Forget the Salad Bar. A $50 Million Startup Bets on Healthy Grab-and-Go Meals

Snap Kitchen aims its recipes at foodies in a hurry.
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David Kirchhoff says that when he was chief executive officer of Weight Watchers in the mid-2000s, one thing that always bothered him was the trade-off many of his customers had to make to reach their desired weight. “It was frustrating to me that the food environment forced you to choose between food you weren’t that excited about—you know, kale and water—or food that you wanted to eat” that was unhealthy, he says. “It’s almost like forcing people to live in this diet mindset.”

Now Kirchhoff thinks he’s found a more palatable way to help Americans stay healthy. For the past year, he’s been running Snap Kitchen, a six-year-old chain specializing in grab-and-go meals that cater to people who look for healthy ingredients before checking the calorie count—think gluten-free fettuccine Alfredo or nondairy, grass-fed lamb lasagna. Kirchhoff says Snap is different from Weight Watchers because it’s about delicious food, not deprivation.

Source: Snap Kitchen

Snap, which has 44 stores in Texas, Chicago, and Philadelphia and also sells meals in five Whole Foods Markets stores, makes all its own food each day in kitchens near its stores. Kirchhoff says there are plenty of customers like him who crave its foodie-friendly victuals without necessarily fixating on their calorie toll: He eats Snap meals about two-thirds of the time, often choosing a large bison quinoa hash (620 calories) or the lamb lasagna (520 calories) to fuel his four-times-a-week weight-lifting sessions. “I would characterize myself as a protein hunter,” he says.

The field of quick-service restaurants trying to woo such ingredient-focused diners is getting crowded, from Mediterranean cuisine specialist Zoës Kitchen to quinoa-centered Protein Bar to LYFE Kitchen, which promises healthy flavors that match “your life’s journey.” “The saturation is increasing with concepts in fast-casual that are providing healthier, better food,” says Darren Tristano, president of industry researcher Technomic.

Snap stands out from the crowd by embracing the grab-and-go concept. Its average shop is just 800 square feet to 1,000 sq. ft., with a counter for people who want to eat there but no tables. Refrigerator cases filled with prepackaged foods and beverages line the walls. Gina Armbruster, who works near Snap’s store in Chicago’s Loop, says she’s not on a special diet and isn’t vegan but still checks the carbs on Snap’s labels when she picks up lunch at the restaurant twice a week. The variety lures her. “You have all different types of meat,” says Armbruster, whose favorite dish is the naked beef with snap peas and cauliflower. “Or you can go completely vegan if you want.”

In Snap’s 8,500-sq.-ft. Chicago commissary, which supplies eight of its stores and a Whole Foods, chefs cook from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. daily. On a recent afternoon they prepared miso-carrot dressing for vegan raw rainbow salads, while workers weighed and packed turkey meatloaf meals with mashed sweet potatoes and green beans. Chief Operating Officer Dale Easdon has hired many chefs from the airline industry, where he worked 25 years managing kitchens and operations for companies including LSG Sky Chefs and Continental Airlines. “These guys are used to volume,” he says, but also “understand the importance of first-class food.”

Snap plans to expand to New York, Miami, Boston, Washington, and California. Kirchhoff says the New York area alone could support as many as 200 stores, or 10 times the number he could open in Austin, where the first location opened in 2010. “There’s a lot of demand,” says Easdon. “People are asking us to come in.”

Several Snap dinners cost more than $8 and some salads are $8.49—adding steak or shrimp is an additional $3.99. Snap is “more for the middle- to upper-class income area,” says Tristano. And while the chain can grow, unit count may also be limited, he says. “Very few stores have ever gotten to 1,000. A good target might be 500.”

Snap has raised more than $50 million from investors. Ownership is split between L Catterton, a private equity firm specializing in consumer brands, and co-founder Bradley Radoff, who along with Martin Berson opened the first Snap. The company is not planning an IPO anytime soon. “At some point the public market could make sense,” Kirchhoff says. “But that’s a ways out.”

Catterton says Snap combines healthy living sustainability and convenience. As for choosing Kirchhoff to run the chain: “Given Dave’s operational background, leadership skills and enthusiasm for the Company’s mission he was the ideal candidate,” managing partner Jon Owsley said in a statement. “He and our team have expanded the concept from a culinary perspective, a geographic perspective and a brand perspective in a very short period of time and have positioned Snap to be a dominant player on the food landscape.”

For now, Snap is expanding its menu to help boost current average annual sales per store of about $1.29 million. That’s 44 percent less than a Pret A Manger sandwich shop, according to Technomic. In July, Snap introduced salads that allow diners to customize meals with different proteins—chicken, tofu, steak, and shrimp. More vegan options are coming in October. The chain will launch a mobile app this fall and start meal delivery next year. It also hopes to expand grocery-store distribution. The trick will be convincing more young professionals that healthy pre-packaged food is cool.

The bottom line: Snap Kitchen is expanding nationally by targeting diners who care about healthy ingredients more than calories.