It is 100% possible to start a meal prep business, be your own boss, and make a healthy income.

As long as you’re willing to put in the work upfront and follow these steps, you’ll get there.

9 Steps to Start a Meal Prep Business

Go through each of these steps to start your meal prep business:

  1. Check the Requirements in Your State
  2. Check if Your City is Large Enough
  3. Register Your LLC
  4. Get Business Registrations, Permits, and Insurance
  5. Find Your Commercial Kitchen
  6. Grind Your Way to Your First 3 Customers
  7. Find Steady Sources of New Customers
  8. Standardize Your Offers and Clients
  9. Delegate the Labor Intensive and Low Value Parts of Your Business

How a Meal Prep Business Works

I haven’t built a meal prep business myself but I have worked with a bunch of them as a customer. And I’ve built a bunch of businesses of my own. Including a service business that reached six figures per year.

Here’s what I see working in the meal prep game.

You’ll work locally, don’t bother with regional or nationwide shipping. All the major companies that go after that market really struggle. Blue Apron anyone? Selling meals for $15 a pop and trying to figure out how to ship them across the country is not fun.

I’ve tried a bunch of these services and they all struggle with delivery. Either food perishes or the packages get damaged. Even if you overcome that, customers get sick of the same food profile pretty quickly. Churn in this industry is atrocious and you’ll be losing customers as fast as you acquire them. That’s exactly what killed Blue Apron.

Overall, nationwide food delivery is a race to the bottom.

Instead, sell to high-value customers in your city. There are a lot of high-earning folks that don’t have time to deal with cooking. They want tasty, healthy food that shows up at their door and they’re willing to pay for it. You can easily charge $30+ for meals like this. And good clients will do weekly meal deliveries with you for years. Add on high-ticket special events for their group dinners and you’ll make more money than a lot of folks in the restaurant industry.

This is your game plan:

  • Build a customer base of high paying customers, give them high quality service so they stick around.
  • Do weekly meal prep and special event cooking for them.
  • Cook in their kitchens or deliver meals to their homes.
  • Stay local to avoid shipping costs and food perishability issues.
  • Rent kitchen space to keep your overhead low.

If you do all this, you can work your own hours, be your own boss, and clear $50-100K per year.

1. Check the Requirements in Your State

For a lot of service based businesses, you can just jump straight in. Better to skip business registrations, business plans, business cards, and all that stuff. The first business ideas usually don’t work out and people have to iterate on their business idea until things take off.

This is exactly how I got going with freelance marketing out of college.

But meal prep needs more…prep.

First, food service is regulated to some degree in every state. State and city agencies take health inspections seriously.

Second, there’s real risk. If you accidentally use a bad ingredient and get a client sick, you could be in some real hot water. You want to be following all the regulations to protect yourself. You also want to be working under an LLC in order to avoid personal liability.

Again, I usually advise folks to skip the boring bureaucratic nonsense and just start trying to close customers in order to test their business. But it’s not a good idea to do that with food service businesses. We’re going to have to start with boring paperwork stuff.

So check your state licensing requirements for a food service business and make sure your plans are feasible.

2. Check if Your City is Large Enough

Honesty time: your success in the meal prep business game is 80% determined by which city you live in.

If you live in a city with enough high earners, you’ll do just fine. If you live in a smaller city, you’ll probably get stuck with a standard catering business that does some meal prep on the side.

I live in Seattle and there are at least a few dozen meal prep businesses that have been around for awhile. There’s plenty of folks that can afford to pay for meal prep here.

A quick way to check is to google around for “[your city] meal prep” and see if there are other businesses. Don’t make the rookie mistake and assume no competition is a good thing. Most likely, that means the market isn’t big enough. Sure, you might be able to scratch out a living on the margins but the odds are not in your favor.

If your dream is set on building a meal prep business, you might need to move to a larger city in order to have enough prospects.

Yes, it’s always possible to carve out a niche somewhere that no one would ever expect. If you find one, go after it. Just don’t expect to materialize one out of thin air. If you’re banging your head against the wall, move to a larger city.

3. Register Your LLC

You’ll find lots of information about all the different types of businesses you can have. Partnerships, s-corps, all sorts of stuff.

Here’s the quick answer on the type of business you should have: set up an LLC. It’s ideal for two reasons:

  • Helps protect your personal assets from any liability from your business. That’s the big downside of a sole proprietorship, if there’s ever a claim on the business, your personal assets are up for grabs. Get some separation between yourself and your business. Especially since you’re working with food.
  • LLCs are pretty flexible. You can change how they’re taxed and modify lots of stuff as you go along. So it keeps the most doors open to you.

While there are a bunch of online legal services that will offer to help you register your business, they don’t actually save you time or money. They just throw a bunch of useless upsells at you, hoping you pay for them out of ignorance.

The easiest way to register your LLC is to Google “[your state] LLC registration” and it’ll come right up. After setting a bunch of businesses ourselves, we prefer to just go straight to the state agencies. There really isn’t another way to save time or money.

4. Get Business Registrations, Permits, and Insurance

Most states have two types of business registrations you should be looking at.

Catering Businesses

A catering business is usually the best fit. You have an agreement for the food ahead of time, you prepare the food in a registered location (usually a commercial kitchen that you have access to), the food is delivered, and no food is sold at the location itself.

As an example, here’s the exact definition of a catering business in Washington State:

“A food business that provides food service at events or facilities either public or private with a prior order or agreement with a customer for a set amount of food or for food for a set number of people. Food must be pre-ordered or agreed upon prior to the event and cannot be purchased separately at the time of the event.”

Cottage Food Permits

This is for farmers and other small businesses to make low-risk food in their own kitchen that they can sell at farmers markets and similar venues. Here’s the Washington state definition:

“A Cottage Food Permit allows a resident of Washington State to make food that is not potentially hazardous such as baked goods, candies, jams, jellies, preserves, fruit butters, dry spice blends, or dry tea blends in their primary residential kitchen.”

Probably too limiting for your meal prep business but your state may be different.

Health Department Permits

Also check your city health departments, they’ll likely have another permit that you need to get in order to operate in that area.

Business Insurance

Food service businesses will often require insurance in order to operate. As you’re working through the permits and licenses, be sure to ask around and check on the insurance requirements for your city.

Always Check Food Service Permits for Your State

But every state and city is different. You need to check it yourself. This stuff also changes frequently. Go to the source and don’t trust some random blog (including ours).

Most importantly, if you’re not sure if the regulations match your business plans, call your state agency. Sometimes the only way to get your answer is through a phone call. We’ve had to do this regularly when running our business. If the rules aren’t abundantly clear, get a state agency employee on the phone. They can usually clarify things right up.

And once you find one agency, ask them if there are other permits, license, or insurance that you should be aware of. They’ll point you in the right direction.

And if you have any friends that have set up a food service business in the same area, definitely ask them. They’ll know it all cold.

5. Find Your Commercial Kitchen

I’m going to assume that your state requires your business to work out of a commercial kitchen that gets regular food inspections. If you’ve confirmed that this isn’t a requirement for your state, then go ahead and skip this step. Working out of your own kitchen will save you a lot of money.

If you have contacts in the industry, you might be able to use the commercial kitchen of an operating restaurant during their downtime. Double check the details of this with your city health department and state licensing agencies. Yes, you could save a lot of money but you don’t want to get your business shut down by a state agency just as you’re getting going.

For most folks, you’re going to want to find a commissary kitchen in your city. A commissary kitchen is a commercial kitchen that rents out space to folks. Many offer monthly memberships so you can count on having the space you need.

Rates vary widely but I did check out some of the commissary kitchens in Seattle, many like this one offer space for $500-2,000/month depending on the frequency and the exact shift that you need.

Commissary kitchens are another great resource to help you navigate all the licenses, permits, and insurance requirements in your city. They deal with new food service businesses all the time and know exactly what you’ll need to do.

6. Grind Your Way to Your First 3 Customers

At this point, you’ve got all your licenses and permits, you also have kitchen space.

What now?

This is where the hard part begins.

When folks start services businesses, the BIGGEST surprise is how much time has to go into customer acquisition (sales and marketing). Getting a new customer is hard work, no one will show up automatically.

Also, it takes some trial and error to find the perfect match of these two things:

  1. Your ideal target market
  2. Your service

One service might work great for one target market but another market might not care at all. Or a target market wants the service but doesn’t have the ability to pay for it.

In entrepreneurship, we call this product/market fit. You have a great business when you have a clear, concise offer of your service and a clearly defined target market that really wants that service.

Here’s some examples:

  • CEOs of mid-size businesses in your city, looking for clean meals delivered every week
  • Families where both parents have stressful, high-earning jobs, and want custom meals for family gatherings and major events
  • Businesses that want to do weekly catering (taco tuesdays) for their employees but aren’t large enough to have a full-time kitchen staff on the payroll

These markets might be good, they might not. The point is you’ll need to brainstorm some target markets that you think would be a good fit for the vision of your business.

Then you need to test those target markets one at a time.

The best way to test a target market is by cold outreach. Find some way to get a hold of those people, then ask them directly if they want to know more about your business. And if they are interested, try to close them.

Your goal at this stage is to get 3 paying customers. That’s it. Don’t worry about Instagram accounts, SEO marketing, or anything else. Get scrapy, find lists of people that match your target market, then try to pitch them on your offer. Once you have 3 paying customers, you can start building your business.

If you pitch 50-100 people in a target market and don’t get a single customer, it’s time to change the target market and/or the offer. Switch it up, try something radically different that you’re still excited about.

This is the exact process I used to get my freelance marketing business off the ground out of college. It’s a grind but it always works.

7. Find Steady Sources of New Customers

Once you have at least 3 paying customers, it’s time to get a more strategic.

Even though cold outreach always works to get more customers, you want a source that will bring you customers consistently.

Here’s some examples:

  • A well-reviewed yelp profile that ranks for “[your city] meal prep”
  • A website that ranks for “[your city] meal prep” or “[your city] personal chef”
  • Relationships with local personal trainers, nutritionists, and doctors that can refer clients to you
  • Local advertising to your target market that brings you a steady flow of customers

The key is to start building the customer acquisition machine of your business so you don’t have to personally acquire every customer.

Also, don’t neglect the power of word-of-mouth. For any business of any kind, word-of-mouth marketing drives the vast majority of business. If you truly delight your customers, they will talk about you. Oftentimes the best thing you can do to grow your business early on is to go above and beyond for your early customers.

8. Standardize Your Offers and Clients

As you grow, things will start to get hectic. You’re working on marketing, closing new customers, trying to keep current customers happy, fulfilling service requests, and doing all the business admin stuff.

The easiest way to get control at this stage is to start standardizing everything you’re doing. You’ve probably tested out lots of different service structures. Single meals, family meals, weekly meal deliveries, larger events, catering, and everything in between. Chaos and experimentation is great early on, you need to figure out what works for you.

But once your nerves start to get frayed, standardize your offers and the clients that you serve. You can take your business a lot further if you offer the same thing to the same type of person. Then you won’t be running around trying to customize everything for everyone. You’ll deliver more work in less time, resulting in more profit for your business.

Here’s some examples of what that looks like:

  • Offering meal prep for a specific type of diet
  • No longer doing any catering of any kind
  • Focusing on group dinners for special events
  • Only taking on clients that can commit to X deliveries a month

There’s tons of ways to standardize your business. The goal is to craft a repeatable service that’s ideal for clients that you enjoy working with.

9. Delegate the Labor Intensive and Low Value Parts of Your Business

The last step to getting your business off the ground is to bring in some help.

Running your business, crafting menus, doing all the food prep, the cooking itself, and delivering meals will overwhelm anyone. You’re going to need help.

The key is to find the labor-intensive parts of your business that don’t have a pivotal impact on the customer. Too obvious areas for a meal prep business are meal deliveries and food prep. As soon as you can, get some help here. That’ll allow you to spend more time on vital areas like:

  • Improving your marketing
  • Onboarding new customers
  • Crafting menus and ensuring food quality is high
  • Interfacing directly with your long term customers

Before you know it, you’ll have a thriving meal prep business. Now the sky’s the limit and entirely up to you. You could optimize the business to free up more of your time (a lifestyle business) while keeping your income stable. Or you could try to grow and expand. It’s entirely up to you.