Casablanca Meal Delivery Services’ business is based on a simple model: provide fresh, healthy meals delivered to customers homes.
The Salem company takes a burden off clients, such as Joy Tuff and her husband, Richard. Shopping and cooking can be difficult for the Tuffs, who are in their 80s and require special diets for medical reasons.
“It’s really hard to cook the things that both of us can have,” Joy Tuff said.
The meal delivery service, which has been in business for a year, charges its clients monthly fees. For one senior, a subscription for Monday through Saturday dinners is about $240 a month.
For the Tuffs, the expense is worth it. They get appetizing meals, served on a white china plates, that follow doctor’s orders.
Casablanca Meal Delivery began out of necessity. Company founder Crystal Gonzalez, a mother of five, had lost her job, and the outlook was bleak. The family had little money and was living at a relative’s house.
“I knew that if there wasn’t a job out there I could get, I needed to create a job for myself,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez, 32, had never run a business before. She hadn’t done well in school and had overcome a drug addiction. But she was certain of a couple things: her insurance industry background taught her about customer service; and she knew how to cook.
First stop on Gonzalez’s path to becoming an entrepreneur was the MERIT program, part of the Chemeketa Center for Business and Industry in Salem. The program provides training to help turn ideas into new businesses.
After devising a business plan, Gonzalez obtained a small loan to launch Casablanca Meal Delivery.
It quickly became apparent that delivering hot meals wasn’t the way to go. From a practical and food-safety standpoint, it’s easier to deliver chilled, prepared foods that customers can re-heat at their convenience.
Entrees, such as apple-stuffed pork chops and Parmesan tilapia, are delivered to customers up to three times a week. Two meals, with side dishes, are delivered at a time. If customers are away from home, meals can be placed in a cooler outside.
“What I wanted was a service to make people feel as if the meals were prepared in their homes,” Gonzalez said.
Meals are made from fresh ingredients in the kitchen at the Broadway Cafe in Keizer, a space Gonzalez subleases. The company has retained a dietician to design its menu, although Gonzalez and a relative do the day-to-day work of running the company.
For now, the small company has focused on serving the Salem-Keizer area.
After one year in business, Casablanca has more than 20 monthly subscribers. It’s too early to declare the company a financial success, but it has a built a loyal clientele among seniors.
“It just made it easier by not having to fret and worry about getting to a grocery store,” said Diane Colbath, a Keizer senior who signed up for the delivery services after her husband, Ben, was put on a low-sodium diet.
“This is what I wanted—good food, healthy food,” said Helga Hillig, an octogenerian who lives at the Salemtowne adult community in West Salem. She doesn’t drive and uses a walking cane.
The over-65 crowd, however, isn’t the company’s only customers.
Casablanca Meal Delivery offers postpartum and post-operative meal services. It also markets its services to busy families and singles.
In some respects, operating a food delivery service is even more problematic than running a standard restaurant. Delivery costs, such as labor and $4 a gallon gasoline, have to be taken into account.
“You have to do a lot of volume to make up for the expense of delivery,” said Bill Perry, a vice president with the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Offering prepared meals-to-go certainly isn’t a new idea. Grocery stores long ago picked on the idea that consumers wanted a “home-cooked” meal and expanded their deli sections. Delivering meals to customers who pay monthly subscription fees seems like a natural progression of that trend, Perry said.
Casablanca recently has found money in its shoestring budget to purchase newspaper and radio advertising. Word-of-mouth advertising might be its best marketing tool, as its senior customers tell their friends about the service.
“They want me to stick around,” Gonzalez said. When she visits customers in their homes, they rarely allow her to leave without a hug.
mrose@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6657 or follow on Twitter at mrose_SJ