Food entrepreneur takes prepared meals to marketEat Fresco Foods

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Third in a series

Fresh concept: Healthy packaged meals are locally made using all natural and organic ingredients that taste like real food instead of cardboard -- ready to eat in under two minutes.

The dish: Rob Povolny had 14 years in food industry sales experience when he decided to take a severance package instead of moving from Tampa to Chicago for his job. At first, he looked for other local food industry positions, but an idea for a new concept in prepared foods kept bubbling up, and Povolny decided to bring it to market.

“There’s such a void or gap in the market where big food manufacturers aren’t producing the products that people want,” says Povolny. “People want real food that’s convenient and affordable … food that tastes great and that they can feel good about eating.” 

So the Davis Islands resident set out to change the way prepared foods are made. 

“Rather than plopping a factory in the middle of the country and shipping all the products from there, we’re taking a local or regional approach, so it doesn’t have to be frozen or use any preservatives.”

Povolny hired chef consultant Kevin Anderson, a food industry veteran, to develop enticing restaurant-quality recipes and rented space in a commercial kitchen in Oldsmar. Then he identified local, sustainable sources for fresh meat, seafood, produce and other ingredients such as Niman Ranch and Lundberg Family Farm. Clear vacuum-seal packaging locks in freshness and flavor, while showing off the brightly colored ingredients and reducing waste. The process significantly extends the shelf life, so the cooked meals stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to two weeks before cooking or freezing. Refrigerated trucks deliver meals to regional stores.

So far, Povolny has bootstrapped his startup, keeping labor costs low by multitasking and making do with four kitchen employees and a route sales representative. 

Marketing strategy: Povolny invested in professional branding and website design, while his wife builds
Fresh concept: Healthy packaged meals are locally made using all natural and organic ingredients that taste like real food instead of cardboard -- ready to eat in under two minutes.
 customer awareness through social media, attracting nearly 5,000 Facebook followers. His main play is getting placement in specialty food and mainstream grocery stores. Since launching in one store in February, 2015, Eat Fresco meals are now sold in 18 stores across the Tampa Bay area and in Jacksonville. 

After just one year, Povolny says sales are either meeting or outperforming his business plan projections. “We really haven’t had to go sell it. Retailers have contacted us. We’ve seen a tremendous amount of demand. We’ve got hundreds of stores that want our product,” he says. 

What’s on the menu: The brand’s eight current meals include selections like Caribbean Style Jerk Chicken with Island Rice and Grilled Pineapple; Asian Shrimp Noodle Bowl with Vegetables and Ginger Miso Garlic Sauce; Grilled Steak Fajita Bowl with Mexican Rice, Peppers and Onions; and Balsamic Glazed Grilled Salmon over Orzo Verde Pesto and Sundried Tomatoes.  

Nutritional value: Though Povolny says they didn’t set out to create low-calorie meals, with their focus on healthy, nutritious and fresh ingredients, their meals tend to offer more protein and fewer calories than other packaged foods. Most meals are in the 400-calorie range. They’re also filling and stick with you. At 6 feet, 4 inches, “I wanted something I could eat and not be hungry an hour later,” he says.

Where to buy: Winn Dixie stores in Tampa and Jacksonville; Duckweed Urban Market in downtown Tampa and Channelside; Nutrition Smart in Westchase, Carrollwood and Wesley Chapel; Nature’s Food Patch Market & Cafe in Clearwater; and Rollin’ Oats Market & Cafe in Tampa and St. Petersburg. For location details and additions, visit: Eat Fresco Foods website.

Next course: Now that he’s proven his concept, he’s focused on courting investors to finance big growth plans, which begin with his own commercial kitchen in east Hillsborough County. He has a lease, design and permits, and with plans for more than 50 employees, he says Fresco Foods has qualified as a Hillsborough County economic development project. Once he gets the capital, he hopes to begin construction this summer and be delivering to hundreds of stores by fall. He plans to be in 1,000 stores in Florida, and then expand to other states by establishing commercial kitchens to service new regions. 

There’s excitement in Povolny’s work-strained voice when he talks about his vision. “Everybody loves local. We can tout that across the country and adjust our offerings based on the area’s cuisines and tap into the local food sources.” he said. “Now that’s something the big manufacturers just can’t do.” Ultimately, he sees other products being added to the Eat Fresco brand under the Fresco Foods umbrella, and investing more in marketing to build the brands. 

Food for thought: “Start small, get that proof of concept. Make sure you’re listening to consumers,” is Povolny’s advice for other local entrepreneurs. “I do demos in stores and sampling because I want to hear what consumers are thinking. What are their favorite meals and what don’t they like? It’s so crucial early on because you’re still small enough that you can make an adjustment.” 

83 Degrees Media's series on foodie entrepreneurs:

Read more articles by Elizabeth Taylor.

Elizabeth Taylor is a freelance business writer who lives on the Hillsborough River in Seminole Heights, Tampa’s friendly and funky neighborhood. She grew up in Madeira Beach and earned her BA in English from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. With over a decade specializing in writing about sustainability, Liz enjoys telling stories about Tampa Bay businesses and people who are creating positive change.
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