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Feature Tue Jan 28 2014

Eazy Peazy Cooking with Meez Meals

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The creamy tomatillo sauce is what makes the dish, Jennifer Moore tells me as I awkwardly pour the velvety green sauce onto layers of sautéed poblano peppers, corn, beans and golden tortillas. She then hands me a package of shredded jack cheese, which I sprinkle delicately onto the beginnings of a cheesy tomatillo casserole. Dump the whole thing, she advises with an impish grin, and I willingly oblige. If I was going vegetarian, at least I wasn't going to skimp on the cheese. As we wait for the casserole to melt and caramelize into a goulash of Mexican ecstasy, I leave Moore to clean up the prep -- in our case, four plastic bags labeled Meez Meals. After all, the lack of post-cooking cleanup is arguably one of Meez Meals' best features.

As the founder of Meez, a meal delivery business based in Chicago, Moore is a spritely and slender woman, with intelligent eyes and a sharp bob cut that screams business-savvy. Originally from Boston, Moore relocated to Chicago after college and worked as a brand manager for Unilever before launching Meez.

"My mission was getting more people to cook from scratch and to realize it's not that hard," Moore says, "People find cooking really threatening and really scary. I was lucky that I had a mom who cooked every meal for us except for once a week and Sundays. My sister and I alternated nights where one of us had to cook dinner, but it wasn't about giving [my mom] a night off; she just wanted us to learn how to cook."

dsc_3034.jpgWhile running focus groups at Unilever, Moore learned that although parents felt extremely guilty about not cooking for their kids, hectic work lives made homemade meals a time-consuming and exhausting chore. She came up with the concept for Meez when her sister mentioned that all she wanted was someone to perform the prep work. Meez is short for mise en place, a French culinary term meaning "putting in place." "[Prepping] is not the part of cooking that's particularly rewarding. The part that's rewarding is the sight, the smells," Moore says. After running a few trials and receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback, Moore realized that she had a solid proof of concept. At the time, however, Unilever was relocating its Chicago employees back to the East Coast. "If I'm going to [start Meez], this is the right time, so it was natural timing. Plus, the severance was good seed money," Moore says.

A MBA grad from Kellogg, Moore utilized both her education and experience as brand-manager for Barilla and Axe to develop a strong brand for Meez. "My background is very much marketing and consumer insight so understanding what people wanted and how to get it to them was the fun, natural part for me. The hardest part is just figuring out how to manage the behind-the-scenes complexity." Such logistics include recipe development, product procurement and delivery, customer retention and acquisition. Luckily, Moore has a full time internal chef named Max Barahas, an operations manager, and a manufacturing facility in Evanston.

dsc_3037.jpgThe timer dings, and Jen's dog saunters into the kitchen. We peer into the oven and determine the cheese hasn't achieved ideal gooeyness. Jen resets the clock, and her dog retreats back into the living room.

True to her business background, Moore is highly sensitive to customer interests and requests. Meez is a high-contact business, and she keeps it that way. Clients are not obligated to sign up for a subscription service, as "Meez is not a meal plan." In addition to macro-customization (e.g., at least three gluten-free and three vegan dishes), Meez also allows people to micro-customize their orders by making notes to the kitchen and/or delivery messenger. No blue cheese -- how about mozzarella? No cilantro -- we won't include it. "The thing is that we can be so much more nimble than a big company. When we roll out new things, we can do it quickly," she tells me. This level of personalization reflects Moore's philosophy that "Meez is not really chef-driven; Meez is about the consumer going on the cooking journey with us." Interestingly, Moore tells me that the majority of people actually cooking Meez are dads, who enjoy bonding with their children while their wives are busy. Moore doesn't have any secret recipes and shares ingredients and instructions with clients should they request for them. In addition, Meez has a dinner hotline for clients, including people like me with a penchant for burning food. The company also utilizes a messenger service where customers receive packages directly from a Meez employee, not a UPS or FedEx deliverer.

I ask Moore where she sees Meez five years from now. She cocks her head with a perplexed grin and shrugs. She replies that the business is always evolving as they think about manufacturing and efficiencies but that Chicago is great test city with plenty of room to saturate the market. So will Meez eventually expand into other cities? "We definitely are a good fit for other markets, but it would still be in a local way. We have local relationships [with producers], so whenever someone's cooking with us, they're getting that local experience," Moore says. In the meantime, Meez recently launched the Meals for Good campaign with Common Threads, in which a guest chef shares a homemade recipe with Meez.

"It's not what does Chef Blonsky make at Siena Tavern -- it's about when he's cooking dinner for his family, what does he eat?" Moore explains. Other guest chefs include Jeremy Tannehill (Public House), Top Chef contestants Beverly Kim and Heather Terhune, and Rick Gresh (David Burke's Primehouse). "Our members go out to restaurants; they're not trying to replicate the white tablecloth experience. They want to have a really great family meal, and that's what Meez Meals is," Moore says.

dsc_3039.jpgThough Meez is rolling out desserts soon, I ask Moore if DIY snack mixes (e.g., make-your-own-granola) are on the radar. After all, Meez Meals could address both the convenience factor and cost factor. Moore tells me that she created a "fabulous" infographic comparing the price of Meez meals with buying ingredients and discovered that for some recipes, the differences were outstanding. In other words, people making an Indian-inspired dish wouldn't have to pay $5 for a bottle of coriander seeds that's never going to see the light of day again. Moore says that "[Meez] lets you experience all these different things for less than what it would cost you to make them because you have to buy all the ingredients in bulk."

By this time, our cheesy tomatillo casserole is caramelized to utter perfection, and Moore scoops a heaping mound onto my plate. My fork pierces the layered mound of flavorful bliss, and I momentarily blank on my checklist of questions. After a few more bites and deep elated breaths, I muster enough mental acuity to ask Moore about her favorite restaurants in Chicago. Moore admits she doesn't eat out much and prefers local joints in her Andersonville neighborhood, particularly Antica Pizzeria and Tanoshii. "Antica is run by somebody who's actually from Naples--he gives me a big hug and kiss whenever I come in. They serve the type of pizza that cooks in two minutes, and they have the most delicious pasta. We're so spoiled in Chicago -- there's so many good restaurants," she replies.

As we chat about Chicago restaurants, the theater scene (her husband is artistic director for Steep Theatre), and random gender topics, I quickly realize that great food and great meals aren't always mutually inclusive. Moore summarizes it succinctly: "That's the fundamental thing for Meez: Food is part of a great meal, but it's about the experience. It's who you eat with; it's the cooking; it's the conversations you have."

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
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