Fresh Food

Taking the 'Cognitive Load' Out of Online Grocery Shopping

Plant-based grocery delivery startup looks to shoppable recipes, smarter-through-AI buying suggestions to stand out
ELM Foods co-founder Melissa Williams and one of the site's featured recipes
Photographs courtesy of ELM Foods

ELM Foods is a Los Angeles-based grocery delivery startup with an out-of-the-ordinary focus and a deliberately limited lineup of SKUs: The company, which launched this month, offers only plant-based products.

Niche? Sure. But founders Joel Jackson and Melissa Williams, who met while working at newly publicly trading The Honest Co., are hoping to ride a wave of rising consumer interest in plant-based eating—and make it easier to choose and cook plant-based through a recipes-centric approach to grocery buying.

Whatever consumers' dietary preferences, buying groceries online often isn't the easy-breezy experience that retailers make it out to be, Williams said. Difficulty finding sought-after items, out-of-stocks and baffling substitutions can add time—and headaches—to a process promoted as a more convenient way to buy and get groceries, she noted.

Consumers want solutions for the meals they're going to make and eat in the next week, said Williams—and that's why ELM (which stands for Eat Less Meat) emphasizes shoppable recipes and a platform that learns customers' flavor and ingredient interests to make personalized shopping suggestions.

In a conversation with Winsight Grocery Business, Williams shared more about the how ELM Foods is looking to find its footing in an increasinglycrowdedgrocery-deliverymarketplace

Christine LaFave Grace: Tell me more about the inspiration and impetus for ELM.

Melissa Williams: ELM actually started as a prepared plant-based meal-delivery service that Joel, my co-founder, started back in 2017. He started the company as a way to help people reduce their environmental impact. Over time he realized, I don’t think prepared food is the space for this or the way I'm going to make the biggest impact.

He took a pause from it, and over conversation, we just realized, a lot of people are cooking dinner at home—this was all pre-pandemic—and getting most of their food at grocery stores. So how can we go into grocery and provide something that inspires people to eat a more whole-foods, plant-based diet in the grocery space?

Do you see plant-based as, beyond being part of a larger mission, a market differentiator in a grocery-delivery space where a growing number of startups are vying for attention?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s something that’s core to our company and our mission from the sustainability and health aspect of what we’re trying to accomplish as a company, but also I think it allows us to do things strategically. Right now we offer around 90 SKUs, and we’re trying to show people how you can use those 90 ingredients to make different types of foods and different recipes.

Being able to take up a much smaller footprint and a much smaller space is something that will help us logistically and will hopefully be a big differentiator for us.

There are significant tailwinds, it seems, for plant-based right now and a growing willingness among consumers to try plant-based products. At the same time, many consumers have questions about using and preparing these products. How did ELM settle on a meals- and recipes-based approach to shopping for plant-based foods and beverages?

Our approach in using really a recipe-driven experience was coming from a place of having tried to talk to as many people as possible about their grocery habits, their needs, what they’ve tried, what they liked and didn’t like, repeatedly coming across that people love the idea of meal kits in that they provide inspiration and guidance, and it helps take that meal-planning equation out of their week. But subscriptions are tough to manage sometimes. They’re not as flexible as you need them to be, or they might not suit everyone’s dietary preferences in your household.

So we thought, hmm, maybe there's something we can do here. Every time we cook for friends and they come over, they're like, "Oh, this is great—this is plant-based?” They're definitely open to it. And we say, "You, too, can make these things!" So if we can get people interested based on showing them this inspiration and then making it actionable by saying, "Hey, here are all of the ingredients you need to make it, and we’ll bring it to you," we're hoping to get more people to try things that maybe they wouldn’t normally.

I think for us with the plant-based perspective, it allows us an area of focus that is harder for maybe one of the larger [grocery] companies. These larger grocers often are so much to so many people—for us, being focused on plant-based, it allows us to really dive into those recipes.

As a consumer yourself, what have you wished could be better about grocery delivery?

I think it goes back into why we're working on a recipe-driven experience. Convenience—it's so hard right now. Grocery shopping online, you definitely save the time of going to and from the store. But the time you spent wandering the aisles is now probably the time you spend looking for the things you need, searching for it, realizing you can't find it at that one store, so then recalibrating your experience—do I get everything from one place, or now I have three things from somewhere else, and then everything else is from this other store, trying to meet minimums, things like that.

I think there's a new type of cognitive load on some of this online grocery experience. We already know that a lot of people are trying, especially with the pandemic and all the time that people have spent cooking at home, to experiment more with meal-planning, and that can take a lot of time. So if we can take away some of that meal-planning time, that time trying to figure out every week, “What do we want to eat this week?,” we could maybe actually really save people time here.

ELM put out a news release saying that one way it makes grocery shopping easier is by "offering intelligent suggestions for what to eat based on understanding customers' habits and preferences." Can you tell me more about this AI piece?

That's another reason I think the recipe-driven format is so interesting, because now we have an idea about [basket] contents and how much someone is using, so we can make intelligent recommendations. This is really big for me personally in how I think about meal planning and food waste. So we can say, "Hey, we know you used half a head of cabbage for this recipe; here's another way you can use the other half, and here are the ingredients for it, and we can bring them to you." 

Making sure people are getting the most out of their food and then having the context of knowing how they’re using it so we can offer substitutions if we know something about their dietary preferences is so valuable. Maybe I love chard, but I’m not a huge fan of kale, and [if our] recipe features kale, we can say, oh, just try chard in this instead.

We hopefully will be able to continue to personalize and make smart recommendations as you’re thinking about what you want to make the next week. We can say, "Hey, we know you probably have this much harissa paste in your fridge; here’s something you can make with that," and then streamline that order process for them.

What's next for ELM? 

Right now we’re really just focused on customer acquisition and proving that people are interested in shopping this way and interested in the company and our mission; then [we're] hoping to raise a seed round to continue growing the company.

We're in listening and learning mode. We're listening to what resonates with people, what recipes and types of foods they’re interested in making, and that will help us with the next set of things that we create.

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