were doing well and what our next steps were moving forward, and a big part of that was moving toward a more data-driven approach and really understanding who our customers are,” Menon said.

“The research really blew us away – we always assumed our target customer was the gym goer focused on performance, health and fitness. But we found 60 per cent of our customers ordered our products for convenience.”

This valuable data gave the manufacturer a clear direction: rather than advertising My Muscle Chef as a fitness-focused brand, they broadened their appeal and product range to reflect “Every Body, Every Goal.”

Also, due to the stigma surrounding frozen meals, once the business shifted towards producing fresh ready meals and extended their range of products, they were able to reach a wider audience and the brand’s growth began to skyrocket.

Quality and automation

Although My Muscle Chef started out in a small kitchen in Potts Point in Sydney, the business’ growth has allowed them to accommodate plans to build a new facility in Yennora, where they are now based. This facility will merge both manufacturing and distribution under one roof and help meet the ever-increasing demand.

“It will be a custom-built site and accommodate our current plans and growth expectations. A lot of our challenges will be eliminated by creating more efficiency and automating our new facility, which is very exciting,” Menon said.

Automating their processes will enable clear traceability on the quality of the products, from start to finish in every product, batch, and ingredient.

“You need to know where the ingredients are coming from, what all the batches are, when they were produced and when they were dispatched, giving us full visibility. We factored that into the new site to ensure we have the right technology and processes to protect and improve our quality,” Menon said.

“Quality is the number one priority. Having scaled up so quickly, it would have been easy to jeopardise quality – but the team have done a phenomenal job to make sure at every point that quality is number one. It doesn’t matter how good your marketing is – if your product is no good, the customer won’t buy it.”

Quality is an attribute that extends across the My Muscle Chef enterprise, including in the produce. All their fruit, vegetables, and meat, including beef, chicken, and fish, is sourced within Australia, and delivered daily. And while automation is involved, Menon says that their point of difference is in how the meals are cooked and presented – with care.

“One piece of feedback we always get from customers is that it tastes like home cooked food, and we love hearing that because the way our production is set up, we produce it like a large-scale restaurant,” he said. “It isn’t a heavily processed product, and the food also looks very appetising because of how we treat the product and the ingredients we use.”

Muscling forward

Since setting out in 2013, My Muscle Chef has succeeded in becoming a healthy, convenient, affordable option for time-poor consumers who are looking for a fresh meal that tastes just as good as one they could cook at home.

“We received a lot of feedback from customers who were eager to find My Muscle Chef products they could pick up on the go,” Menon said. “Customers now accept you can get a healthy, quality, home-style ready meal and I think the sector as a whole has been doing a really good job of lifting product perception.”

The focus for the ready meals manufacturer now is growing brand awareness, starting with a “Strong Like This” marketing campaign. Centred on educating Australian consumers that good nutrition is a key part of sustaining mental and emotional health as well as physical health, the campaign was launched in February to resoundingly positive feedback.

“I think this is the start of a whole new chapter for My Muscle Chef and it is really going to help us to reach more Australians and grow our brand,” Menon said. “The sky is the limit for our business. We have achieved some great things so far, off the back of some fantastic quality products. Now that we have a very focused marketing and brand strategy, we are excited to see how many more households we can tap into.”

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