Minnesota-made hot meal kit company warms up after reset

Local entrepreneur Jillian McGary was set to fire the oven on her Mostly Made meal kit startup business in 2021.

After five years of trial-and-error development, more than $60,000 in savings, 250 in-store demonstrations at 30 grocers, and 16,000 miles a year in pursuit of his culinary dream, McGary spent a contemplative day sulking in his room last September.

“I was going to quit,” McGary said. “My price was wrong and the package was wrong. I only got 18% [operating] margin on sales. It should have been 40%. A woman from Festival Foods yelled at me that the price of $14.99 was too expensive. I lowered it to $12.99. And now I had business mentors telling me to lower it to $9.99.”

McGary had been bluntly criticized over the strategy by startup advisory program Grow North. But customers loved the taste of skillet lasagna, chicken enchilada and shepherd’s pie for up to six meals featuring fresh ingredients, prepared and cooked in less than 25 minutes, which would take a few hours from from zero.

She decided to give Mostly Made one last chance.

“Think of Mostly Made as a fresh, nutritious ‘Hamburger Helper’ in the refrigerated case,” McGary said.

She kept thinking that cake mixes filled a grocery aisle and she baked a cake four times a year.

“But I cook dinner every night,” she said. “I couldn’t be the only person who wanted an easy way to cook homemade meals quickly.”

For the most part, Made was primarily in Twin Cities Kowalski Markets and several other grocery stores and co-ops. A target buyer liked the Mostly Made samples she tasted in 2021. The company started testing the product last year in grocery stores.

However, sales were lukewarm.

And then there was the packaging – it was recyclable but bland. Additionally, McGary needed to improve marketing.

“Target kept Mostly Made on the shelf while I redid the packaging,” McGary said gratefully.

McGary, 43, is nothing if not a determined Minnetonka mother of two who believes in her product and knows a thing or two about hard work and delayed gratification.

She paid most of the household bills for a decade with corporate marketing jobs before her husband’s home-building business achieved sustainability. McGary launched Mostly Made in 2016 after a layoff. She began thinking about developing what became Mostly Made while cooking meals while her sister-in-law was battling cancer.

“When bulky casseroles didn’t fit in his freezer, I realized that if I was ‘doing mostly’ the garnish for the casserole, the final ingredients could be added easily for a delicious home-cooked meal,” McGary recalls. “And my sister-in-law is also going seven years without cancer.”

Through a contact with the Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, McGary connected with Periscope, the full-service marketing company in Minneapolis, to help revamp the packaging and focus on the “smart and easy home style” strategy.

Periscope has designed a colorful box and plastic sleeve, made from recycled materials, which also concisely explain the product and its benefits.

“Jillian wasn’t just doing ‘microwave meal 2.0,'” said Periscope creative director Richard Gordon-Smith. “It’s a great product that satisfies a range of tastes. It wasn’t just rice with something piled on top of it. She was doing something rare.”

Periscope also didn’t charge McGary anything, inspired by his years without a return on time and treasure. Additionally, it donates 5% of its wholesale revenue to charity. Periscope loved partnering with a struggling entrepreneur with a good product and a good heart.

“I feel like I won the lottery to work with these great people at Periscope,” McGary said. “I’m so small. And they treated me like a real customer.”

The first returns are promising.

In October, Minneapolis-based manufacturer At Last Gourmet Foods, McGary’s co-packer, began producing thousands of meals. McGary has orders from up to 120 stores. The expanded list of retailers includes Midwest Super Targets, Kowalski’s, Coborn’s and Lakewinds Food Co-op.

“I feel like Geppetto after the Blue Fairy brought my raw wooden Pinocchio puppet to life,” McGary said. “Target gave me a chance to stay on the shelves and relaunch our packaging. Mostly Made caught the eye of grocery shoppers.”

Target declined to comment on Mostly Made. McGary said Tuesday evening that his products were temporarily out of stock at Target but would be restocked by the end of the month.

Time will tell if the next chapter will be successful.

McGary lost $6,000 in 2021 and has yet to get paid. She is satisfied to have done everything she could. Its aspiration is to sell over 100,000 units and generate over $1 million in retail revenue.

“I just want to be in business in a year,” McGary said. “I’m not thinking about being acquired or making a million dollars. I just want to see more products selling commercially.”