Geneva’s RealEats Delivers Local
Written by Erin Scherer
Workers move around the commercial kitchen in a no-fuss fashion. In one aisle, a cook boils pasta for a roasted vegetable marinara; in the next, a chef stirs kale for a dish called Garlickly Greens. Close by are racks of Cajun Whitefish and gluten- and dairy-free meatballs. In a cramped cooler turmeric cauliflower, shiitake mushrooms, quinoa and beef brisket wait to be packaged in pouches. Workers busily pack the sealed meals in boxes lined with gel packs to be shipped off to hungry customers.
It’s all in a day at RealEats, the brainchild of Dan Wise, a Montreal- based entrepreneur who conceived the business after struggling to make healthy meals for his kids.
“I was a time-strapped, busy person,” he recalls. “Every time I tried to cook for my kids, I wondered why I was making them my victims.”
In contrast to meal delivery services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, which deliver their meals as kits ready to assemble and cook, RealEats meals arrive ready to boil, thanks to sous-vide technology. Meals come in plastic bags and the consumer puts the whole thing in water—including the bag. According to Wise, the use of sous-vide (translates into “under vacuum”) locks in the flavor, freshness and the nutrition. At a time when competition for meal-delivery services grows, RealEats is thriving and on track to hire 400 new employees over the next five years.
Wise grew up in Toronto and graduated from Concordia University in Montreal. He then worked in the retail industry in New York City, got married, had two children, got divorced and moved back to Montreal. In 2015, he took the first steps toward establishing RealEats when he applied for Start-Up NY, a state program that pairs new businesses with academic institutions. Through Start-Up NY, Wise connected with Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, which in turn introduced him to then Geneva City Manager Matt Horn. Horn informed Wise about a new community kitchen being set up and asked if he was interested in becoming the anchor tenant.
Initially, Wise recruited chefs from all over the country. As Real- Eats grew, Wise saw the need for more consistency and uniformity and hired Aliya LeeKong as head of culinary. LeeKong, a veteran of Michelin-starred NYC restaurants such as Jean-Georges and Per Se, was essential to satisfying the myriad of customer needs.
“She designs meals that are incredibly healthy and on-trend in terms of lower or no gluten, less sodium, and whole, natural ingredients,” says Wise.
But Wise still needed someone on the ground, managing the day-to-day, who could inform LeeKong what local crops might be available. Wise ended up hiring Marco Ballatori, who had worked at Belhurst Castle as executive chef. Ballatori welcomed the work/life balance RealEats offered.
“I have a chef job where I can pick up my kids from school and spend the weekends with them,” says Ballatori. “I believe in Dan’s vision, and it has been very rewarding work and a relief that I didn’t have to compromise my culinary integrity to get the balance I was after.”
Ballatori brought on Headwater Food Hub, the Ontario-based local food supplier, to provide fresh, regional ingredients. Headwater’s supply chain makes it possible for RealEats to source from local farms like Ithaca’s Stick and Stone Farm, Romulus’ Autumn’s Harvest Farm, Trumansburg’s Remembrance Farm and Geneva’s Stony Brook WholeHeartedFoods.
Ballatori and LeeKong are given weekly harvest information along with seasonal forecasting data, which aids them during the menu planning and R&D process.
According to Silas Conroy, Headwater’s supply chain director, Ballatori and Headwater staff communicate multiple times per week to streamline the robust production demands of Real Eats.
“The industry is replete with examples of ‘greenwashing’ products to make them seem more appealing to the sustainably minded consumer,” says Conroy. “RealEats is creating as clean a product as any in the meal kit marketplace.”
Local customer Ben Lopatin of Geneva discovered RealEats while working alongside them at Port 100, a co-working space in downtown Geneva. Having tried other meal-delivery services and been unimpressed, Lopatin reports enjoying RealEats’ convenience.
“On a good week, RealEats meals are a nice treat. On a rough week, they can be a lifesaver.”
Currently, RealEats has 55 employees with more than 40 of them based in Geneva and ships meals to 22 states. In addition to hiring more employees, RealEats is looking to expand their facility. Wise hopes to replicate the Geneva facility in other rural areas throughout the country. A meal-delivery service to offices is also in the works, as a well as launching a soup line.
“We’ve been very successful gaining a strong percentage of the consumers’ stomach share,” declares Wise. “We want to be in consumer’s homes as much as possible.”
And expansion is coming. In November 2019 RealEats was the grand winner of the first Grow-NY competition, where food and agriculture start-ups competed for a $1 million prize. Wise says they will use the winnings for new product development, an enhanced user experience and growing their impact in the region.
“With its rich agricultural history, an abundance of academic resources, and its capacity to nurture game-changing food and ag companies, there isn’t a better place from which to build a better food future,” says Wise.
122 N. Genesee St., Geneva; 855.695.6387; realeats.com
Erin Scherer wrote about Rue Claire and The Women’s Hall of Fame in the Fall 2019 edition. She lives in Geneva
This article originally appeared in the January-February 2020 Issue of the magazine.