How a California Food Startup is Trying to Change Dinner
What do you do when you want a healthy, home-cooked meal but don't have time to shop for groceries and spend hours preparing dinner? For thousands of busy people around the country, the solution, increasingly, is to sign up for a prepared meal kit delivery service. For San Francisco couple Emily and Rob LaFave, the solution was to start their own. Founded just last year, the company, Din, gives customers the option to order two or more meals per week, each with two servings and including anywhere from three to five prepped items, as well as raw ingredients (like produce) and a recipe. As with most meal delivery services, the food arrives right at customers' doorsteps. Unlike many similar companies, Din sources a lot of its recipes straight from chefs—recently, the Din team worked with Chris Cosentino (whose dish for the service, octopus fra diavolo with olives and fingerling potatoes, is pictured), Steven Satterfield, and Brandon Jew. The LaFaves have also put a huge emphasis on sustainability: most of the ingredients they use are sourced from local organic farms. They also try to eliminate excess waste, and deliver the meals in re-usable totes to ensure that as much of the packaging as possible is recyclable. Meals run $15 per serving, significantly less expensive than the same meal would likely cost in a restaurant, and are currently only available in California and Nevada—but the LaFaves hope to expand.
We sat down with co-founder Emily LaFave, executive chef Stephen Beaumier (who had stints staging at Noma and as the Chef de Cuisine at Quince before joining Din), and head of marketing Jen Pelka to hear more about how they decide what's on the menu every week, the inspiration behind the company, and how the company’s focus on sustainability sets it apart.
What inspired you to start Din?
Emily: It really came out of my own desire to cook more. I’m passionate about cooking, but I realized I had completely cut it out of my life. I wanted to be able to cook in such a way that I could make delicious food and learn new techniques, but also fit into the crazy life I have, which doesn't leave a lot of extra time. Rob and I realized this was an issue that a lot of people have. It was like, okay, how do we solve that? It started from there.
Everything can be prepared in 20 minutes. Why that amount of time?
Emily: Over and over, we were hearing from people that they only have 20 minutes a night to get dinner on the table. Meanwhile, as we were testing all sorts of different recipes, we realized we were getting the most excited about, and learning the most from, the recipes that came from restaurants. We recognized that any restaurant can fire up a dish in 20 minutes, so we thought, wait a second, if every restaurant can do this, what if we empower the home cook to do the same? We would just need to do the prep work for the home chef—just as it happens in a restaurant. So our team of sous chefs does a lot of the complicated prep work, while still allowing the home cook to put everything together and present a finished meal.
Using recipes directly from restaurants is one of the main ways that Din has differentiated itself from other meal kit companies. What are some of the other differences?
Emily: It’s really about that prep work that we do. In some cases it might be as simple as chopping carrots, but sometimes it’s as complex as sous-viding proteins or making a certain sauce. That prep work from the culinary team is really what is behind both the speed and the quality and flavor behind the dishes.
Stephen: Definitely. The amount of care that goes into preparing the food for each recipe before the customer gets it is a real difference—we’re prepping anywhere from three to five items for each dish, including proteins, which can be especially intimidating. We don’t do everything for the customer, because we want them to feel good about what they’re cooking, but as much as we can do to help them succeed is ideal for us.
What steps have you taken to ensure that meals from Din are as eco-friendly as possible?
Emily: Sustainability is incredibly important to us. We have been very intentional about every aspect of the experience, from the way we source our packaging and ingredients to the way we deliver the meals. We’ve done what we can to reduce waste along the way, such as using reusable tote bags specially formatted with dry ice to deliver the meals instead of cardboard boxes that will just get thrown away. We want to leave as little waste as possible while still giving people a convenient format, and we’re really proud of that.
How do you decide where to source the ingredients?
Stephen: Sourcing is actually one of my favorite things to do. Developing the relationships with our vendors and with the individual farms is key to our success. Everyone wants to be connected with their food, and people want to know where it comes from, so being able to provide that kind of information is super important. It’s also crucial for us, in terms of community, that we support the small farms and work with them as much as possible.
Jen: We work with top-caliber farms, which is really wonderful because it means the consumers’ experience with our meals is very similar to what they would have in top restaurants.
How do you choose which chefs and restaurants to work with?
Emily: Our team is passionate about eating out at restaurants and experiencing the local culinary scene, so we’re always out there and trying new places. We’re interested in working with chefs who are at the top of their game but who also share our philosophy.
Jen: We’re always looking for restaurants that are ahead of trends in terms of their dishes and how they’re sourcing their food. Yesterday we had this really great conversation with Brandon Jew about the dishes he’s putting together. I was asking him about his inspiration, and he said, “I knew I wanted to work with corn and tomatoes, which are at peak season right now. But I also wanted to show people that they could use traditional Chinese techniques and integrate farmers’ market produce.” So for him, it’s an opportunity to teach a large community about Chinese flavor profiles and techniques, while also utilizing products and ingredients that are really familiar, like beautiful sweet corn and tomatoes.
Emily: At the end of the day, we want to teach people through these recipes, and we believe that these chefs can really do that.
What are your plans for the future of Din?
Emily: We don’t have exact plans yet for when we’re going to expand beyond California and Nevada, but when we do, it’s really important that we’re an integral part of the community. There’s this beautiful connection when you’re working with local food growers and restaurants–the meals become really reflective of the area. Food, for us, is at the heart of that connection and each place has its roots in something a little different. It’s important for us to take our time and really do it right.