Meet the startup grocer aiming to fix time-consuming meal-prep
Grocers have been striving to tap into the growing trend of at-home eating by offering hot-and-ready meals, self-service stations and grab-and-go prepared foods. However, this still leaves a gap for those who crave preparing their own home-cooked meals, yet struggle with meal ideas and the labor of cooking.
Startup grocer Marcellus Foods is targeting that middle ground by offering around 80 pre-prepared ingredients along with some grocery staples and personalized recipes that tie them together. Its omnichannel store, set to open in 2023 in Salt Lake City, will sell sliced, cubed, marinated and other value-added items that its staff has readied and packaged for shoppers.
Eve Marcellus Cohen, a veteran of Shipt and Walmart who has closely researched consumer habits and who founded the company alongside her husband, professional prep cook Dana Berge, said Marcellus Foods’ approach can eliminate 85% of the time and effort of cooking from scratch.
“It's really that work, that labor, the effort of the cooking itself that needed a solution,” Cohen said. “And we didn't want people to have to sacrifice flexibility, customization and quality to save that time.”
When it opens this spring, Marcellus Foods’ store will offer in-person shopping. But it’s focused on having shoppers order ahead via its app, either for curbside or in-store pickup. Delivery will not be an option for Marcellus shoppers. Having worked for years in the delivery sector, Cohen views pickup as more beneficial to customers and better for her company’s margins.
Focus on flexibility
Marcellus’ prepped options include cooked grains, vegetables and proteins that are lightly seasoned to allow for more diversity in how the items can be prepared. All food prep will be done through what Cohen refers to as “human-scale food processing,” meaning the entire food preparation process will be carried out directly by Marcellus employees.
Once customers check out, the app sends them recipe options to follow based on the ingredients they purchased, maximizing the use of what’s in their cart.
To further this flexibility, Marcellus allows customers to either buy ingredients individually or in bundles that also come with a variety of recipe options.
“The idea is that, if you have these basic building blocks that you know you like to eat and your family loves to eat, then you can add different elements here and there,” Cohen said.
Buying pre-prepared ingredients alongside recipes isn’t an entirely new concept. Meal kit companies like HelloFresh and Blue Apron popularized this approach, and grocers like Trader Joe’s sell a wide range of value-added ingredients. But Marcellus Foods aims to make this process more local and customizable and offer more recipe options.
When curating a business plan and pinpointing a target market for Marcellus, Cohen discovered that 80% of women are the ones most responsible for meal prep in their household, according to the Pew Research Center. And, when speaking to potential customers, a majority of women expressed feeling guilt about not having time to cook during the day.
“I can’t live in a society that makes women feel bad about themselves because they’re not cooking,” Cohen said. “That really became the impetus for me to figure out: ‘What could a solution look like?’”
Women are not the only target consumers Marcellus Foods is looking to attract. With a quick shopping experience paired with a digital platform, Generation Z is predicted to be a key market once the first Marcellus location opens.
Easing and speeding up the task of cooking is bound to draw in a younger generation, but Cohen believes that it is Marcellus’ growing sustainable edge that will entice Gen Z. Though the grocer will sell items from national CPG and packaged goods suppliers, it has made headway on securing regional relationships with small and mid-size growers in order to stock the store with “biodiverse” ingredients, Cohen said.
Cooking up a solution
Marcellus Foods was inspired by Cohen’s near decade in the food and grocery industry as well as a three-hour daily commute she experienced when living in San Francisco.
In 2013, Cohen began her grocery career at online grocer Good Eggs working as the local merchandise lead in the San Francisco Bay Area, building and onboarding the company’s initial marketplace.
From there, Cohen transferred over to Walmart’s online grocery pickup team, where the roots for Marcellus Foods took hold. Eight months into working for Walmart, Cohen’s in-depth research in meal planning took off.
Cohen also struggled with meal prep and finding time to cook on a personal level. Commuting from Berkeley, where she lived at the time, to Walmart’s San Bruno offices left her and her husband stocking their fridge every Sunday with prepped ingredients so they had time to cook for themselves during the work week.
Cohen went to work at Shipt from 2017 to 2019, founding its digital merchandising function and working with its CPG promotions business and partnerships. By the end of her time at Shipt, however, she was burnt out and went to work outside of the grocery industry.
With the first location set to open in 2023, Cohen’s in-market expansion is set to begin in 2025 and 2026. This expansion includes bringing Marcellus Foods to new neighborhoods, maximizing its regional supply chains and moving into small retail stores for more real estate flexibility. From there, Cohen is “looking at 2027 as that kickoff for national expansion.”