Grassroots entrepreneur Jillian McGary was about to turn off the oven on her Mostly Made meal kit startup business in 2021.
After five years of trial-and-error development, more than $60,000 in savings, 250 in-store demonstrations at 30 grocers and 16,000 miles a year chasing her cuisine dream, McGary spent a contemplative day sulking in her bedroom last September.
"I was going to quit," McGary said. "My price was wrong, and the package was wrong. I was only getting an 18% [operating] margin on sales. It should have been 40%. A woman at Festival Foods yelled at me that the price at $14.99 was too expensive. I dropped it to $12.99. And now I was being told by business mentors to drop it to $9.99."
McGary had been critiqued bluntly on strategy by the Grow North startup advisory program. But customers liked the taste of skillet lasagna, chicken enchilada and shepherd's pie meals for up to six that include fresh ingredients, prepared and cooked under 25 minutes that would take a couple hours from scratch.
She decided to give Mostly Made one last shot.
"Think of Mostly Made as a fresh, nutritious 'Hamburger Helper' in the refrigerated case," McGary said.
She kept thinking that cake mixes fill a grocery aisle, and she bakes a cake four times a year.
"But I cook dinner every night," she said. "I couldn't be the only person who wanted an easy way to cook homemade meals quickly."
Mostly Made was mostly in Twin Cities Kowalski's Markets and several other grocery stores and co-ops. A Target buyer liked Mostly Made samples she tasted in 2021. The company started testing the product last year in groceries.
However, sales were tepid.
And then there was the packaging — it was recyclable but bland. Plus, McGary needed to improve the marketing.
"Target kept Mostly Made on the shelf while I redid the packaging," said a grateful McGary.
McGary, 43, is nothing if not a determined Minnetonka mother of two who believes in her product and knows something about hard work and delayed gratification.
She paid most of the household bills for a decade with corporate marketing jobs before her husband's homebuilding business hit sustainability. McGary started Mostly Made in 2016 after a layoff. She started thinking about developing what became Mostly Made while preparing meals while her sister-in-law battled cancer.
"When the bulky pans wouldn't fit in her freezer, I realized that if I 'mostly made' the casserole filling, the final ingredients could be added easily for a delicious homestyle meal," McGary recalled. "And my sister-in-law is also going on seven years cancer-free."
Through a contact with the Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, McGary connected with Periscope, the Minneapolis full-service marketing firm, to help revamp packaging and focus the "smart and easy homestyle" strategy.
Periscope designed a colorful box and plastic pouch, made from recycled materials, that also concisely explains the product and benefits.
"Jillian wasn't just doing 'microwave meal 2.0,'" said Richard Gordon-Smith, Periscope's creative director. "It's a great product that satisfies a range of tastes. It wasn't just rice with something piled on it. She was doing something rare."
Periscope also hasn't charged McGary anything, inspired by her years of no return on time and treasure. Plus, she donates 5% of wholesale revenue to charities. Periscope liked partnering with a struggling entrepreneur with a good product and heart.
"I feel like I won the lottery to work with these great Periscope people," McGary said. "I'm so small. And they treated me like a real client."
The early returns are promising.
In October, Minneapolis manufacturer At Last Gourmet Foods, McGary's co-packer, started producing thousands of meals. McGary has orders from up to 120 stores. The expanded list of retailers includes Midwest Super Targets, Kowalski's, Coborn's and Lakewinds Food Co-op.
"I feel like Geppetto after the Blue Fairy brought my rough wooden puppet Pinocchio to life," McGary said. "Target gave me a chance to stay on the shelves and relaunch our package. Mostly Made has captured the attention of grocery buyers.''
Target declined comment on Mostly Made. McGary said late Tuesday her products are temporarily out of stock at Target but will be restocked by the end of the month.
Time will tell if the next chapter will be successful.
McGary lost $6,000 in 2021 and hasn't paid herself yet. She's satisfied that she's done all she can. Her aspiration is to sell more than 100,000 units and generate more than $1 million in retail revenue.
"I just want to be in business in a year," McGary said. "I don't think about being acquired or making a million dollars. I just want to see more product sell off the shelf."