Real Food, Real People.
Cohere engaged with Real Food Eatery at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the world closing down around everyone, the team came to us with a request to help supercharge their offering for Real Food at Home. The scope of work evolved into consultation and strategy-building process with co-founders John Colasante and Mike Mangold, working closely with Erik Oberholtzer and the entire Cohere team.
Like many founders, John and Mike have worn many hats throughout their restauranteur careers. From creating the initial concept to expanding it to three locations across Philadelphia, scaling a brand like theirs has taken years and countless everyday decision making.
What started as a project to promote their timely COVID offering – real food, ready to heat, delivered to your door – revealed a bigger question: What is real food? What differentiates their brand from everyone else out there offering quality ingredients in a convenient package ready to eat?
Though the answer was within the founders themselves, we revealed that the meaning of their brand had been diluted over the years. A combination of just trying to get things done, market economics, and consumer habits had shaped what was an initially-focused brand manifesto into something that was more broadly appealing and, as a result, weaker in conceptual strength as an offering.
In this Q&A session, Erik Oberholzter and the Cohere team wanted to dig into what it means to embody a brand based on the premise of “real food.” Speaking with founders is part of our process for revealing a brand story. Sometimes our support takes the form of a Ten Year Plan (TYP) or sometimes in informs a brand strategy or entire rebranding effort. In this case, asking the right questions revealed the need for a reinvented menu and supply chain for this Philadelphia fast-casual brand.
How did you guys get started?
We started Real Food Eatery (RFE) five years ago because we felt as though we’d tapped into a lifestyle that had a particular genre of food as its primary foundational block, and we found this lifestyle to be vibrant and inspiring. John had educated me on the notion of thoughtful eating, and it quickly began transformed my work life. We were highly inspired by the writings and philosophy behind The Paleo Diet, which I know is one of your clients. Dr. Loren Cordain was a huge influence on how we thought about food and our consumption habits.
When the idea was first hatched, John was working in tech and I was managing my landscaping business. The primary concentric circle that linked John and I together as friends was our interest in health/wellness, which spawned immediately following John’s initial influence on my diet, which had allowed me to lose 40 pounds and completely reinvigorate my energy levels.
Ultimately, we were at a point in our lives (and we certainly remain so, to this day) where we felt great and possessed a wealth of energy and good health, which we attributed largely to a real foods based food philosophy that was by all accounts a lifestyle, not a diet. Always satiated and satisfied by our meals. Our RFE launch was intended to spread this gospel and really introduce our way of living to Philadelphia.
What was the spark that got you interested in starting your own restaurant? What was the thinking that pushed you to say "let's do this"?
We spent years living in Philadelphia, observing what we perceived to be a general lack of understanding involving food, particularly in the fast casual space. There was a ton of emphasis on buzzwords like “sustainable” and “local,” but it seemed like the buck stopped there. There were words, but not much backing up those words. Worse yet, many of the words felt gimmicky. There was no place at the time where John or I could happily eat every day. So we decided to build that place.
Right, so your concept is rooted in "real food" - what does REAL mean to you? There are so many people that claim terms like natural, organic, local.
Well, it’s funny. Before we had even opened our first restaurant, we declared what was important to us in the form of a manifesto. John and I have always been very willing to learn. We like to absorb as much information as we can about a topic, and in this case, it was nutrition and the properties of food that are most nourishing. We built a declaration around what it would mean for us to bring a restaurant to life based on that information, based on our own lifestyle choices which focused around a specific approach to eating. To us, that was “real” because it was what we lived every day.
Real Food was created by the most brilliant designer and innovator: mother nature. Real Food means plants grown in rich soil. Real Food is humane and respectful. Real Food is protein from animals raised on their natural diets in a low-stress environment. Real Food is Brussel sprouts tossed in olive oil and fresh cracked sea salt, then roasted to crunchy, caramelized perfection in a hot oven. Real Food is eating until you are full, not stuffed, without guilt. Real Food sharpens your brain. Real Food is grown, cooked, and served by people who care. Real Food means run faster, stretch deeper, lift heavier. Real Food is simple, but not always the easy-there difference. Real Food unites. Real Food is unprocessed. Real Food is long meals, close friends, hysterical laughter. Real food is honest and transparent. Real Food is knowing exactly what you are eating. Real Food is sleeping deeply and waking up refreshed. Real Food is quality ingredients. Real Food is constantly asking questions, learning, and forming your own opinions. Real Food is not a fad. Real Food will never go out of style. Real Food is timeless. Real Food is here.
We started working with you just as the global COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in the US. What was that "itch" you were hoping to originally scratch by partnering with Cohere?
Personally, I was hoping to have Cohere articulate for me precisely what, of all of the things that RFE means and does, resonates most deeply with the most number of people. John and I have so much to offer, but we’ve never understood how best to convey that in a way that not only inspires people, but also makes money. We believe ourselves to be capable and also humble, and were eager to explore how to improve our ability to capitalize on and improve upon all of our goals, across the board: inspire others to live like us, educate a public on the merits of a real food lifestyle, serve awesome food all of the time, and cultivate a sustainable business that can continue to grow.
Over the last few months, what has been the upside of taking the time to refine your approach now during this pandemic?
A silver lining for us, personally, has been the attention we’ve granted to the delicacy of our menu. There is nothing more disheartening than having a beautiful vegetable, preparing it thoughtfully, and allowing it to wither and degrade inside of a hot well until it’s more suited for a trashcan than for a customer’s bowl. We’ve put tremendous focus in re-calibrating our kitchen methodology in an effort to produce smaller batches with higher frequency. We’ve met the slower pacing of things head on, and made an internal agreement that optimal freshness may mean a bit of a wait. Our customers have for the most part been understanding, and many have vocalized a detectable difference in quality.
This paradigm shift has given us pause, and compelled us to re-think not only our process, but our overall menu and our supply chain. Two recent articles (Finding Compatibility Between Ourselves and Our Food Choices and Savor The Seasons) were undoubtedly influenced by the intimacy achieved when our kitchens began more closely resembling home cooking environments, feeling less and less like commercial food prep factories.
Stick with Real Food Eatery as they continue to evolve and you’ll be in for a treat. These guys are sharp, they’re dedicated to improvement, and they are genuinely interested in providing food that’s optimal for your health. Check out their new menu at realfoodeatery.com