Yale Grad Students Look To Expand Homegrown Frozen Food Line

By Luther Turmelle New Haven Register, Conn.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Two grad students at Yale have joined forces to create a nutritious frozen food line. So far, "Zoni Foods" has three different frozen meal kits: Coconut Curry Noodles, Sweet Potato Spirals and Zesty Peanut Noodles.

New Haven Register, Conn.

What started as chance meeting of two female Yale University graduate students with entrepreneurial inclinations has evolved into a homegrown frozen food line that is gradually building market share.

Zoni Foods is the brainchild of Zoe Lloyd and Nilofer Ahmed.

The two women bemoaned the lack of fast and nutritious plant-based meals as busy graduate students and decided to do something about it.

Lloyd said the two met at a Yale School of Management event designed to help young entrepreneurs network, and bonded over shared interest in food and sustainable products.

"Last summer we started following different food blogs to see what ingredients were popular," Ahmed said. "Then we began to experiment with ingredients in Zoe's kitchen. And we'd hold tasting parties to see what other people thought of what we made."

"We got some good traction from that," Lloyd said of the tasting parties.

Having won over the taste buds of their friends, the two set out to win over a more judgemental audience in product pitch competition.

They won several competitions and the winnings from those events, combined with grant money, enabled Lloyd and Ahmed to launch Zoni Foods last summer with a $60,000 bankroll.

Zoni Foods meal kits made their debut in six stores this month, five of which are in the New Haven area.

Lloyd has been spending much of her time doing product demonstrations at stores such as Edge of the Woods and Elm City Market in New Haven as well as Thyme and Season in Hamden.

Zoni Foods has three different frozen meal kits: Coconut Curry Noodles, Sweet Potato Spirals and Zesty Peanut Noodles.

Manufacturing Each kit has plant starches, proteins and a unique nut-based sauce that are flash-frozen at the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, a commercial kitchen and packaging plant in Greenfield, Massachusetts, to preserve nutrients and flavor.

Lloyd said Zoni Foods initially had selected a Hartford-based company to do the meal kit production and packing of Zoni Foods, but turned to the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center when the other business failed.

"They know the food space really well," she said of Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center. "And their expertise has been really valuable as we developed an operating plan."

Having launched their product in small stores, the next step, according to Ahmed, is getting Zoni Foods meal kits into "markets that allow us to be exponentially larger." There is also a plan to bring the product to the shelves of Massachusetts markets in the next 12 months.

But in order to do that, the partners need to reduce the level of manual labor that goes into packaging the meal kits. So they have begun exploring the purchase of two machines that would further automate the packaging process, Lloyd said.

"It's absolutely vital," Ahmed said of purchasing the machines. "When you're talking about growing to the level we want to grow to, you can't do it by hand. It's too labor intensive, too costly."

Financial backing To pay for the much needed equipment, Zoni Foods is using convertible notes, which are a form of short-term debt that converts into equity. The investor providing the company with the capital now will ultimately see the money they have invested become an equity stake in Zoni Foods.

Lloyd said that as Zoni Foods looks for additional investors, "we're hoping to find people who have experience in the food business."

Beyond the production of the product, another key step in the process of expanding the distribution of the company's meal kits is navigating the process associated dealing with larger grocery and health food stores.

"With the stores we're in now, you can just walk in and ask to meet with someone," Ahmed said. "With larger chains, you just can't do that. So we're having discussions with brokers and distributors."

Fresh vs. frozen The two women heavily market the idea that Zoni Foods is a business with local roots.

In addition the Yale connection and the product being produced in a Massachusetts-based commercial kitchen, the majority of the ingredients in Zoni Foods meal kits come from farms near Greenfield.

"The notion that frozen foods aren't nutritious is outdated," Ahmed said. "Frozen foods like ours are actually more nutritious because the flash freezing process seals in the nutrients. When fresh food is out of season, the nutrition value that is lost bringing it in from another part of the country actually makes our product a better purchase."

Ali Bouzari and colleagues at the University of California, Davis have done research comparing fresh and frozen produce.

Bouzari told the New York Times last November that while freezing can sometimes alter the nutritional value of some fruits and vegetables, there is no clear-cut answer as to whether fresh foods are better than frozen.

"It really depends which plant you're talking about," said Bouzari, who now runs Pilot R+D, a culinary research and development company in Sonoma County, California.

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