A decade ago, a simple stroll down the ready-made meals aisle of a grocery store revealed options geared solely towards losing weight, such as low-calorie or low-carb meals. So when Tushar Menon, then still a university student, went looking for high-protein options to suit his workout requirements and came back empty-handed, he knew he’d stumbled onto a fascinating gap in the market.
Today, his business, co-founded with his brother Nishant, delivers over 2 million high-protein offerings across Australia every month. From quick microwave meals like spaghetti bolognese and butter chicken to protein cookies, oats, and drinks, My Muscle Chef has become an established name in the health and nutrition space.
“Back in 2013 when I was working full-time and my life revolved around making sure I met my calories for the day, I thought ‘surely there’s a better way than having to wake up every morning and prepare my meals’,” Tushar recalled.
“It was a light bulb moment. Then I reached out to my brother Nish, who was in the start-up space, and he thought it was a great idea. We spent about six months planning and I launched the business when I was 21 years old.”
All set for their ten-year anniversary in a few months, My Muscle Chef now produces over 500,000 fresh meals every week and delivers directly to consumers in more than 4,500 suburbs nationwide. Their retail stockists include national supermarkets like Woolworths, Coles, and IGA, along with Ampol, Fitness First and Goodlife gyms, and even independent grocers.
“In our first year, we turned over $800,000. Today, we’re looking to do over $200 million in annual sales,” Tushar grinned. “The massive exponential growth really has come in the last three to four years or so.”
Making data-driven decisions
He’s among the first to admit that there was quite a learning curve in the first few years, stepping to the plate with no background in business or food services.
“We had to learn it all by doing things ourselves, from cooking the food, to delivering it ourselves, to handling customer service. So when we did scale after a few years, we knew the business inside and out,” he explained.
“But at the start, there was many mistakes, in terms of cooking the wrong food or wrong deliveries. There were times we’d miss deliveries all the way in Newcastle or Canberra, so we’d jump in the van and head off on a six hour round trip to deliver one box!”
For the brothers, however, these efforts were all in keeping with their business motto: ensuring a great customer experience every time.
Tushar added, “Regardless of all the initial mistakes, we’ve made sure from day one that the customer is our priority. If they’ve placed an order and expect a certain level of product quality or service, then no matter what it takes, we have to deliver that. It’s been the foundation of our success.”
They consider the year 2018 a turning point in the business, taking a step back to evaluate and adjust to customer feedback. This included requests for vegan options, an aspect that hadn’t struck them before.
“Getting that data was absolutely game-changing and we changed everything the business was based on from there,” Tushar agreed.
It certainly paid off, with My Muscle Chef’s repeat customer orders growing +49 per cent year on year since.
“Our most popular products today would probably be the chipotle chicken, the crumb chicken, and the beef stroganoff. But all this goes back to our data based on what customers want to see. When we launch new products or meals, we send out surveys – what flavours do you want to see? What kind of macros and protein are you looking for? Then we design the product.”
Not just fitness-savvy customers
For Tushar, perhaps one of the interesting aspects from their customer feedback has been realising that they don’t cater solely to the workout and fitness-minded consumer.
“We assumed our customer was the average fitness enthusiast going to the gym to put on muscle, and that’s who our marketing was targeting for the first five years or so. When we did our research, we realised they made up a very small percentage of the My Muscle Chef customer base,” he explained.
Instead, the data revealed that their primary audience were everyday busy professionals, working full-time, who were looking for quick and healthy meals at the end of a long day.
“These are people who play sports, go for a walk every day, maybe go for CrossFit, looking for nutritious meals to feed that lifestyle,” Tushar added.
Prolonged lockdowns in the last few years only grew their customer base, with more people working for home looking for healthy meals delivered to their doorstep.
“There was definitely a surge in demand and in online searches for healthy home deliveries. Even now, coming out of COVID, we’ve seen customers stay on with our services,” Tushar observed.
Building a family business
Not only was My Muscle Chef founded by the brothers, but they got their parents, Prem and Poornima Menon, involved early on.
“When we first launched the business, I was still working full-time while my dad had retired, so it was really nice to have him in the kitchen as someone we could trust. We definitely had a lot of clashes at the start though, I don’t think he was used to me telling him what to do,” Tushar chuckled.
“My mother’s background is in education and schooling, as the former deputy principal of a high school, so she’s really good with people. We got her involved to lead up the HR side of the business.”
His brother and co-founder, Nishant, also had a complementary set of skills that came in handy, he notes.
“My expertise is in the operations side of things while his expertise is in IT, marketing, the user experience for our customers. So it came together really well!”
He admits perhaps the biggest, and only, con of working his family remains separating work and home life: “We talk work in the office then we come home and we’re still talking about work! It’s been a conscious decision to try to separate the two as much as we can outside hours.”
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs
After almost ten years in the health food space, Tushar believes it’s crucial to understand the customer base and the problem being solved as a first step in the entrepreneurial journey.
“Understanding who our customer is, is something that took us a bit longer than it should have. Thinking back, we would do our research and adopt data from the very beginning. Data is king and it should be the lifeline of your business, especially at the beginning when you don’t have a lot of information to rely on.
“Next, I would advise aspiring entrepreneurs to get the right people on board. My brother and I didn’t have all the answers in the first couple of years, but we had the right people on the right team, and were able to leverage their experiences to come up with viable solutions.
“Finally, I emphasis the importance of quality, in terms of product and service. It might be an obvious thing but sometimes you get lost in the numbers as you scale, and you forget what your core values are. Your customers don’t care what’s happening in the background, whether that’s building a factory or any business pains – they care about the experience. So from day one, our motto has been that every single customer experience has to be perfect.”