Full Circle Foods aims to bring restaurant quality to meal delivery
Two years ago, Chefs Tim Bolt and Robbie Jester looked around at the growing meal delivery industry and found it wanting. The meals tended to be bland, with basic recipes like steamed rice and broccoli.
“People have got to want more than this,” Bolt said.
The friends, who met at The Culinary Institute of America, knew they could do better. Starting in November 2017, they turned their idea into a business—Full Circle Foods—that today produces about 500 meals a week.
Full Circle aims to deliver restaurant-quality, healthy food that’s ready to heat up and eat. The name, Jester says, is a reference to the pair’s culinary school friendship coming full circle to become a business partnership.
Each brought something different to the business, and they figured out the details together as they went.
“At the end of the day, we bootstrapped it and did everything ourselves,” Jester says. Example: “Tim did the website, and he’s not a web design guy.”
The chefs themselves have maintained full-time work in addition to running Full Circle. Jester, who lives in Newark, is culinary director at High 5 Hospitality, which owns the Stone Balloon Ale House, Limestone BBQ and Bourbon and several Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants. Bolt, a resident of Avondale, Pennsylvania, is culinary director at Nick’s Fish House in Baltimore.
They’ve developed a rhythm that enables them to support each other. When the business began, Bolt wasn’t working, so he could throw himself into the endeavor. He recently had a child, so he backed off a bit, and Jester has picked up some of the slack.
They’re similar in ways that make them good partners; both consider themselves competitive and both love food.
Growing up in the Kitchen
A child of restaurateurs, Jester started working at his parents’ Maryland seafood restaurant when he was 12. A few years later, he was working the line, and by the age of 15 he was supervising shifts.
His father, however, didn’t want his son following in his footsteps. “He knew how hard this business is,” Jester says. “He wanted a simpler, better life for me.”
The plan was for Jester to attend Michigan State University to study medical technology. He did indeed enroll at the East Lansing school, but a week before classes began, Jester walked into his father’s room and said he wasn’t going.
“He had some choice words for me at that moment,” he says.
Jester went on to work at several restaurants, including Piccolina Toscana in Wilmington and 16 Mile Taphouse, now the Stone Balloon Ale House.
In 2016, he gained some fame when he cooked up shrimp scampi—a recipe learned from his father—to beat celebrity Chef Bobby Flay in an episode of the Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay.
One evening in 2017 as the two were having drinks, Jester told Bolt about his idea for what would become Full Circle. Bolt did some research, and they decided to go for it.
As experienced chefs, they find that meal preparation is the easy part. Many of their biggest challenges have come outside of the kitchen, such as overcoming organizational and planning problems like keeping the food warm after it’s delivered.
They try to deliver to someone who’s home, but that’s not always feasible. They could freeze the food, as some other food delivery companies do, but that would deprive it of flavor. Instead, they are looking into better ways to keep food cool when it has to be left at a customer’s door.
Technology has made their operation much smoother. Their customers sign up, choose their food and pay online. Delivery is simplified by software that picks the most efficient routes for delivery people.
At first, the chefs made their own deliveries, but they have added part-time drivers as their order numbers have increased.
After Full Circle’s customers pick their meals, the chefs spend the weekend shopping. Monday is cooking day.
Jester usually takes the first shift, pulling into their rented kitchen just across the state line in Pennsylvania at about 7 a.m. The order list for this particular day in early January—six types of entrees, two snack options and two choices for breakfast—is printed out, along with the number of each to be prepared.
Between six and 12 workers help out on food preparation day, some of them employees at the restaurants Jester manages. They’re mostly young, and Jester and Bolt see mentoring them as an important part of their work.
Jester takes a moment to sample the Italian long hot peppers, which were to be the topping of a ground beef Alpine chili, so named for its distinctive Italian flavors.
“This tastes delicious,” he tells one of the cooks, and suggests the addition of some parsley.
The menu is a balancing act. It needs to be varied enough to suit the tastes of the customers without being so long that it’s unwieldy to prepare. This week, it includes golden coconut lime chicken with a turmeric sauce, served with sautéed spinach and carrot hash.
To accompany another dish, rosemary grilled turkey cutlet, Bolt sears cauliflower with olive oil, caramelizing the natural sugar in the vegetable to develop its flavor. It would be faster and easier to steam it, but these are the little touches that Full Circle’s owners believe sets them apart from the competition.
As it is in a restaurant, the last phase is the “plating,” even though their food is put into microwave-ready plastic containers, not plates. They use the industry term to reinforce the idea that presentation is important when delivering restaurant-quality meals.
Finding Their Niche
Full Circle has increasingly focused on a health food niche. Even early on, the pair knew they wanted to make healthy food, but their customers have led them to make it their specialty.
Their meals usually contain 500 calories or less, and each is gluten- and dairy-free. They also have meals compliant with Whole30, a nutrition and lifestyle plan that includes the elimination of processed sugar. With a few exceptions, the meals are soy-free. And Full Circle will modify meals for customers, including for vegetarians and vegans.
“A lot of what we’ve learned, we’ve learned from our clients,” Jester says.
For the most part, it’s been a matter of simple substitution, such as ground cauliflower for rice or zucchini noodles for pasta. Then there’s their twist on the pork egg roll, which cuts out the two unhealthiest parts: the egg roll wrapper and the fried pork. Instead, they sear the pork and serve it in a bowl.
The specialization in health food has helped Bolt and Jester to give more attention to their ideal customer, who is health-conscious and looking for ways to save time. Gyms have plenty of these people, and Full Circle partnerships with fitness centers have provided convenient food drop-off points for customers who want to pick up their food where they work out.
Full Circle is now a solid player in the meal delivery industry. And as long as people continue to want the hassle of cooking taken off their plates, so to speak, Jester and Bolt believe their business will have plenty of opportunity to grow.