Austin's Food on the Table Cooks Up Meal Plans, Hits 1m Users

By Trevor Gilbert , written on May 23, 2012

From The News Desk

It’s a story that is familiar to all of us. We get sick of eating out, we want to cook our own meals to save money, but we either don’t like to go to the grocery store or we despise the experience of hunting for coupons takes up too much of our time. Solving this problem, while keeping control over the grocery and home eating experiences, is an Austin-based startup called Food on the Table.

Food on the Table is simple, yet very useful. To begin with, you sign up for the service and tell it a little bit about what your family likes to eat: fish, vegetarian, pork – whatever. Then, it asks what your local grocery that you like to shop at is, and begins to help you plan meals.

Once the account is setup, Food on the Table helps by planning meals at the beginning of the week. You tell it you want to cook five dinners for the week, and it gives you recipe suggestions. Along the way, it is finding the cheapest prices for the items to put on your grocery list, and adds them to your list for you. Then, when you go to the grocery store, it knows where the item is in the store, and when you go to the beverage aisle, you know that the local brand of lemon juice is the cheapest one around.

On top of this basic service, Food on the Table also makes recommendations for meals depending on the user’s budget. If the user tells the app that it only has $20 for a meal tonight, it will then scour the local deals, see that the local circular says Purdue Chicken Breast is 20 percent off, and then recommend a recipe for Roasted Chicken with Green Beans.

As of this week, the company announced that it has one million registered users, with active users using the service once every two to three weeks.

According to CEO Manuel Rosso, this is the average for the grocery market and matches the grocery cycle that most people follow for what he calls the “Big Shop.” In other words, Food on the Table isn’t normally used for the quick trip to pick up a carton of milk, but it is used when the family goes and fills a shopping cart full of food. And that’s the bigger market, and the one it makes sense to focus on.

One of the problems the company has faced is that it is difficult to scale the service. When every store has different local deals and coupons, aggregating all of the deals reliably is a challenge that is hard to scale.

Rosso insists that the company has really spent time working on this and that it should be good-to-go, but if the service really takes off into the tens of millions of users taking advantage of the app, there will be an increased expectation of more deals, and better deals. At this point, though, that hurdle is a ways off.

The service may sound like it is addressing a small problem, but the grocery market is worth nearly half a trillion dollars. On top of that, it is fragmented across the board. There are large chains like Safeway, Giant, and Publix, but then there are thousands of smaller one-off stores across the United States. Each store has different sales, different prices, and different layouts. It works well enough now, but it could work better if it was more centralized. That’s where Food on the Table’s business model comes in.

Ultimately, the company wants to be the middle man for all grocery store customers: primarily stay-at-home moms, who make up the bulk of the grocery market. When a shopper wants to make a beef stew, the plan is for the person to open up Food on the Table. The company can then feature discounts and coupons, which are paid for by either the stores themselves or the product marketers.

The deals are still the most relevant for the customer, but Food on the Table takes a little bit of money from the savings. According to Rosso, the future of the company is in “highly-targeted advertisements.”

Food on the Table is informally talking to one of the country’s top-ten grocery chains for a potential partnership, although Rosso declined to name the chain. On the smaller scale, the company is also planning on working with a number of “second-tier chains,” which will be a boost to the popularity of the service, albeit on a small scale.

Food on the Table is the type of company that has the potential for a big impact, but isn’t a revolutionary startup – which is fine by me. Some people tend to ignore startups that aren’t mining asteroids – but that’s the wrong attitude to have.

Instead of shooting for the stars, this is a company going after a market that needs to be dragged into the digital age. And so far, the reaction from people that have used the service seems to be positive.

It also passes the Mom Test*.

  • The Mom Test is something I use to determine if a startup would be useful to someone outside of the echo chamber that is technically savvy, but not obsessed with the latest and greatest app. For me, I try to think if the app would be useful to my mom, because to me she’s “the average person.”