Tate & Lyle
Carst and Walker

Fine food, fabulous convenience with Chef Direct

Today’s upper-end consumers are money-rich but time-poor, and they’re prepared to pay for convenience. Tapping into this global trend is a new Gauteng-based meal solution company, Chef Direct, that’s just opened it’s virtual doors for business.

Chef Direct is the brainchild of three bold entrepreneurs, Israeli immigrant and chef, Regev Afek; businessman, Jonathan Akal; and IT boffin, Mitch de Klerk. Their internet-based business formula is the production and delivery of ‘better than home-made’ meal kits and ready meals, targeting families in northern Jo’burg’s innumerable gated communities and estates. But their idea comes with a challenging production twist: their produce is chilled, not frozen.

Is Jozi ready for such a concept? ‘It’s very successful in many parts of the world. Internet-based shopping is no longer an untried novelty, and we believe people will buy in to the quality and convenience we offer,’ comments Jonathan. ‘As consumer taste and quality expectations are becoming more sophisticated, we’ve opted for fresh, chilled fare despite the cold chain, shelf life and food safety issues that go with it.’

While the trend towards eating out remains strong, he adds, consumers view home as a vital nesting/social arena: ‘Life in the city is fraught; people want the security and comfort of their homes; they want to relax and enjoy the sensory and social experience of good, healthy eating, without any hassles or the hard graft that goes with it.’

Chef Direct offers a changing weekly menu of some 30 items, nicely balanced between the everyday and fancier options. Some are pre-cooked ready meals, while the bulk are portioned and appropriately packed kits, ready for cooking or assembling. Buyers can also mix and match items to build their own meals. Detailed preparation instructions and nutritional details are included.

‘We’re more biased to uncooked or semi-prepared meal kits, taking care of the “What to have for dinner?”, which is a bigger headache than actually preparing a meal,’ says Regev. ‘People also still want some control and input when it comes to cooking; to tweak things to their palate and having the satisfaction of nurturing or feeding their families.

‘All ordering is via www.chefdirect.co.za, and deliveries undertaken to specific estates on a weekly basis. ‘This will greatly contain costs – the idea is that we do a once-off, weekly delivery for several purchasers in a residential estate,’ says Jonathan.

Regev has long been in the catering game and established a similar business when living in Durban. ‘It’s still successfully operating today, but we’re doing it on a bigger, more professional scale. But I know what’s involved, and my years as a chef have taught me all the skills that go into large-scale catering, into successfully transforming recipes from domestic to commercial level,’ he says.

The Chef Direct trio has clearly invested a small fortune in setting up their ideal and impressive kitchen in a brand new Northriding factory; state-of-the-art equipment, temperature-controlled clean rooms, ample cold rooms with high-octane blast-chilling capacity, refrigerated vehicles and the requisite IT infrastructure for inventory control, orders and website updating. And not forgetting a seriously big generator as an unforeseen capex cost – this is a business completely reliant on a strict cold chain. And this, too, is where packaging enters the equation.

‘Our aim is fresh, chilled food that will last a week in buyers’ refrigerators. Achieving this is dependent on many factors, but our strict quality, temperature and food preparation protocols alone assure over a week’s shelf life, but the optimum is 12 days as extra leeway. Packaging is obviously a key component in presentation and preservation, and we’ve invested in for a MAP system for both vacuum packing and gas-flushing,’ says Regev.

Chef Direct has bought a two-mould, Ilpra MAP tray-sealer, supplied by AGQPE, happy in the knowledge that this can be easily upgraded as sales volumes demand. Chef Direct also aims to keep production optimised through the supply of ready meals for food service customers.

‘AGQPE’s Amotz Golan has been a great support and very helpful in guiding us on packaging options,’ says Jonathan.

As this writer can vouch, if your community is looking for hassle-free dinners, for unpretentious but delicious food, have a look at www.chefdirect.co.za
Chef Direct T +27 011 7965220

First published in PACKAGiNG & Print Media, March 2008

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