Nick Taranto’s journey to the top of the food start-up world ran a more circuitous route than most. Before founding meal delivery service Plated, he spent time in Indonesia and at war. Those don’t seem to have much in common with helping people sear diver scallops the size of hockey pucks, but for Taranto, it’s all part of the same mission.
“I always wanted to use the world as my laboratory—not run controlled experiments,” Taranto told me. To that end, he wanted to use what he was learning in his economics classes at Dartmouth College and see what kind of impact all that theory could have in practice. That led him to Indonesia, still in the shadow of destruction brought by a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2004. With help from money left to him by his grandmother, Taranto began Kompip, a microfinance company. And while the opportunities Kompip provided were important, Taranto was still thinking bigger. “We were serving several hundred families, but I wanted to serve thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions.” Those goals meant he needed to learn how to scale up. And that meant it was time to go back school.
He traded the shirt-sticking humidity of Indonesia for the potentially more agreeable climes of Harvard. While getting degrees from the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School, he found both his wife and his future business partner, Josh Hix. But he also found something much less common for Ivy League graduate students: a desire to join the military. “The students who came from a military background had a certain poise. They could command a room and this intangible sense of leadership.”
After graduating with two Harvard degrees, Taranto would become the first MBA to go into active duty in the Marines. Following a deployment in which he would ultimately command a platoon came the one portion of Taranto’s career he seemed to consider a mistake.
“Against [his] best nature and better judgment,” Nick Taranto took his business degree to Wall Street, where he worked for Goldman Sachs. After less than a year in the boiler rooms of high finance, Taranto said he was miserable. He put on 20 pounds in six months, becoming perhaps one of the only people in history to recall his military MREs more fondly than what he was eating in the civilian world, which was almost always “greasy takeout.” Those bad eating habits combined with a general lack of knowledge of cooking sparked an idea for Taranto, which would eventually catch fire as Plated.
“Josh and I started looking at this problem of food in the U.S. and saw more people have died from food related causes [such as] diabetes, obesity than the entire global war on terror. 30 to 40 percent of food gets thrown away, yet one in five kids goes hungry. Our food situation is tantamount to someone waging war on us. We set out to find a better way to source food and deliver it to customers.”
To accomplish that, Plated has been building relationships and infrastructure to get fresh, local ingredients packed and delivered to their customers in a way that even a novice in the kitchen can understand, with individually portioned ingredients and clear recipes for dishes like redfish with chimichurri gnocchi and Greek lamb tacos with pomegranate.
Because his company is less than two years old, Taranto acknowledges he still has a ways to go before truly reversing a food situation he compares to war, and he knows Plated can’t serve everyone at the moment. “Right now we’re a premium brand. If you try to be all things to everyone, you end up not having any impact at all.” But as Plated expands both its food offerings and its food infrastructure, Taranto hopes more people will be able to follow what’s become his mantra: “Cook more, live better.” And if that cooking comes with some hand-harvested diver scallops and organic kale, it certainly doesn’t hurt.