Planted Meals is the brainchild of three very different but wildly capable and brave individuals. Natalie is the chef, chief menu planner, and the first to be vegan among the group. She’s made it her expertise to turn mainstream comfort foods into plant-based dishes that can last up to five days in the fridge—no small feat. Despite her skills as a chef, she remains humble and quick to pass off compliments and success to the other members behind Planted Meals. Mike helps in every area he can—not with cooking as he’s quick to point out—mainly on the digital presence of the company. Corbin is what Natalie describes as ‘the entrepreneur of the group.’ He’s on hand to make sure everything is going to plan and as smoothly as possible. It seems as though there’s a dream-team of sorts assembled behind the second plant-based meal delivery service in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. Meeting in their kitchen late on a weeknight, the Planted staff is busy packing the deliveries for the next day while the three founders sit down for a bit of insight behind their quickly growing business.
Corbin Lowe, Natalie Young, Michael Lee
What was the ‘a-ha moment’ behind Planted Meals?
N: It was a good step for me wanting to share food with lots of people, especially vegan food.
M: I was interested in starting a business, so I took it on with not many questions as to the specifics because the other people who were involved were all people I knew.
C: I wanted to help people go vegan and create an easy, affordable way to make meals a bit more convenient.
There’s the argument that an excess of plant-based diets also has a substantial environmental impact, what would you say to that?
C: People need to know that the impact of the meat industry is so, so much higher than the plant-based industry ever could be. It’s a fraction, really. Generally speaking, our target market is open to considering other food habits for at least a part of their week.
And were you all vegans when you started Planted?
M: I had already significantly decreased my meat consumption when we started Planted Meals, but I switched to a fully plant-based diet on World Vegan Day, November 1st, with the intention of trying it for a full year. However, I ended it after 2 months as I felt that being 100% vegan wasn't a good lifestyle choice for me. I still consume more than 80% plant-based diet, but keeping up the last 20% is not something I'm prepared to do. I wanted to choose it for myself not based on anything I read or researched, but on how my body feels being vegan. I still can feel the difference in my entire body though!
N: I was already vegan. I really became dedicated to it when I saw Cowspiracy. That was when I fully realized how much damage the meat industry and animal agriculture does to the world.
C: I’ve been vegan for 2 years. Originally I made the switch to lessen my environmental impact but I really started to feel better as well.
Has the food surprised you then, Mike?
M: When I first started with Planted, yes! I thought vegan food was what cows would eat—grass! I assumed it would be all flavourless greens but in reality, it’s so good and so filling, too.
N: He had absolutely no idea!
Natalie, what led to your love of cooking initially?
N: I’ve always liked to cook and eat. My mom cooked lots while I lived at home and then once I moved, I started cooking a lot. I started cooking vegan food because I found it more interactive and I loved the creative element of it. Plus, meat was really hard for me to cook!
Where does your menu inspiration come from?
N: A lot of times, my own cravings! Then once I have an idea or dish I want to make, I look up almost every recipe I can find. Once I’ve read around 10 different ones, I amalgamate the best pieces of each and try it out. It’s a lot of trial and error after that to make something that makes it to the menu.
So each menu item is tested before it’s added?
N: In the beginning, no actually! But we quickly learned that we had to. Our meals are meant to last for five days so they have to actually do that to be a mainstay on the menu.
What have been some of your favourite meals or ingredients to cook?
N: It’s been fun to make stuff that people already know and are comfortable with, and make it vegan. If it’s good enough, people don't care there’s no meat in it—even in a meat-heavy dish. Our mushroom neatballs, for instance, have been a favourite since we first made them.
Does Planted do ethical sourcing or have any eco or environmental rules for its suppliers?
C: At first, we got all of our vegetables and supplies from grocery stores so we didn’t have much control over it. Now we get everything from Sysco so it’s not all organic but that’s our next step and business goal. 100% local and organic produce would also substantially alter our costs and with one of our business pillars being accessibility, we wanted to really work on hitting that first.
How do you balance your ingredients and pricing? Your prices are extremely reasonable for home-cooked vegan dishes.
C: As we grow, we have much more purchasing power with a volume of products. We really save by not having to purchase meat or animal products as well. Mainly, we choose our ingredients very carefully always going with the best dollar-to-taste value.
Your meals come already prepared with reheating instructions rather than the traditional meal service model of ingredients and a recipe—why is that?
N: Again, that comes down to accessibility. We are also able to use less packaging this way, rather than packing individual ingredients. And is having to put it all together and cook it really that much easier? We really wanted to underscore convenience with our meals and target people who sit at work and eat or would rather go for a walk on their lunch than standing and waiting to buy fast food.
What’s the feedback process been like so far?
M: We didn't know how to do anything in the beginning. Either it didn’t taste good or it didn't hold well. We were just trying to get started because as Corbin told us, you can't make everything perfect before launch. You’ve kinda just got to dive in. But we all found a way to thrive and live for feedback. It’s definitely hard but you have to get over that and make it better no matter what.
N: Cooking can be personal and at first, I was cooking how I like to eat so I really had to work to get into the mindset that I’m not cooking for me, I’m cooking for other people and now I need to ask, “What are they going to like and want?”
That must be a huge learning curve. What else did you have to modify cooking for other people?
N: I had to start using a lot more flavour. I kept trying to keep it simple but people want meals that they can’t make at home. One step up from home cooking but not quite restaurant-level food, that’s where we live.
What are some goals and future plans for Planted Meals?
C: We’d love to get to the packaging and distributing level of functionality. That’s our five-year goal. To go Canada-wide and then international would be great. But local distribution would be our first goal.
What has surprised you the most about this industry and company?
C: The importance of having good people to work with. Being entrepreneurial means that you’ll be relying on other people but it’s surprising how much more you need that than you’d think.
M: I think the hardest thing is sacrificing all my weekends. Food is a tough business and very labour intensive.
N: In the beginning, I was so surprised that people were buying what I cooked. It was a huge boost of validation for me.
What would you say to people who are afraid of vegans or veganism?
C: Just try it. We have a promotion that your first week is 35% off. If you can't try vegan food for $6.25, you should probably just cook your own meals! Actually, the gateway to veganism is Natalie’s cookies. People never believe they’re vegan!
How many meals do you put out each week?
C: Right now, we’re up to about 1300 meals a week. When we started in June, it was only 200 meals—that we delivered ourselves! Now we have people that help us get everything out on time.
What is something you would go back in time to tell yourselves about starting Planted Meals?
M: You will have no life, so be prepared.
C: Yeah, don't get upset when you don't get to see partners or friends.
N: It’s ok to not please everyone!
When you guys aren’t packing or cooking, you’re:
M: Developing the tech for Planted or at the gym.
N: Finding mental space to process and spending time with family and friends.
Success here would look like:
C: Internally, a fully sustainable company that employs 50-100 people. Externally, it helps people eat vegan and make lives a little easier and better.
M: A place everyone wants to work that feels like home. Materialistic success for me would be a storefront and distributing our meals all over Canada or the world.
N: Being a starting point for a plant-based diet and a major resource for people in it or looking to transition to it. We really just want to help people eat healthier, whether they go all the way with veganism, or not.
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