Jen Biswas spent every Sunday afternoon chopping, steaming and puréeing foods for her firstborn when he was a baby.
With her second child, now 11 months old, she doesn’t have to. A startup company called Raised Real sends her a box of flash-frozen food pouches — each containing preportioned, prechopped, age-appropriate ingredients combined to maximize her baby’s nutritional intake — whenever her stash runs low.
“Now, I can use that time to hang out with my kids,” Biswas said. “It’s super easy and convenient and I don’t have to think about whether my child is getting the right nutrients.”
The Minneapolis mom is part of a wave of busy new parents turning to delivery-based baby food as a way to save time on meal prep without compromising their child’s nutrition.
People have long sought convenient shortcuts for getting meals on the table. But the recent cultural shift toward less-processed and fresh foods is leading to new alternatives to one of the most recognized of food conveniences, the baby-food jar. At the same time, consumers are experimenting with meal kits and grocery delivery that also save a step or two.
Raised Real, founded by University of Minnesota grad Santiago Merea, is based in San Francisco with production operations in Shakopee. Schwan’s, based in Marshall and Bloomington, recently became Raised Real’s largest investor, helping Merea turn the company from an idea into a nationally distributed product in less than a year.
Raised Real isn’t the only company to recognize the opportunity. Once Upon A Farm, a company founded by a four-person team including actress Jennifer Garner and former CEO of Annie’s Homegrown John Foraker, delivers cold-pressed fruit-and-veggie baby food pouches in temperature-controlled cases to households across the U.S. And Little Spoon, with tubs of cold-pressed baby purées, designed products to encourage little ones to eat with utensils. There are a host of other early-stage companies offering different variations on the baby meal kit, or prepared baby food delivery model.
These new entrants come as the falling U.S. birthrate has led to an overall decline in the baby food category. But an increase in older moms, who tend to be more professionally accomplished and financially stable, has also increased demand for more expensive, premium baby food, according to Euromonitor’s new U.S. baby food report.
In nearly two-thirds of two-parent U.S. households, both parents work, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s up from just 48 percent in 1970.
With both parents now working in a majority of homes, “there’s no time,” Merea said. “Something has got to give. These parents want convenience but without feeling like they are giving up their responsibility.”
Merea, who previously founded kitchen technology company the Orange Chef, started Raised Real after his own frustrating experience. Four years ago his wife, a Minnesota native, gave birth to their twins. He took on the food portion of child-rearing.
“I went to the supermarket and researched all the options and realized the brands were very dated in how they talked to consumers, and the space lacked innovation,” Merea said. “I was making my own food at home and I soon realized there is no easy way to give your kids a big variety of foods without wasting a bunch due to spoilage because babies eat such small amounts. It gets really expensive unless you want to give your kids the same things over and over again.”
So he turned to freezing foods that he could draw out in small portions at meal time. He’s now selling that concept to other frazzled parents. Each Raised Real box includes 20 individually wrapped flash-frozen meals. One might include peas, chopped zucchini, hemp seeds, basil and avocado oil. Another might contain chopped butternut squash and banana, white quinoa, cardamom and coconut butter. Parents can steam and serve it whole or purée the ingredients together.
“We can jump through a lot of the hoops for you. You just finish it,” Merea said. “You can be the hero, but you don’t have to do the shopping, chopping and cleaning.”
Adult meal kit services, like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, are trending upward but are still only used in about 3.5 percent of households, according to a recent survey by consumer research firm NPD Group. One of the biggest barriers to growth is keeping its customers coming back for more.
Cost is also a barrier, NPD found, and will likely prevent many parents from trying subscription-based delivery baby foods.
Merea said he knows that $4.75 per meal is not affordable for everyone. Many assume his customers live on the East and West coasts where incomes are higher, but Merea said Raised Real has a strong presence in the Midwest, Texas and Florida.
“Parents are willing to pay extra for their kids that they aren’t always willing to pay for themselves,” he said. “We haven’t seen a big pushback from people on pricing, because if they want to replicate what we do, it is going to be more expensive.”
Some companies prove themselves online before making the leap to retail where the cost to try a product is much lower. Once Upon A Farm, also started through subscriptions, is already in retailers like Target.
“By doing direct-to-consumer sales, we are losing some customers because it’s kind of a high bar to give us a try. You have to buy 20 meals,” Merea said. “But what kills a startup is lack of focus, and retail brings with it a whole area of new needs.”
He’s already turned away interested retailers, but said he could see that being a next step some day. Raised Real, which just expanded nationwide in January, expects to become profitable in the next 12 to 14 months. It has grown 50 percent month-over-month since it launched, Merea said.
The baby food segment is different from most because it can be a highly repetitive purchase, said Darren Seifer, NPD’s food and beverage analyst. While adults tend to change their mind about what they want for dinner that night, babies eat what their parents give them, making it a more straightforward decision.
If these online baby food companies minimize the preparation, then they are offering time savings in planning, shopping and serving, which is the “triple threat,” Seifer said. “Consumers want someone else to do the thinking for them because that also saves them time in their day, rather than scouring the internet.”
He calls this “think-for-me” convenience. For Biswas, that’s exactly what a service like Raised Real gives her.
“I’m not a cook at all. I try, but I’m just not very good or that interested in it,” said Biswas, who works outside the home part time as a lifestyle blogger.
She likes how Raised Real meals pair foods that work together to maximize their nutritional benefit, “which I never even knew was a thing.”
“When [my son] was a baby, a girlfriend gave me three baby cookbooks and it felt like I had to do so much research,” Biswas said. “So just having the peace of mind to trust them on this is a game-changer.”