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Fresh Victory for Fast-Growing Food Maker

Organic prepared meal service Fresh n’ Lean just scored a big hometown win, in its bid to recast what fast food looks like.

The fast-growing Anaheim company’s recent efforts to align its brand with athletes has given way to a four-year sponsorship of the Anaheim Ducks that begins with the start of the 2020-21 NHL preseason.

The deal marks the first time Fresh n’ Lean has worked with the Ducks organization and makes it presenting sponsor of the Ducks Training Camp, puts its branding at the Honda Center and Great Park team training rink for sale, and puts its logo on the team’s Zamboni machine.

It’s another notable sign of expansion for the firm, which makes and sells vacuum-sealed, ready-to-heat meals.

Fresh n’ Lean ranked No. 4 on the Business Journal’s list last year of the fastest-growing midsize companies, with a revenue spike of 264% to $26.6 million for the two years ended in June 2019.

For 2020, the company is projecting another blowout year, with revenue in the $80 million range.

Athlete Awareness

“We’re doing more and more athlete sponsorships. We currently sponsor and feed 25 in our roster,” Fresh n’ Lean co-Chief Executive Thomas Asseo told the Business Journal. “If we’re trying to vehicle the idea that food is fuel and that applies to all of us, you and me just as much as a top-level athlete, then this concept seems to be really fitting for us.”

Other athletes working with the brand include tennis champion Sloane Stephens and surfer Billy Kemper.

Graham Siderius, the Anaheim Ducks’ vice president of corporate partnerships, called the company’s meals “a perfect fit” in the team’s own messaging around “active and healthy lifestyle choices.”

The aim for Fresh n’ Lean with the Ducks is, of course, exposure to new audiences for a business that’s so far gained a footing among career-oriented, professionals looking for efficiency but also healthy meals with the company aiming to “redefine fast food,” Asseo said.

The marketing strategy around athlete alignment evolved over time, he added, beginning with the company’s much more grassroots efforts and a big focus on SEO marketing at launch.

When much larger competitors such as New York-based Blue Apron and Germany-based HelloFresh emerged and funneled more marketing dollars into wooing consumers on the merits of healthy prepared meals, Fresh n’ Lean was in the right place to capitalize on the growing awareness and credibility around such businesses.

Momentum

The Ducks sponsorship comes at a time when Fresh n’ Lean is already riding on a wave of newfound customers to its meal service as a result of the pandemic.

The surge in the direct-to-consumer business drove the company to hire roughly 80 employees over the past four months, bringing its companywide workforce to just over 400, about 375 of those full-time positions.

Fresh n’ Lean, considered an essential business during the stay-at-home order’s start, immediately turned to communicating food-related safety measures, with a dedicated page online that quickly became one of its most visited pages: www.freshnlean.com/

food-safety.

“It really paid off,” Asseo said. “We could see basically people’s behavior changing online. A lot of people were taking a detour to this page before they were making any purchases.

“We could also see that we were being introduced to a new audience. So, as people were being confined [to their homes], I think more and more people were seeking out what other options there might be to avoid grocery stores, to avoid lines and crowds in general.”

Direct-to-consumer orders surged during this time, building on the momentum of what was already aggressive growth pre-COVID.

Asseo estimated the pandemic helped boost sales by about 15%, with the average order value up about 5% as the company pushed healthy fare that averages around $10 a meal.

This puts the company on track to be up more than 100% for the year and to make good on at least a $77 million revenue projection that could ultimately exceed $80 million the way things are going, according to Asseo.

Growth Prospects

In the longer run, it’s hard to say what level of stickiness there is among the additions to the customer base, given the broader uncertainties, and whether they’ll stay with the company once some semblance of normal returns.

The company is mostly watching and waiting.

“The truth is, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the wake of this any more than anyone else. This is so crazy and unprecedented I want to be careful with the predictions I make,” Asseo said. “It’s actually looking pretty good in terms of people ordering a little bit more. Subscriptions are lasting as long as they always have and maybe a little bit longer so hopefully that means this new audience sees the convenience of having meals delivered to your door.”

Direct sales has always been the company’s main business, and the expansion of that line of work offset the halt in growth of a budding vending machine revenue stream aimed at office workers that stopped with the pandemic.

There’s also third-party retail, with the brand in about 80 Whole Foods stores in California and plenty of room to grow there, Asseo said.

Fresh n’ Lean standalone brick-and-mortar locations is another consideration in the future, with outposts strategically placed near offices for worker grab-and-go meals. It currently has one location in Santa Monica.

Considering Partnerships

To date, Fresh n’ Lean remains family owned having taken no outside capital since its inception.

“We had some opportunities early on, but I’m glad we turned them down,” Asseo said, adding the company is now open to the possibility of strategic partnerships with the right people.

Asseo’s sister Laureen Asseo started the business in 2010 cooking meals in her one-bedroom apartment with her first clients comprised of friends and family.

When the business gained momentum, it moved to a small, shared kitchen.

From 2010 to 2018, Asseo estimated $800,000 was spent on marketing—a modest amount in comparison to some budgets, making the family’s bootstrapping efforts all the more satisfying as it readies for its rollout with the Ducks.

“The family basically poured everything it had [into the business] for the first five years. It was very, very difficult,” Asseo said of the beginning.

“So today, when we have the opportunity to work with a major sports team, it seems like a dream.”

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