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The Coronavirus Economy: The fine dining veterans aspiring to elevate frozen food

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For the culinary world, one of the most rapid transformations that looks as if it will hold for the foreseeable future is that customers are ordering takeout more than ever.

Nine in 10 consumers are ordering takeout (as opposed to seven in 10 before the pandemic) at least one to two times per week, according to the Zagat Future of Dining study published this month. And as restaurants slowly begin to reopen across the country, diners remain wary of going back. Zagat found most diners plan to wait at least three to four weeks before returning to restaurants, opting instead for more meals at home.

But not all takeout is one and the same. There are more and more grocery and meal subscription kits available, many of which are surging in sales as consumers shy away from long lines at supermarkets.

Founded by veterans of Blue Apron, Chipotle, and upscale restaurants, Ipsa Provisions aims to be a “new kind of frozen food company.” Meals are made from scratch in a small commercial kitchen in New York City, with menu items such as chicken tortilla soup, a butternut squash lasagna, coconut curry, and beef and kimchi stew.

Fortune spoke with cofounders Joshua Brau and Micah Fredman for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, about how the outbreak has affected their business, their thoughts on the future, and how they have been handling these past fraught few months, both emotionally and financially.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Ipsa Provisions cofounders Joshua Brau (left) and Micah Fredman.
Frances F. Denny

Fortune: Could you tell me a little bit about your background? What inspired the launch of Ipsa Provisions?

Fredman: I’ve loved food for as long as I can remember. After receiving a rather impractical BA in Humanities from Yale, my five-year plan—to master the craft of cooking—took me through the kitchens of Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, and a number of humbler and wiser kitchens of grandmothers throughout Mexico and Italy.  

When Josh approached me to pilot the Ipsa concept, I was enthralled by the challenge of redeeming the American freezer. My travels and knowledge of restaurant kitchen operations had shown me glimpses of the freezer’s possibilities. I love an underdog. I love the challenge of changing people’s minds, and deliciousness is my favorite way of doing it. 

Brau: Both of my parents have been in the food industry since before I was born. They helped me see so much of life through the lens of food. On a macro level, there are direct linkages between the food and just about every major global issue. And at the micro level, food obviously plays an essential role in so many aspects of our lives. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade working to build a better food system, and over that time I’ve become convinced that doing so requires rethinking how and what we eat at home. 

That said, I never expected I’d be advocating for a wholesale rethinking of the freezer. Before my daughter was born, I spent a good amount of time cooking and freezing large batches of some of my wife’s favorite dishes so we’d have them ready to go during what we correctly predicted was a long cold winter with a newborn. As our homemade stash dwindled, I was surprised to find that I couldn’t find anything comparable in grocery store freezer aisles.

So I approached Micah to see if he was interested in exploring whether there was a market for seriously tasty frozen food made with superb ingredients. Micah and I had known each other for a long time, and I always admired his cooking and his approach to food more broadly. The early pilots we ran aspired to accomplish something that remains at the core of our vision for Ipsa: to deliver an experience that is—dollar-for-dollar and minute-for-minute of active effort—the best meal you can put on your table at home.  

“Our concept is focused on elevating what has been a fairly lackluster corner of the food industry,” says Brau. “Meals that are eaten at home, but cooked partially or entirely outside of it.”
Dafne Work

For many consumers, grocery shopping has changed dramatically over the past few months. Some consumers might be turning to alternative services, like subscription and delivery programs, to stock up on food and meals for the week. How has demand for Ipsa fared since the onset of the pandemic?

Brau: It’s difficult to untangle demand before and after the onset of the pandemic because we launched Ipsa about four weeks before stay-at-home orders were put in place. What we have seen is demand for our food that far exceeds what we expected for our first few months in operation. There’s no question the pandemic has a lot to do with that.

Our concept is focused on elevating what has been a fairly lackluster corner of the food industry: meals that are eaten at home, but cooked partially or entirely outside of it. This includes restaurant takeout, prepared foods, fresh meal delivery services, and of course, the grocery store frozen food aisle. Despite the massive size of this market, there’s very little out there that’s compelling to the growing ranks of people who want to eat really well all the time. It’s always been the case that the vast majority of meals are eaten at home, but that proportion is as high now as it’s been in a very, very long time. Even people who love to cook don’t want to cook every single meal.  

“I trained at some of New York’s finest restaurants, so Ipsa’s kitchen standards for health, safety, and cleanliness were rigorous from the start. These restaurants instill high standards into the core of your being as a young chef,” says Fredman.
Dafne Work

There have been some concerns about the safety of food delivery—not only of preventing the transmission of COVID-19 via food packaging but also protecting employees who are providing an essential service. What kind of precautions has your business set up, and have any of those changed during the pandemic?

Fredman: I trained at some of New York’s finest restaurants, so Ipsa’s kitchen standards for health, safety, and cleanliness were rigorous from the start. These restaurants instill high standards into the core of your being as a young chef. 

Operating during the pandemic, our health and safety protocols have only become more stringent. Any employee that experienced any hint of a possible symptom was asked to stay home. Our kitchen employees are scanned with a noncontact thermometer upon arrival and provided with gloves (changed frequently) and face masks for use during their shifts. Our kitchen is spacious enough that cooks are able to maintain appropriate distance from colleagues. The kitchen is sanitized by a trained kitchen maintenance person before, during, and after each shift. Strict protocols govern how deliveries are made to the kitchen and how staff treat items when they are received. Fulfillment staff and delivery drivers wear appropriate protective gear during their shifts, and noncontact delivery is our standard.

Looking toward the next few weeks and months, how do you expect consumers will continue to shop for food? Do you expect more interest in delivered meals, even as restrictions lift in some areas? And does Ipsa plan to expand in this economic climate?

Brau: It’s too early to tell how dramatically habits will shift in the long run. But there’s no question that delivered food—groceries, meals, et cetera—will figure more prominently in our routines. The challenge for many food businesses will be to rethink their business models so the economics of delivery are sustainable.

Given the unique ways in which Ipsa’s offering is suited to this particular moment, we’re facing more potential avenues for expansion than we anticipated at this stage of the business. We’re focused on growing intentionally, so we can maintain the quality of the experience we deliver to our customers. We believe it’s critical to build an operational foundation now that can sustain the more aggressive growth we’d like to see in the coming years. 

On a personal note, how have you been faring amid all this?

Fredman: These past couple months have been quite the mental-emotional roller coaster—fear, sorrow, drive, loneliness, confusion, hope, and hopelessness—all in the course of a day. I am incredibly grateful to have had this work of feeding people to both ground and propel me amidst all the uncertainty. 

Brau: Thank you for asking. Like most people, I experience ups and downs. Sometimes I’m exhausted. But more than anything I’m energized by two things: first, the simple fact that Ipsa is helping make things a little easier and a little more delicious for our customers during a very difficult period in their lives. Second, I’m experiencing a newfound—albeit cautious—optimism. The events of the last few months have made it impossible to ignore the depth of the challenges we face as a society, and I’m excited to see Ipsa participate in any way we can, large or small, to help bring about structural changes that are long overdue.

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Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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