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Man who can’t make toast becomes CEO of $12m food company

Lucy Dean
·6-min read
Tomi Jurlina has launched a successful food business. Image: Supplied
Tomi Jurlina has launched a successful food business. Image: Supplied

When Workout Meals CEO Tomi Jurlina was first seeing his now-fiancé, she came down with a nasty bug.

Eager to help her rest and recuperate, Jurlina made her a cup of tea and a piece of buttered toast.

“She sent it back and said, ‘I’m not going to eat this.’ That’s when I realised how bad I was,” Jurlina told Yahoo Finance.

Today, he’s the co-founder of $12 million fitness-focussed ready-made meal company, Workout Meals. Here’s how he got there.

From $700 to $12 million success

Founders Tomi Jurlina and Dean Deakin. Image: Supplied
Founders Tomi Jurlina and Dean Deakin. Image: Supplied

Jurlina was working in media in 2012 when he first had the idea for Workout Meals. He’d been going to the gym and his personal trainer gave him a food routine.

He looked at it and baulked. “I really hate cooking,” he said, but to achieve his fitness goals, there was a lot of time in the kitchen involved.

He asked whether there was anyone who supplied the pre-made meals and was told he’d probably need to employ a personal chef.

That’s when he, and his friend and co-founder Dean Deakin hatched their idea.

Deakin had more of a food background, while Jurlina was more technologically savvy, so they decided to each invest $700 to build a website that would offer pre-made meals crafted with exercise and physical goals in mind.

“We made a few flyers and a Facebook page. Facebook was a little different then, it was a little bit more organic. People found [our service] interesting, because we didn’t exist, so it was easier to get some attention,” he said.

“The first orders came through and we were excited, and then we got more orders and more orders and we authentically grew from day to day.”

A rocky road

At first, Jurlina and Deakin continued working their jobs at News Limited, so were waking up at 6am to chop beans, cook and deliver the food: an irony that was not lost on Jurlina.

“I started the whole thing because I didn’t want to cook,” he said. “But I ended up cooking for other people.”

They were delivering simple but healthy food in different portions and gram sizing.

But they quickly learned that this wasn’t the secret: if people were paying for pre-made food, they didn’t want plain food. They would want to hit their nutritional goals but eat something that wasn’t just chicken, vegetables and rice.

They also learned that allowing people to choose the size of their protein, rice and salad presented a big challenge when it came to scaling the company.

“There wasn’t really any stress testing [of the idea],” he said. “We literally could write a book on all of the mistakes that we’ve made.

“It’s a miracle that we’re still around.”

Scaling secrets: Technology and talk

Some of the meals on offer. Image: Workout Meals
Some of the meals on offer. Image: Workout Meals

Jurlina said Workout Meals needed two things to truly hit its stride: it needed to incorporate a solid technological foundation and listen to its customers.

“Once you’ve got hundreds and then thousands of orders, [technology] is how you facilitate that to get it to the customers as quickly as possible,” he said.

“Because I’ve got a technology background I started with something small, and I called it my kitchen centre. So when an order comes though, it gets put into the kitchen centre which will calculate stock, labels and logistics.”

Workout Meals can get tens of thousands of orders in one day, but the technological framework means they can be handled immediately.

“It does all the thinking for us, so our kitchen knows immediately how much they need to cook, where it’s going and when it’s going out. And the customer knows when they’re getting it.”

Workout Meals products are made by a staff of 30 in their industrial kitchen in Lane Cove (“I hate it there,” said Jurlina), with mainly Australian products, many of which are farmed on Workout Meals’ own farm.

The other part of the piece was listening to customers more.

While Jurlina said he and Deakin tried to “stick to their guns” early on in terms of delivering simple, healthy food, they quickly learned they needed to shift gears to meet their customers half way.

“Once we understood what they wanted, we tried to cater to something around that,” he said. But there are limits: if their customers want something “ridiculous”, they won’t do it for the sake of a gimmick.

“But we do listen to what they want in terms of flavours, tastes and the different types of options and allergens.”

The meals are devised by a chef and a nutritionist, which Jurlina likens to a battle. The executive chef is searching for flavour, while the nutritionist is checking off macros and micros.

“It means that every meal has a home, whether that’s low carb or high fibre. And it means that when someone comes to our website, they’ll go to our questionnaire and they’ll leave with something that’s suitable for them. We try to cater to that person as much as possible.”

Tips for others

Jurlina’s advice for those looking to launch their own business is direct.

“If they’ve got a lot of sanity to burn, they’re cool. But if they don’t then, it’s very tough. It’s the hardest thing - I’ve got kids, and this is much harder than my children,” he said.

“This is all day and all night. We’re dealing with developers and it’s non-stop, and whenever you think that something’s going to come to an end or it’s going to get easier because a project is over, it’s not.”

He admitted that he’s considered closing the business many times, due to the sheer toll of it on his work-life balance.

“But there’s always enough there to keep us going, and right now it’s going leaps and bounds.”

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