Making a meal of it

When Ajay D’Almeida realised he needed to improve his diet, he took matters into his own hands and launched a business that delivers healthy food to your door
By Neil King
Tue 18 Jun 2013 01:40 PM

The UAE is notorious for its fast-paced lifestyle. Whether at work or at play, people tend to be on the go all day every day, squeezing as much out of their experience in the region as possible.

As a result, certain things get pushed to the side. For many people the sourcing, preparation and cooking of genuinely healthy, beneficial food doesn’t fit into their busy schedules, leaving space for the ever-present convenience foods. Take-outs, fast food, ready-meals, and so on.

This was the case for Ajay D’Almeida, who worked at a security company in Al Karama until receiving a wake-up call from the doctor.

“I used to be a big red meat eater,” he explains. “I loved steak – anything red and bloody was my eating habit.

“My wife told me to get my cholesterol checked. I hate doctors but she was insistent, and then she got my mother involved as well so I had no option but to get checked. I was tested for diabetes as well, which is another big problem in the region.

“The diabetes came back fine but the cholesterol was sky high. It was three times the maximum it is allowed to be. It was insane.

“I was advised to exercise a little bit, but the main thing was to change my eating habit. I was working in Al Karama, which was food heaven for me. It had everything except healthy food. There was nothing I could eat there except fruit and salad, but there’s only so much salad a man can eat! So I started working on a business plan.”

D’Almeida’s idea was to put together a business which provided good quality, healthy food, bridging the gap that he had seen in the market first hand.

After spending several months looking at different possibilities, working on the numbers, and putting together a basic framework, it was a friend who gave him the final push to launch the business.

“I had told a lot of friends about the idea, and finally one of them said “you’ve been talking about it for months now – why don’t you just do it?”. And then he said something that changed my life. He said “next time we meet I’m going to write you a cheque for AED30,000”. And he did. He said to take it as an investment, or a loan, or whatever, and told me I didn’t have to pay it back. I was flabbergasted. It was at that point that I realised I might have had a good idea on my hands.”

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And so, earlier this year, U’ve Got Meal was brought off the drawing board and into reality.

With 21-years of experience of marketing behind him, D’Almeida could confidently cover certain aspects of the business himself. But when it came to the food itself, he knew he had to look for help.

“I’m not from the health food business,” he says. “Marketing is only one part of what I needed to do with the business, so I needed a big contribution from a dietician. The food needed to be healthy as well as delicious.

“I looked for a partner, and met with about 50 to 60 nutritionists, dieticians, and so on. Eventually I narrowed it down to one.”

D’Almeida teamed up with Mitun De Sarkar, a dietician with more than a decade of experience in health food and weight loss, and an expert in areas such as diabetes, heart diseases, food intolerances, gastro intestinal disorders, and other medical concerns.

“Mitun looks after portions, recipes, nutrition, and so on,” continues D’Almeida. “The recipes are diverse – our meals come from South America, South East Asia, Europe, and all over the world. We wanted it to be as international as possible.”

U’ve Got Meal runs on the basic principle of delivering healthy food to people whose busy lives don’t allow them to put the meals together themselves.

Sending out breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as snacks, customers receive a comprehensive meal plan, but before the duo even thought about sending out the first delivery, they wanted to ensure they didn’t fall into a seemingly common health food trap.

“Many people out there thought health food was nothing more than tasteless cardboard. That’s what people said when we did our research. And a lot of brands are like that. The general perception is that to lose weight or get healthy, we have to suffer. Our lifestyles have to change drastically.

“There are a lot of fad diets out there that do require this of you. But it’s just not sustainable. You can’t do them for twelve months in a year. You can’t cut out carbohydrates. You need them – it’s energy! It’s better to keep away from fad diets if possible.

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“We made sure our meals tasted good. This is so important if people are going to stay with the healthy eating, so it was important for us to get right.”

When potential customers log onto the U’ve Got Meal Website, they are asked to undertake a free analysis which gives a brief report on their body. Having entered details such as age, height and weight, De Sarkar works out each person’s body mass index, body fat index and body surface area, and how many calories they should consume per day.

The report goes back to the customer who makes the decision whether or not to sign up to the meal plan, or alternatively to have an extra consultation with De Sarkar.

“Sometimes she recommends booking a test to check cholesterol or something like that,” says D’Almeida.

“Somebody will come to your house or office to do it there if that’s easier for you. You can also have a video conference call. People in Dubai are very busy and even one hour out of the office can be a headache. We try to remove the barriers and make it easier for people.”

With all the data collected, the team work on putting together each person’s specific meal plan.

D’Almeida explains: “On the menu you have options for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but what happens then is those meals are customised to your body. It takes in certain preferences, allergies, the calories you should be consuming, and so on. Then the food is packaged and delivered to you.

“People are so surprised by what they receive, especially when they see we have given them carbs! Actually, even I questioned Mitun at first because it was all so tasty – I thought there had to be a mistake, but there wasn’t – it was just good, healthy food.

“The great thing is that we already have people feeling fitter and losing weight. We have a customer service team which calls people and asks if they have lost weight or if they feel better or have been getting compliments.

“Some people don’t like risking bad news, so they don’t weigh themselves, but quite often they can tell by the way their clothes hang.”

And so far, the uptake has been fast, something that surprises D’Almeida.

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“I was shocked it proved so popular so quickly. I assumed we’d have to go through lots of education. Health food is up against fast food, which is a tough prospect. I used to eat fried chicken five days a week when I was working in my old job. It’s not healthy, and it’s not right, but it’s easy to fall into it.”

On the topic, he adds that the price of healthier food is often the reason some people decide against it, saying: “If you ask me, Dubai needs more health food for the public, for everybody, not just the people with big salaries. It shouldn’t be a privilege for people with more money, it should be for everybody. But at the moment the healthy option isn’t easy for everyone.

“Companies have to take the plunge and take the risk. They have to offer healthy food at a good price. A company with good financial backing has to say ‘here’s a healthy lunch for AED20’ and then things might start to improve.

“Fast food is so huge. And the companies are targeting young children. It’s so bad for you and you start when you’re so young. But now there is more of a movement in favour of health food and against fast food.

“The UAE is so cosmopolitan, which means there are people from parts of the world where health food is more commonplace, and they are bringing their ideas and understanding here. It’s a bit like it was with cigarettes a while ago. People now know the toxins that they are putting into their body, and people are more informed about what they are putting into their stomach.”

Just a few months into operations, D’Almeida is prepared to take things slowly and build the business piece by piece. But his ambition is evident.

“We’re going to take things bit by bit, but I know where I want to be in five years,” he says.

“I want branches across the UAE and GCC, and if the right opportunity comes along, then internationally as well. Every part of the world will have its own challenges and we will have to tailor things to each country, but that’s something we can look at as and when we need to.”

And as for the competition in the increasingly popular health market, he remains both philosophical and positive.

“I’m not too worried about the competition. We entered the market late, and we are aware of that. There are people doing this already, but the way we are approaching it is a bit different. I researched the business not on what the competition is doing, but what people want. So as long as we keep doing that – giving people what they want – then hopefully we will do alright.”

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