The meal was a quick-dinner classic — sweet-and-sour chicken, peppers, rice and wonton strips.
But there were no white takeout boxes to be seen. Instead, a freshly packaged, dual-compartment container was coming off the line as part of Home Chef’s first delivery of the company’s new ready-to-heat brand, Tempo.
“There may have been happy tears in that moment,” recalled Senior Director of Operations, Special Projects Jennifer Helms. “Seeing that first meal being sealed affirmed all the work, time and effort people put in. I don’t think I will ever forget being in the central kitchen to see that first meal come down the line.”
For Executive Research and Development Chef Nigel Palmer, a taste of home helped him celebrate the success of the meals featured in the ready-to-heat line.
“I grew up eating plantains with my family, and I thought there was no way we would be able to do these the right way,” Palmer said. “But as we figured it out, they were universally adored from focus groups to clients. Being able to knock these elements out of the park and hold ourselves to a high standard is what has marked the moment for me.”
While Vice President of Product Development Andrew Isabel has a soft spot for a vibrantly-colored sweet potato noodle dish with teriyaki sauce and purple cabbage that he called “so far out of the ordinary,” the moment when he knew the product line had clicked was when he prepared himself a harissa beef meatball meal one evening at home.
“I had only ordered one,” Isabel said. “My wife asked which one I had eaten, and I told her — the harissa meatballs. Of course, she had planned to have that one herself. Lesson learned, I have to double up on these meals.”
Each of these small moments were the culmination of much larger efforts across Home Chef’s team as they worked to develop and produce a new ready-to-heat meal service, Tempo, that offers customers satisfying dining experiences in minutes flat. “It’s a wholesome, tasty meal that customers get when they want it,” Helms said.
“It’s a wholesome, tasty meal that customers get when they want it.”
The ready-to-heat meals were a natural extension of the work already being done at Home Chef to get people excited about preparing and enjoying fresh food, according to Palmer.
“Many people don’t have time to cook in the more traditional sense, but using the microwave is still a valuable way to prepare a meal,” he said. “We’re preparing the food in our central kitchen, but this is still real cooking — fresh ingredients and wholesome preparation.”
For Isabel, the Tempo offered a way for Home Chef to reach a new segment of customers who didn’t see the meal kits as an accessible way to get dinner on the table.
“Especially over the last year, as more people are returning to busier lifestyles, we became confident that we were meeting a demand for people who may not have the time at home to cook,” he said. “We can serve them a good meal in a way that works well for their lives.”
Despite the straightforward mission, Palmer, Helms and Isabel spent years working together with their cross-functional team to bring the product to life — and to do it right.
The operations team began to build out how to produce a ready-to-heat line, thinking creatively about managing a production process that balanced operations and artistry.
As the project began to take shape, the time came for Palmer to start developing meals — but the existing infrastructure at Home Chef didn’t offer the tools he needed to plan and test microwaveable recipes. Soon, Palmer started spending every Friday cooking on equipment offered by a partner organization, drawing on his past experiences in fine dining, corporate dining and catering.
“My experience in corporate dining was crucial in both palate and scale as we launched the ready-to-heat line because in those environments, you’re working to serve a lot of regular people good food that they want to eat as part of their normal day,” he said. “People want to try new things, but they don’t always want an adventure.”
Soon, it was time for Palmer’s recipes to be produced at scale and make the journey to customers’ kitchens.
In April 2022, the team began production in a central kitchen in Los Angeles, supported by Home Chef’s San Bernardino location.
“From the conception of using a central kitchen to production was eight weeks,” Helms said. “The process was a testament to innovation and our internal culture of ‘let’s just do this.’ The growth now has proven the concept, and we’re investing in larger facilities that will allow us to grow.”
“The process was a testament to innovation and our internal culture of ‘let’s just do this.’”
The “let’s just do this” approach wasn’t an unsupported leap into the unknown — throughout the development and launch process, the talented cross-functional team was able to rely on deep expertise and a clear vision for what needed to be done.
“This project was the most intensely cross-functional work I have done, and it took dedication from every team to launch the central kitchen and see it through to success,” Palmer said. “Working with our team in LA showed what our capabilities really are, and that allows me to come back to my own team and encourage them to continue to raise our bar. Those interactions have helped us to collectively achieve our goals.”
Recalling those early weeks of launch raised goosebumps on Helms’ arms. “The process was very transparent and collaborative. We rallied toward goals that were extremely operationally ambitious and celebrated wins along the way,” she said. “The partnership and success was a great launching pad into our next phase, which prepared us for opening our second facility with ready-to-heat capabilities in Atlanta.”
Beyond the leadership shown by Isabel, Helms and Palmer, launching the ready-to-heat line also created opportunities for growth across the Home Chef team.
“We’re empowering people to own their work and make decisions because they’re the ones best equipped to move this new offering forward — from chefs making the meals that they’re passionate about to operations deciding how assembly will be managed,” Isabel said. “When team members know the goal we are building toward, we are able to collaborate and make things happen quickly because we have clarity around the shared vision.”
That collaborative team environment is exactly what made Tempo’s ready-to-heat product launch a success. “No individual is capable of achieving the goals we share alone,” Palmer said. “The process has taken all of us working together, communicating honestly and listening. A million small interactions over the course of this project created a better product and a stronger team.”