Interview: How Frozen Food Startup Mosaic Is Disrupting The Category With A DTC Subscription Service
PSFK speaks to the founders of the digital-native brand that is working to fix frozen, realizing the potential of the category to offer today's health-conscious consumers convenient and quality options that compromise neither taste nor nutrition
Frozen food has not traditionally been the most exciting category in consumers' minds. Walking down the frozen aisle can feel hopeless, like a compromise of either quality or health. Enter Mosaic, a direct-to-consumer startup that takes a different approach to frozen, taking stock of the vertical's untapped potential to provide consumers with meals cooked with care and delivered straight to their door.
The just-launched brand offers consumers the chance to pick from all-inclusive meal bowls like Greek Jackfruit and Smoky Southwest to Tuscan Pesto, providing a variety of cuisines from around the world. PSFK had the chance to interview the founders, Sam McIntire and Matthew Davis, to find out about what led to the founding of the all-vegetarian brand, why going the DTC route enables them to better serve consumers and why they believe this is only the beginning of a new era for frozen.
PSFK: How did you get started at Mosaic? What trends were you noticing in the frozen food space in general?
Matthew: I came to this business not necessarily as a frozen food insider, but as somebody pretty deep in the food industry. Frozen was something that I was thinking about a lot before leaving Blue Apron and before jumping in on this venture.
In terms of trends that we were watching and seeing develop within the space, the most notable thing within the frozen category is it's growing again. There are a few reasons for that. One is that frozen got caught up in consumer perspectives from the '90s and the early 2000s, where people moved away from processed and prepackaged foods in general because there was a lot of valid skepticism and criticism about them—a lot of artificial ingredients, a lot of preservatives.
It's a head stretch as to what was going into those dinosaur‑shaped chicken nuggets or purple ketchup. It's so funny now, but it was so normal then. Frozen got caught up in it. Part of that was fair, because a lot of the big companies that were in frozen were breaking the rules, creating products engineered for cost or cravability and not necessarily what's good for the body. Consumers wised up and moved away.
Over the last four, five years, we've started to see this turn around: Frozen's heating up. People started to realize that the vegetables you find in the freezer might actually be fresher than the ones you that you find in the perishable section of the grocery floor. Consumers are starting to realize that you should wonder where asparagus comes from in November. That's the biggest trend.
That's what got us excited about the space. It's a big part of why we decided to go ahead and tackle it. We talked more about our perspective on how frozen should be and why we're so confident that it can be better than it is today.
Was there a particular moment that motivated you to found Mosaic?
Sam: Definitely. The biggest moment for me was just walking down the frozen food aisle, looking at the products that are there and thinking, “This section of the grocery store has lost its way.”
It's making progress, but for or the most part, the majority of the aisles are still back in the '90s. A lot of food still has preservatives and artificial ingredients. When you heat it up and you try the food, it's not super enjoyable. For me, the motivating and inspiring moment was just spending time in an aisle looking at the packages, buying the food, trying it myself and realizing, “Man, we can do better than this.” That was what Mosaic is all about: Bringing fresh ingredients, real cooking and exciting packaging back in the industry.
I'd love to hear more about how you approached researching and developing the products Mosaic offers.
Sam: We've got a line of six vegetarian grain bowls, products that we really wanted to bring to market to create some stark contrast with what you would find in the aisles today. For us, it was about making it easy to eat well. A lot of the best stuff in the frozen aisle today still doesn't make you feel that great.
We wanted to make it so that consumers would eat our meals, enjoy them and then afterwards feel amazing about it. We started cooking and established the vegetarian grain bowl concept. That's what we're cooking at home. An example is our tofu dish—farro‑grain‑based. On top of that, we do three more fruits or vegetables: got grilled pineapple, roasted broccoli and sweet roasted peppers as well.
The dishes are actually mostly fruits and vegetables by weight. All of our dishes are tied together with a sauce and additional component that brings a different vector to the dish. In this example, our sauce is a peanut satay, the component being the crushed peanuts—those help bring some contrast and a little bit more flavor to the dish.
How did you decide on which cuisines and which diets to cater to with your products? Was there research that you conducted or any consumer feedback that you incorporated?
Sam: Definitely. The overarching dietary theme of the product is they're all vegetarian and they're all very nutritionally balanced. We took a balanced holistic approach to the macros in the bowls. They're all packed with protein and fiber, which is really cool to see in a plant‑based product.
We're really excited to be launching with a vegetarian product because a lot of trends in the food industry are pointing that way. A lot of research has come out recently talking about how plant‑heavy diets are better for us. There's this crazy statistic that 85% of Americans don't eat their recommended daily value of vegetables. It's really impacting our health as a nation. It can be hard to eat vegetables for some, as fresh produce is hard to come by and it's expensive. It also takes a lot of time to cook for yourself.
We wanted to make meals that were packed with vegetables, nutritionally really dense and hardy, but also packed with whole grains and stuff consumers want to eat.
In terms of flavor profiles, they're very global. We have a dish with a Thai-style coconut peanut sauce. We have a dish with a sweet lemon miso sauce. We've drawn inspiration from cuisines all around the world to add variety to the flavors that we're going to market with.
What advantages and also challenges do you face as a DTC brand in competition with some of these bigger players on the market?
Sam: It's a great question. There are a couple of things that are special about we're doing things. One is we get to start from scratch. For better or worse, a lot of big companies come with baggage. If you have a strong brand, that's a powerful thing. You're known for a certain thing and people love that. There are certainly strong brands out there who have that appeal. Trader Joe's is an example. That's a strong brand. Everyone knows it. People love it.
On the other hand, most of the volume in the frozen aisles is going to brands that I'd say have checkered pasts. A lot of folks are not that compelled by Lean Cuisine. They've had a bad experience with Stouffer's. Not to name names, but a lot of the big ones are brands that don't resonate with consumers. We get to start from scratch and build that from the ground up.
The second thing is we have a unique advantage: There aren't many companies selling direct to consumer today. Almost all of the products in this category are sold mass retail—in grocery stores and club stores and places like that.
With direct‑to‑consumer relationships, we're in a really cool spot because we get the demographics of our customers. We get to talk to them. There is a direct customer service relationship and through that, we're hoping that when it comes time to make new recipes, we've got more information than a lot of the big names would have on what consumers really want to eat and what they'd like to see improved.
We're constantly getting feedback to improve our service as well. We'll know whether it's our subscription, or delivery, or the taste of the meals. Hopefully, that continuous feedback makes us a better business over time.
Where is a lot of that feedback taking place? Is it on social media or is it directly on your site? How are you reaching with your consumers?
Sam: Believe it or not, so far it's been phone calls. When we first were starting this company, we did a small trial with friends and family. We had a bunch of folks in it and talked with many of them on the phone—very long, in‑depth detailed conversations on, how are you using the product? When are you using it? What would you like to see improved, and what are the things you love the most about it?
Also being able to email a customer of ours and say, “Hey. We're the founders of this company. We'd love to chat. Help us build something amazing,” is something that's unique to a direct‑to‑consumer company and something that's extraordinarily powerful. We've already made a lot of changes to our products based on that early feedback.
As we launch and go out into the world, we're going to keep talking to customers and keep figuring out what's working and what's not to continue improving.
How do you imagine Mosaic will continue to transform? Is there anything that you can share maybe one to two years out?
Sam: For right now, we're very focused on launch and just trying to make sure our initial customers love our product. We're doing more of what we do best and we're changing things that need improvement. In the longer term, I'd say later say this year, what you're going to see is expansion on the product side.
We've currently got six bowls we're super proud of. We're actually already working on a new wave of products and we'll hopefully be able to release those mid‑year. That way, the folks who join us now at the beginning are able to see some new options and some variety introduced as the months go by.
Thinking even longer‑term, there are a lot of inspirational stories out there about brands doing frozen differently. There is something special about what Trader Joe's has done, and how consumers really love that retail experience that they've created.
There is also inspiration from abroad, for example Picard in France. They’ve been one of the more inspirational stories for us in terms of what you can do if you really nail the product and you build a brand that customers trust. In France, they are just the paramount of excellence in the category, and really a poster child for frozen businesses everywhere. There's really no limit to where you can take the frozen category.
When we think more than two years out, we're thinking about how could we make a retail experience that's differentiated? What kind of product lines can we get into that really expand and elevate the category here in the States? Those are some of the ideas that we have moving forward.