If you were to pick a bloke to found and run a multimillion-dollar ready meals business, it probably wouldn’t be Sydneysider Tomi Jurlina.
“I’m a terrible chef,” he confides to news.com.au. “My wife literally never eats my food. She even sends my toast back because I can’t butter it properly.
“My partner Dean has much better tastebuds than me – he knows what people like to eat.”
Jurlina’s lack of prowess in the kitchen hasn’t stopped the business he co-founded with Dean Deakin become a success story.
The two work colleagues created Workout Meals in 2012 with just $700 each. He now says the business has been valued at $12 million due to surging demand during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since March, the company has shipped 100,000 food packs filled with ready to heat, high protein, low fat meals such as Mexican beef loaded sweet potatoes and gluten free “Aussie” pizza, to homes across Australia. That’s three times the amount Workout Meals was doing last year.
He puts the boom down to “not cutting corners” and using quality ingredients including eggs and veggies from their own farm on the New South Wales Central Coast.
“Our values are to keep it real with a real nutritionist and real chefs and to be as transparent as possible”.
‘CRAZY IDEA’ COOKED UP ON THE M4
Eight years ago, Jurlina, then 31, was working in IT in the Sydney CBD – he was the guy you called to change your password when you locked yourself out of your computer.
“I went to the gym and my personal trainer gave me a diet plan that involved lots of cooking. I really hate cooking so I thought, how I can outsource all this food preparation?”
He pondered this as he gave Deakin, who was 25 at the time and also worked in the city, a lift back to western Sydney where they both lived. In a traffic jam, somewhere on the M4 motorway, the pair decided to set up a prepared meals business for people who didn’t have the time or inclination, to create healthy dinners from scratch.
The only problem, aside from Jurlina being a kitchen klutz, was that between them they barely had a brass farthing to rub together.
“It was 100 per cent a crazy idea to do it and to think we could do it well. I have no idea where the last eight years went.”
Together they raided their rainy day accounts and took a punt on ready meals at a time when few Australians had embraced the concept.
“We put $700 each in to build a website and get some ingredients. We only had four meals to start with and they were very gym focused and designed according to plans by personal trainers. It was poached chicken, beef, fish and some mince.”
Jurlina helped with running the business, delivering the meals and technology but, probably wisely, steered clear of the kitchen.
“Initially, Dean’s mum and aunty helped out with the cooking,” he said.
Pictures from the time show takeaway food containers filled with chicken, rice and broccoli and with nutritional information had scrawled on a sticker.
However, Workout Meals v1.0 was not an overnight success.
“We made so many mistakes, we could write a book on it.
“I thought people wanted meals that would be the plainer the better. I was wrong, they didn’t want typical gym food – they wanted taste. They wanted it to be nice but to have all the protein and stuff in it as well.”
The pair went back to the drawing board and created a new, more creative menu. And Workout Meals took off.
Customers can pick from a set group of meals (vegan or low carb, say) or they can choose a goal, such as weight loss, and a personalised meal package will be created for them.
Alternatively, they can just pick and choose from any of the hundreds of meals to be delivered.
Low carb shepherd’s pie, naked turkey burgers and southern fried chicken (“it sounds unhealthier than it actually is,” said Jurlina) are some of the favourites.
“My go to is the Portuguese chicken with broccoli rice which is low carb and Keto.”
Most customers, he said, don’t live off Workout Meals but use it to fill in the gaps when they know they won’t have time to prepare a healthy meal at home.
Despite the name, Jurlina said Workout Meals was for more than just gym bunnies. They were for anyone but particularly those who wanted to get more active, lose weight or build muscle.
$1 BILLION MARKET
Competition is fierce in the ready meals market. Workout Meals is vying for attention against the might of Lite ‘N Easy and My Muscle Chef. Then there’s meal kit firms including Marley Spoon, in which Woolworths has invested $30 million, and Hello Fresh. Coles’ recent purchase of Jewel Foods has seen it massively increase its chilled dinners section.
Jurlina said Workout Meals would succeed due to its quality, that it has meals for a variety of diets and the transparency of its food chain. For instance, rather than using cheap imported basa in its white fish dishes, it uses Australian barramundi or fish from New Zealand. It has an on-staff nutritionist, Gemma Daley, to check how good for people the meal actually are.
The company’s farm, he said, uses “organic principles” but is yet to be certified. The meals are all made in Lane Cove, on the city’s north shore.
The prepared meals market in Australia is worth about $1 billion annually according to analysis firm Ibis World with some estimates putting growth at around 4 per cent year on year. However, those figures were done pre-COVID. Once the pandemic hit, sales went into the stratosphere.
Jurlina said the business was built to cope with the sudden tripling of orders.
“We’ve put a lot of emphasis on our own technology so that has helped us scale up, in fact we’re looking at the kitchen preparing even more meals.”
He said consultants to the company had said its propriety technology, current sales and future growth now saw Workout Meals valued at $12 million.
That could lead to a healthy payday at some point for Jurlina and Deakin who remain equal owners of the firm.
Jurlina said the company looking at extending its meal range including more breakfast options which currently include waffles, granola and zucchini slices.
But while his business has changed hugely since the first meal was prepared in 2012, one thing hasn’t changed – Jurlina’s cooking abilities. Or lack thereof.
“Eight years later my toast is still really bad,” he laughs. “My wife still won’t eat anything I make. At least she likes Workout Meals.”