Student-founded Zoni Foods reinvents frozen meals for millennials
Zoni Foods was born from a chance encounter at the Entrepreneurship Club at Yale School of Management.
Nilofer Ahmed (SOM ’16) had gone to a “speed dating” event meant to connect students like her, who were interested in working with a startup, to students who were interested in launching new ventures. Ahmed had expressed an interest in food and agriculture and was connected with Zoe Lloyd (SOM/FES ’17) who had an idea for a fresh-food-based meal kit that catered to busy young professionals like her.
“I wanted to have fresh food but in a meal kit that was already prepped,” Lloyd says.
Ahmed adds: “USDA research shows that many parts of the country are better off buying frozen than fresh because the food is picked when it is fresh — when nutrients are at their highest — and then immediately frozen to prevent degradation.”
Zoni Foods got in front of pitch competitions, including an event held by the Yale SOM Private Equity and Venture Capital Symposium, where judges found them to have the most credible business proposal, and participated in the Project Entrepreneur Weekend Intensive, which provides training for women entrepreneurs and is run by Rent the Runway, a startup co-founded by Yale alum Jennifer Fleiss.
The meal kits are unique on a couple fronts: They are all-vegetarian and very healthy (options include spiralized sweet potato with cashew-garlic alfredo sauce with lentil-kale mushroom fritters), and the meals cook on the stove in one pan in under 15 minutes, not in the microwave. “It’s something you can feel good about,” Lloyd says, “you’re cooking.” As an added bonus, wine and beer pairings are included on the back of the box.
The new take on frozen food has gotten them notice — and funding. In 2017, the startup won the Sabin Sustainable Venture Prize from the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, and that got them entry into the Summer Fellowship at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. They’ve relied on key advisers and mentors along the way, including SOM professor Maureen Burke (SOM ’97) who teaches on topics related to business and the environment, and Denis Ring (SOM ’84), who was responsible for launching the Whole Foods 365 product line. They’ve also turned to other Yale food startups like Chops Snacks and Verb for advice.
“There’s a benefit to Yale having a young entrepreneurial network,” says Ahmed. “People are very receptive and adaptive to support whatever your needs are.”
Adds Lloyd: “We’re tighter than other schools — those interactions are more valuable.”