YOU MIGHT QUESTION WHETHER CHICAGO NEEDS yet another food delivery app. Sprig and Radish both flopped with centrally-prepared meals, and there are already a dozen ways to order delivery from countless restaurants all over town. But Eat Purely is betting that they’re on their way to finding the model that makes the idea of healthy, delivered meals work in Chicago.

Since launching in November 2015, Eat Purely has gone from five employees to more than a hundred employees and contractors. They started by delivering to River North and the West Loop, but now serve more than 30 neighborhoods stretching from Hyde Park to Rogers Park and Evanston. Chef Sean Spradlin debuted with five recipes and in a little more than a year has finalized more than 280 recipes. “Menu development is my favorite part of my job,” he says. “I love the craft and love being creative.” But the focus is also on preparing recipes differently from how restaurants would do them.

Chef Sean Spradlin

“Working in restaurants, everything is finished with a hefty tablespoon of butter or heavy cream and a lot of salt,” Spradlin says. In contrast, most Eat Purely meals don’t contain cream or butter at all. “I’m not trying to mask the quality of the products that we’re getting,” he says. “I feel like it’s a cop out to cover everything in fat. Consistency comes from repetition and skill set, and I try to drive my staff to really take a step back and think about the flavors of fresh vegetables or a piece of meat.”

One of Eat Purely’s developers created a proprietary nutritional app to allow for accurate and efficient caloric calculations. The ingredients and nutritional information for every dish are easily accessible on the app, and they’re sourcing ingredients from local Midwest farms like Driftless Breeze, Tempel Farms Organics, Kinnikinnick Farm and MightyVine Tomatoes.

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Not every meal is low in calories—a crab rice with baked cod and shrimp étouffée comes in at 800 calories for a serving, for instance—but diners can appreciate the company’s transparency. You know exactly what you’re getting, and in my experiences ordering from Eat Purely, the food I received matched the vibrant photos in the app.

 

 

BUT PREPARING MEALS FOR PEOPLE TO reheat at home comes with its own set of challenges. Spradlin spent countless hours testing ingredients to determine what could be reheated without diminishing the quality.

“There are a lot of limitations as far as menu development goes,” Spradlin admits. “There are a lot of ingredients I’d like to work with that I can’t. When it comes to seafood, salmon reheats well, cod and shrimp. Walleye does as well. But scallops, octopus, squid, clams and mussels obviously not.” Recently, customers were complaining that one dish smelled bad when they opened the container. Spradlin realized that radishes emit an unpleasant smell that’s amplified from being in a plastic container. So he substituted baby turnips for a similar mild radish flavor without the fumes.

Before joining the Eat Purely team, Spradlin worked in many of Chicago’s acclaimed kitchens, including Girl and the Goat and Hot Chocolate. “Mindy [Segal] had the biggest influence as far as overall awareness and managing and caring for your product,” he says. “Stephanie [Izard] really opened up my creativity. She inspired me to be adventurous and take risks when pairing ingredients.”

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Mark Steuer, who now works with John Manion at El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina, is Spradlin’s best friend—in fact, Spradlin will soon be the best man in his wedding. The pair met when Spradlin was a line cook at Hot Chocolate and Steuer was the chef de cuisine. “He always tells me that I was a smartass little punk 18-year-old kid. He taught me how to bust your ass and push through and get 12 hours of work done in two hours, but not cut corners.”

This intense focus and drive is apparent throughout the company. CEO and co-founder Jeremiah Green says Eat Purely’s rapid growth has been above expectation. “Our game is to expand and expand quickly,” he says. That includes plans for national expansion, but not before perfecting operations in Chicago. “We want to be the best at what we do and we want to hone that here in Chicago before any expansion occurs. We’re maniacally focused on food quality, manaically focused on reaching every part of Chicago that we possibly can and doing it really well. I think one reason why some start-ups burn through a lot of capital is that they acquire customers but don’t hold on to those customers. We spend to acquire customers but then we work really hard to keep them.”

The majority of Eat Purely customers order multiple times a week, with a diverse demographic of couples, families and individuals utilizing the service. Green says that Eat Purely’s delivery velocity per driver is the fastest in the world. “We make more deliveries than Amazon per hour on a per driver basis. We make 10-15 stops an hour. That’s six to 12 times more efficient than point-to-point delivery like GrubHub.”


I burned through relationships when I was working in restaurants. Your significant other doesn’t want to hang out with you between 3 and 5 am when you’re ready to have dinner.


To retain the best staff, Green is committed to offering competitive pay and a positive work environment that fosters creativity and camaraderie. During my visit, I saw a group of chefs singing happy birthday to a colleague at the end of afternoon prep. There are two shifts in the kitchen—one starting at 6 am and the other at 8 am. In exchange for the early mornings, cooks are out the door between 2 and 5 pm in the afternoon.

“The majority of my staff have families—husbands, wives, children,” Spradlin says. “They get out of work early now so they can actually hang out with their kids. I burned through relationships when I was working in restaurants, for sure. If you have a relationship it’s probably a co-worker who works on the line with you. Your significant other doesn’t want to hang out with you between 3 and 5 am when you’re ready to have dinner.” At Eat Purely, he has the luxury of taking time off to traipse around Europe with his girlfriend, dining in Paris, London and Amsterdam. He says, “I don’t remember the last time I had two weeks off” when working the restaurant life.

The work environment and attractive hours lured Spradlin, and many of his colleagues come from fine dining backgrounds as well. “It’s nearly impossible to grow within a kitchen,” Spradlin explains. “Once you’re a line cook you have to wait until the sous chef quits or gets fired to move up. The fact that our business is growing, they are all these opportunities for individual growth. And you don’t work the long nights. It’s not repetition on three dishes for eight hours during service and enother eight hours of prep before that.”

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Ultimately, though, as much as you celebrate creativity and opportunity for your workforce, the key to making it where other startups haven’t is in the way the operation runs. “We’re a systems business,” Green says. “The idea is to execute this on a mass scale, consistently better than what you can get in a restaurant. That takes intense systems.”

Green and his team have also discussed how to bring Eat Purely to some of Chicago’s most underserved neighborhoods. Eat Purely began delivering to Humboldt Park before it launched in Lincoln Park, and drivers and cooks are encouraged to take meals home on a daily basis. Any other leftover food that hasn’t been taken by staff is donated—Zero Percent swings by four times a week and distributes food to various local charities. “Everyone should have access to this type of food, and if we can make it comparable to fast food in terms of cost we know the world would be better for it,” Green says.

 


Amber Gibson is a Chicago writer. You can follow her world travels on Instagram @amberyv and Twitter @ambergib.


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