From MasterChef to meal-kit king: How HelloFresh is shaking up food delivery

HelloFresh doesn’t just deliver food, its very ethos is about bringing people together to cook and eat. So when the global franchise was looking to set up in Australia, management needed a particular set of skills to run the ship. Tom Rutledge, business graduate and former MasterChef contestant, was just the man for the job.

Really, it could never have worked out any other way. Tom Rutledge was always going to run a fresh food start-up, it just took him a while to find the right one.

Born on the land, food and business are both in Tom Rutledge’s DNA. “As the son of the son of farmers, I have that family business background on the land,” Rutledge says. “From an early age, the idea of business as a career was appealing. I like having control over outcomes, as well as being able to reap the rewards of working hard.”

And work hard he did. After graduating from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Economics, Rutledge was the first employee of human resources start-up HRX, helping grow the recruitment consultancy to 150 employees two years later. After a stint as general manager of a wine start-up, Rutledge found himself on MasterChef in 2011. “It was a great experience, but a brief one,” he laughs. “I got the bullet early on.”

Nonetheless, having been part of one of Australia’s most beloved reality TV shows meant there was media interest when Rutledge subsequently launched his own food start-up, Mr Perkins & Co

“It revolved around delivering the ingredients and a recipe for a single meal,” Rutledge says. “The fundamentals weren’t quite right given the delivery and packaging costs involved. So, when I was introduced to the founders of HelloFresh, I accepted their offer to launch it in Australia.”

A recipe-delivery business

HelloFresh was founded by three Berliners in the same year Rutledge was appearing on MasterChef. It’s typically described as a food-delivery business for home cooks. From Germany and the Netherlands to the UK, the US, Canada and Australia, customers sign up for a weekly delivery of a box of meat and vegetables (or just the latter, for vegetarians).

For Rutledge, however, HelloFresh is all about the recipes.

“There are plenty of good companies delivering groceries and ready-to-heat or ready-to-eat meals,” he says. “I see our core product as the recipes we create. We put an enormous amount of effort into creating recipes that use high-quality, seasonal ingredients and which are easy to make but still result in a memorable meal. We’ve got a team of recipe developers, we survey our customers and we stay on top of emerging food trends. We do all that to lay the groundwork for a couple, family or single person getting into the kitchen on a weeknight, cooking and feeling that mealtime is an event.”

Before the feast, the foundation

When Rutledge started HelloFresh down under six years ago, not only was the brand an unknown entity, so was its category.

“We were not so much launching a new product as creating a new category in grocery retail,” he says. “We spent a lot of time standing around at food fairs and shopping centres explaining the concept to passers-by. We relied on word-of-mouth. We offered referral discounts to our customers doing the referring as well as those on the receiving end. Of course, we also invested in things like SEO and online marketing but we had a limited budget to work with.

“We started off servicing Sydney’s eastern suburbs and north shore. Then it was all of Sydney, followed by Victoria, Queensland, Adelaide and some of the major regional centres. HelloFresh has had triple-digit year-on-year growth since it started. The goal is to service the whole of Australia.”

A company of home cooks, for home cooks

The HelloFresh team remains fired up for several reasons. Rutledge notes that being part of a successful enterprise servicing engaged customers is exciting. But, more importantly, he and his team are doing “relevant” work.

“It’s relevant because HelloFresh is involved in the e-commerce space. Most people still get their food the same way their grandparents did. Our business is disrupting that; it’s an innovative concept that’s removing stress from people’s lives.

“It’s not only hard to find the time to shop and create healthy, enjoyable meals, there’s now endless inspiration and messaging about what to cook. It can feel overwhelming and that’s where we come in.”

The fresh-food fandango

HelloFresh might be kicking goals but that doesn’t mean its managing director finds it easy to manage. “On a typical week we have scores of suppliers providing all the different items that need to go in the various HelloFresh boxes.

“That might not sound too complicated. But all that food has to be delivered shortly before we pack it, kept in a temperature-controlled environment while it’s packed, packed fast enough to make space for incoming supplier deliveries, then delivered quickly and correctly.”

How does Rutledge keep on top of his supply chain? “We’ve got various proprietary systems, we hire great people and we’re constantly evolving to make the process more efficient,” he says.

Always fight for the customer

When asked if he has advice for others, Rutledge suggests businesses not get so focused on practicalities that they forget their end goal.

“Especially with food, there’s always the temptation to go down a certain path because it makes sense from an operational perspective,” he says. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work from a consumer-experience perspective. The logistics must be taken into consideration but I always encourage my staff to ‘fight for the customer’.

If you’re thinking about the customer experience, you’re likely to come up with a good product. The minute you stop thinking like that, the quality of the product and its appeal starts to wane.”