Hyperlocal eCommerce: How one company found its audience and plans to scale

Rhode Island-based meal-delivery service Feast and Fettle is a unique service in its category. It’s not a meal prep service, like Blue Apron or Hello Fresh. Nor is it a delivery app like Seamless or Grubhub. Categorizing it is actually a little hard. “It’s usually easiest for me to say what it’s not,” says CEO Carlos Ventura.

Feast and Fettle is carving out a new space for itself in the market. Like the meal-prep services, customers choose from a rotating menu of entrées and sides, but like the food delivery services, they come fully prepared—no cooking required. As Ventura likes to say, Feast and Fettle is one step closer to the actual dinner table than other meal-prep delivery services. You can think of it sort of like having an on-demand personal chef.

But creating a new niche expectedly comes with a set of unique challenges. For one, infrastructure is more complicated than the other options in this space. Because food comes fully prepared, it can’t be shipped via the mail, and because everything is prepared in-house (rather than at any number of local restaurants), scaling has to take food prep and delivery into consideration. That means being deliberate and methodical about expansion and marketing to a hyperlocal audience.

Reaching a hyperlocal customer base

The company was started in 2016 by personal chef Maggie Mulvena, who was trying to find a way to reach more people with her cooking. While most other eCommerce food startups are operating out of big cities like New York or Boston, Mulvena, a Johnson & Wales University grad, based Feast and Fettle in Providence. It operates almost exclusively in a very tight radius within the nation’s smallest state.

Feast and Fettle reaches its hyperlocal eCommerce customers using traditional methods, like setting up shop at farmers’ markets.

“It’s completely different in Rhode Island,” says Ventura, who previously spent his time working in the startup worlds of big cities like New York and London

Hyperlocal is a different animal than traditional eCommerce. While most online shops are marketing to a specific type of customer, one with a clearly defined persona or job-to-be-done, Feast and Fettle has to deal with the added dimension of locality. Transactions still happen online, but the goods change hands in person, so getting their message in front of a foodie who lives 200 miles outside their delivery radius doesn’t help.

Rhode Island is a very insular community, often thought of as more of a city-state (the entire state falls under the metro area of its capital city of Providence). Discretionary income is high in the area of the state where Feast & Fettle operates, and the demographic leans a bit older.

That’s why Ventura has had to think differently about how he markets and operates the business. He has leaned on more traditional marketing tools to get the company’s message to potential customers. That means investing in old school marketing channels like newspaper ads and radio that reach very local audiences. When you put an ad in an alt-weekly or on the radio, you can be confident the distribution matches the area you serve—radio stations have limited broadcasting power and newspapers are only delivered to specific areas. That’s unlike an online display ad, which might put your brand in front of a “customer” on the other side of the world, who isn’t really a customer at all.

“I never thought about marketing on NPR,” Ventura says. “People in the demographic listen to NPR, though.”

It also means attending local foodie events and farmer’s markets, pushing hard for media coverage in local newspapers, magazines, and blogs, and even investing in a custom logo wrap for their delivery van.

Feast and Fettle’s delivery van acts as a marketing tool while making drop-offs.

“It’s very well-known and we’ve had people sign up for our service just from seeing [it],” Mulvena told Providence Business News of the van.

Of course, Feast and Fettle also uses tried and true digital strategies, including earned and paid marketing on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But they use those platforms, at least initially, to get traction for more traditional local marketing initiatives, like amplifying media coverage or boosting excitement around a local event. The company also wisely tags the accounts of the local farms whose products they use their meals, giving their social media reach a boost.

Between 2016 and 2017, Feast and Fettle grew revenue by 144 percent, and so far this year, customers are spending an average of $431. That’s against an average customer acquisition cost of $75.

Over the past few months, the company has added dozens of new customers, a boost that came primarily from print advertising in local papers and more direct marketing through partnerships with local outlets.

Scaling beyond a local market

But all that rapid growth in their market has Feast and Fettle bumping up against another problem common to hyperlocal companies: how and when to scale. For Ventura and Mulvena, scaling is limited by some very real-world constraints, like how far can you deliver food in a van from where its made while still keeping the food fresh, the deliveries on time, and the service economically viable?

Expansion will necessarily require infrastructure and personnel investments. Expanding the delivery radius means more vans, additional drives, and a larger commercial kitchen to prep more meals. To that end, the company recently finished a successful equity crowdfunding campaign through which they raised $68,000, as well as landed $125,000 in strategic capital from a local investor to build a new commercial kitchen space. (Previously, Feast and Fettle had operated out of a shared kitchen space at a local food business incubator.)

Ventura says the company has plans to expand its footprint in Rhode Island and move into southeastern Massachusetts, supported by the new kitchen it’s now in the process of building out and moving into. He believes the kitchen will allow the Feast and Fettle to triple its output.

An employee prepping a meal for delivery.

“We’re raising money for a purpose,” says Ventura. “We want to prove out a working model to expand.”

To scale, Feast and Fettle must take into account more than just logistics. Food is a deeply personal thing, and moving into new markets will require Ventura and company to think about things like catering to different local tastes and to make strategic sourcing partnerships. He imagines they will need to look at ingredients, find local partners, and likely adjust their marketing campaigns for each new market.

The work that Feast and Fettle has done to conquer the Rhode Island market has helped them write a playbook they can use for expanding into other markets. That playbook, which includes an array of traditional marketing channels used to reach local audiences, will be vital until they reach a large enough geographic footprint that they can employ the same marketing methods as meal delivery competitors that have a national or regional reach.

But Ventura stresses that he’s not in a hurry. “If you build the business more slowly, you can take to the time to get it right,” he says.

Benjamin Hancock
Ben Hancock is a freelance writer and videographer living in Brooklyn. He attended the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and West Virginia University. After school he worked in corporate communications and later became a business reporter in Northern Virginia. He has spent time developing video strategy for Advance Digital, a nationwide news agency. Most recently he was a speechwriter for a major European financial institution.

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