Home Bistro: Delicious High Tech Meals for Today’s Way of Life

  • By Carolee Smith

The timing could not have been worse.

Dave Thompson had a great idea – sell flash-frozen, high-quality, chef-prepared individual meals and deliver them to the buyer’s doorstep. He also had two gourmet chefs to prepare the food (Scott Stillman and Denis Chauvin), an excellent business plan, and the will to make it all work. What he didn’t have was money.

He identified a venture capitalist firm that might be willing to listen to his proposal and arranged a meeting with their representatives in New York City – for late September, 2001.

Dave set the scene. “The World Trade Center was gone. People were terrified. The dust and the smell clung to lower Manhattan. The dot com bubble had burst. There was anthrax in mailboxes. No one was investing in anything. And I’m pitching a mail order food business!”

The reply from the potential investors was a tepid, “We’ll think about it.”

Two months later, Dave told his wife, Bernadette, that the company had $300 in cash and $455,000 in liabilities for which he had personally signed. “She was terrific,” he said. “She was willing to do whatever we had to in order to make it work.”

Shortly after that conversation, a potential investor appeared on the horizon, but there were too many strings attached and Dave turned him down. It wasn’t looking good. Family members and friends, who had been helping out, were losing faith.

Then it happened. “In June, 2002,” Dave said, “the original New York City firm came back and we had our first institutional investment.” Home Bistro was on its way.

At that time, Dave was the company’s only employee. Stillman and Chauvin, who still operated their own business, prepared the food. Dave bought the meals, sold them on the internet and through a catalog, and shipped them to the customers. “The first month after we received the new financing,” he said, with a laugh, “we did about $15,000 in sales and lost about $14,000!”

But the idea clicked and it wasn’t long before things changed. By the end of 2002, sales had grown to $1 million. The figures for 2003 and 2004, respectively, were $3.5 million and $7.2 million, and Dave estimates the company will hit $11.2 by the end of this year. “We have ambitious goals,” he said. “Our five-year sales target is five to ten times our current level.”

The company is growing quickly. “We have 30 people on board now,” Dave said, “and that number will probably grow to near 60 by next year. Last December, we shipped 10,000 orders averaging eight meals each and many of those orders were from repeat customers.” Orders are shipped to just about every state in the country, but the primary markets, at this point, are essentially the Northeast and the West Coast.

Home Bistro’s products are intended to make life easier for people. Read the catalog or look at the web site (www.homebistro.com) and you will see exactly what the company offers – chef-prepared meals made with the finest, freshest ingredients, delivered to your door, ready to go from freezer to table in 10 minutes, and absolutely guaranteed.

After preparation at Home Bistro’s site on the Banker Road in Plattsburgh, each meal is individually vacuum-sealed in specially designed plastic pouches and flash frozen. Meals are shipped in insulated ‘weatherproof’ coolers with dry ice and will stay fresh in a freezer for up to a year.

At-home preparation is a snap. Just take the meal from the freezer, pop the pouches in a pan of boiling water and simmer for 10 minutes.

What could Home Bistro put on your dinner table? Beef, pork, lamb, poultry, seafood and pasta entrees are all available, as are appetizers, soups, breakfasts, desserts and even low-carb meals. If you can’t decide, sampler selections are also on the menu.

You might, for instance, try the Maple Dijon Chicken with “chunks of tender chicken with a blend of white and wild mushrooms in a creamy mushroom sauce prepared with Dijon mustard and pure Vermont maple syrup served over a flaky puff pastry shell with a blend of grilled corn, roasted red peppers and asparagus cuts” for $10.95. Or a grilled mahi-mahi with herb and lime butter sauce served over beet orzo with grilled mixed vegetables ($13.95). Or maybe just a savory vegetable stew in a bread bowl ($6.99).

Dave understands that the company’s work force has everything to do with the success of the business. “A positive work environment is critical,” he said. “We aren’t perfect yet, but we’re trying. Working in many food plants can be like being in a refrigerator with the door closed and the light on all day. Ours is different. We’ve put windows and Solatube skylights all over the building to bring in natural light and I think it really makes a difference.”

Home Bistro believes in rewarding employees for their efforts. “We recently added a full benefits package that includes health insurance. We’ve also started a program to give each of our workers a significant number of stock options,” Dave explained. “Every person here will have a stake in the business.”

Originally from Boston, Dave’s first job, after receiving a bachelor’s degree from Bates College in Maine, was in a distribution center for General Foods. “I got bored with counting boxes and moving them from place to place, but was really interested in what the marketing people were doing. They said that, to get into that end of the business with the company, I would need an advanced degree from one of the top 10 business schools in the country. I applied and was accepted at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business.”

After earning his MBA, Dave worked in marketing for General Foods in White Plains, NY. When General Foods merged with Kraft, Dave ended up in the company’s Birds Eye Division in California, where he received “an incredible education in marketing.” A few years later, he moved back east to Long Island, where he worked with the Entenmann’s Cakes Division of Kraft Foods and later with Colorado Prime Foods.

Along the way, he met Stillman and Chauvin, who were, at the time, running a small food production company in Vermont.

“I always knew I wanted to start my own company and, with my experience in the food industry, this was a natural,” Dave said. “They had a product and I thought I knew how to market it.” After spending six months getting up his nerve, Dave quit his job and Home Bistro was born.

Home Bistro moved into its current location in the Development Corporation’s Banker Road location in September, 2003 and currently occupies half of a large building on that site. “We were fortunate. Our investors are interested in creating quality, well-paying manufacturing jobs in less developed areas. We learned about the New York State Empire Zone here in Plattsburgh and everything fell together. We can’t thank the Development Corporation and Adore Kurtz enough for all they did to support our coming here,” Dave said. “We don’t envision ever leaving Plattsburgh.”

What does the future hold? At 45, David R. Thompson, president and CEO of Home Bistro, is a man who knows exactly where he wants to go and how to get there. His well-thumbed business plan, his blueprint for the future, occupies a corner of his desk and he refers to it frequently. “We expect to grow significantly,” Dave predicted. “We’ll focus on product quality, a positive work environment, and productivity. Our in-house motto right now is ‘Every Pouch Perfect.’ When we’re four times our current size, the chicken breast has to taste as good as it does today.”

Dave and Bernadette Thompson live with their three children, Caroline (15), Andrew (13), and William (11), in South Burlington, VT.

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