Minnesota-made hot meal cookware shop warms up after reset

Grassroots entrepreneur Jillian McGary wanted to turn off the oven at her startup Mostly Made Meal Kit in 2021.

After five years of trial-and-error development, over $60,000 in savings, 250 in-store demonstrations at 30 grocers, and 16,000 miles a year chasing her culinary dream, McGary spent a thoughtful day last September, sulking in her bedroom.

“I wanted to quit,” McGary said. “My price was wrong and the package was wrong. I only got 18% [operating] margin on sales. It should be 40%. A woman at Festival Foods yelled at me that the $14.99 price was too expensive. I lowered it to $12.99. And now I’ve been told by business mentors to lower it to $9.99.”

McGary had been bluntly criticized for his strategy by the startup advisory program Grow North. But customers loved the taste of Skillet Lasagna, Chicken Enchilada and Shepherd’s Pie meals for up to six people, which use fresh ingredients and are prepared and cooked in under 25 minutes, which would take a couple of hours from scratch.

She decided to give Mostly Made one last chance.

“Think of Mostly Made as a fresh, nutritious ‘hamburger helper’ in the refrigerated case,” said McGary.

She kept thinking that cake mixes fill a supermarket aisle, and she bakes a cake four times a year.

“But I cook dinner every night,” she said. “I couldn’t be the only person who wanted an easy way to quickly prepare homemade meals.”

Mostly it was made primarily at Twin Cities Kowalski’s and several other grocery stores and co-ops. A Target shopper liked Mostly Made samples she tried in 2021. The company began testing the product in food last year.

However, overall sales were tepid.

And then there was the packaging – it was recyclable but boring. In addition, McGary also needed to improve marketing.

“Target kept Mostly Made on the shelf while I reworked the packaging,” said a grateful McGary.

McGary, 43, is none other than a determined Minnetonka mother of two who believes in her product and knows about hard work and delayed gratification.

She paid most household bills with corporate marketing jobs for a decade before her husband’s home construction business struck sustainability. McGary started Mostly Made in 2016 after a layoff. She started thinking about what became Mostly Made while preparing meals while her sister-in-law was battling cancer.

“When the bulky pans didn’t fit in their freezer, I realized that if I was ‘mainly’ preparing the casserole filling, the final ingredients for a delicious home-cooked meal could simply be added,” recalled McGary. “And my sister-in-law has also been cancer-free for seven years.”

Through a connection with the Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, McGary connected with Periscope, the Minneapolis-based full-service marketing firm, to help overhaul the packaging and focus on the “Smart and Easy Homestyle” strategy.

Periscope designed a colorful box and plastic bag made from recycled materials, which also briefly explain the product and benefits.

“Jillian didn’t just make ‘Microwave Meals 2.0,'” said Richard Gordon-Smith, Creative Director of Periscope. “It’s a great product that satisfies a range of tastes. It wasn’t just rice with something piled on it. She did something rare.”

Periscope also didn’t charge McGary anything, inspired by her years with no return from time and treasure. She also donates 5% of wholesale sales to charities. Periscope liked working with a struggling entrepreneur with a good product and heart.

“I feel like I won the lottery to work with these amazing Periscope people,” said McGary. “I’m so small. And they treated me like a real customer.”

The early returns are promising.

In October, Minneapolis manufacturer At Last Gourmet Foods, McGary’s co-packer, began producing thousands of meals. McGary has orders from up to 120 stores. The expanded list of retailers includes Midwest Super Targets, Kowalski’s, Coborn’s and Lakewinds Coop.

“I feel like Geppetto after the Blue Fairy brought my crude wooden puppet Pinocchio to life,” McGary said. “Target gave me the opportunity to stay on the shelves and re-launch our packaging. Mostly Made has caught the attention of grocery shoppers.”

Target declined comment on Mostly Made.

It’s also early in the reboot’s sales cycle. Time will tell if the next chapter will be successful.

McGary lost $6,000 in 2021 and hasn’t paid himself yet. She is content that she did all she could. Their goal is to sell more than 100,000 units and achieve over $1 million in retail sales.

“I just want to be in business in a year,” McGary said. “I’m not thinking about being bought out or making a million dollars. I just want more products to be sold off the shelf.”

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