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Dorm to Riches

Jan/08/2023 / by Pratika Yashaswi
Ooshma Garg

How Ooshma Garg’s Gobble became the first and only profitable acquisition in the direct-to-consumer food business.

When you meet Ooshma Garg, serial entrepreneur and founder and CEO of 15-minute meal kit service Gobble, you can’t help but be inspired and impressed—and not in the least because she’s a Forbes and Inc Magazine 30 under 30 honoree. Her company, which became profitable in 2019, was recently acquired by global meal and supplement solutions conglomerate Intelligent Foods — the first and only profitable acquisition in the D2C food industry to date.

Daughter of physicians and physician-scientists, Garg grew up with the enviable luxury of having nutritious and delicious food prepared by her father every day. Chief of Nutrition and Endocrinology at UT Southwestern in Dallas, he inspired in his daughter a soulful appreciation of home cooking, which she turned into a hugely successful, profitable, debt-free business.

Today, Gobble has fulfilled hundreds of millions of dollars in orders across the continental US. It has grown sustainably and profitably without external capital for over four years. Thanks to Gobble, its acquiring company Intelligent Foods will now have the capacity to produce more than $1.5 billion in food products annually across its facilities.

Garg’s history of entrepreneurship dates back to high school. Her first “serious” business, which was in the field of recruitment, began her junior year in her dorm room at Stanford (where she was studying biomechanical engineering). She confesses she didn’t get much sleep during that period. She had raised all the beds in her 200 feet dorm room to the ceiling and put desks under them, a true-blue dorm-room startup. For much of the time, she was sleeping in friends’ rooms. “I was just very scrappy and enthralled with the idea of building a company,” she says.

SEEMA sat down with Garg for a scintillating conversation on Gobble, her story and how tech is changing people’s relationship with food.

Ooshma Garg

Gobble was recently acquired by Intelligent Foods, and you’re now CEO of both Sunbasket and Gobble. What does that mean to you both professionally and personally?

My friends are calling it a decade-long overnight success. It means a lot to me because building Gobble has taken up my entire adult life. It’s one thing to have an ending to a chapter. But it’s another thing for that to be truly a dream come true, something very successful. And that’s not always guaranteed. Gobble has been through many ups and downs. There were numerous times we almost ran out of money or funding… Underneath this hair is all tons of gray hair. I feel like an 80-year-old on the inside. But I am very grateful. This year, we found a partner that saw so much value in what we had built. And it was the right fit, not a forced fit. So that was special.

Gobble’s technology maps each person’s tastes to develop the perfect weekly playlist, so to speak, for their diet preferences. And that’s an interesting example of how tech is transforming people’s relationships with food, but it’s also personalizing it for people’s particular needs and wants. Tell us a little bit about that. Why did you decide to do it that way? What was the intention?

It wasn’t easy at all. Finding the algorithm to your tastes is one of the most challenging machine learning problems out there. People eat three to four times a day, but their eating preferences vary for each meal period. So you might be willing to have the same breakfast multiple days in a row multiple times a week, but maybe you want something different for dinner? And then, how often do you want to eat the same dinner before you get bored of it? And that’s just talking about repeatability. Someone might say that they’re eating healthy, but their order behavior is very different from their stated preferences. How do we give you what you want without insulting you and saying, “Well, we know that you like this, even though your goals are different.” So, there’s just so much nuance even regarding personal preferences, allergens and so on. It’s an exciting and challenging problem. And I think we’ve made a lot of headway with the tens of thousands of data points we collect every week. And what’s exciting is that once you’re collecting and analyzing that data, you can streamline the back end of the operations. So what I’d like to do is have, for example, 50 ingredients and, with those ingredients, make completely different personalized meals for every single person in our membership.

Ooshma Garg

The initial days for a startup founder can be quite lonely. Nobody seems to love your idea. And you have to knock on many doors and get no as an answer. How did you keep yourself motivated?

Well, you’re right. It is very lonely. There are many nights when you’re working until the wee hours and eating whatever fast food is, is available. And I think the motivation came from two places: One is that when I saw someone interested in what I was building, or paying money for my website, or my service, or the food I was providing —that is very intoxicating. It’s so validating and fulfilling to create something with your own hands that people value. That kept me motivated through all those internal struggles and dark times —that there were people out there interested in giving me a positive review and wanting me to succeed. Beyond that, there’s just been this fire in my heart, I guess, from starting the business from something very true to myself.

Gobble has been making life easier for many people: from tennis superstars like Serena Williams to regular students. Do you have one memorable story of somebody who’s a delighted user? Something that sort of sticks in your mind, something you’ll always remember?

One story sticks out in particular. I was interviewing a gentleman who wanted to work at our company. And at the very end, he shared with me that he’d been a Gobble member recently. He shared that he had gotten divorced in the last year, and it turned his life upside down because his ex-wife used to do all the cooking, and he gets his son every other week. He was still struggling with building a home or getting into a rhythm with his son. And so, he started using Gobble, which helped him learn how to cook and made it easy with the 15-minute dinner kits. But the story he shared with me was that a couple of weeks into that, his son looked up at him as he was cooking and said, ” Dad, it feels like we’re a family again”. And that stuck because it’s not about the food, necessarily. It’s not the spaghetti, or the chicken tikka masala. To give to people that sense of relationship and and closeness over something I built—that’s very special.

Gobble’s is an inspiring success story, especially for those who might be considering going the entrepreneurship route. So, especially for young South Asian women and girls— who might be daunted by the idea of starting their own company — What is your advice?

My advice is to begin anyway. And what I mean by that is, no matter what anybody else says or tells you, or the hurdle you encounter or your impostor syndrome or self-talk, to take the one step, to begin and to get comfortable, just one more step forward. And then after that, to take another step and another step. Sometimes, we freeze ourselves because we’re so worried about 10 steps ahead. But if we can break it down into just the next thing, or the next day one day, you’ll look back and see, wow, you climbed a whole mountain.

What have been some of the key learnings from your entrepreneurial journey?

I believe that thinking big is a learned skill. I thought my first company idea was a tremendous idea. And when I went to fundraise, I received feedback that it was a niche idea, that it was something that I could build without funding. That had only a certain market cap. And I took offense to that, because my company was a reflection of my identity, and I felt like people were saying that I was less than other entrepreneurs. However, after making products and going through the idea maze, I learned that I had chosen a niche for my business, and perhaps I could think even bigger. That’s one big change that occurs by just not studying, but by starting, and just getting out there. And learning by doing, I learned how to think bigger and bigger, and scale my efforts. And so that was beneficial when now I’m leading over 1000 employees and hundreds of millions of dollars of business a year in food revenue, and I’m hoping to continue growing.

Ooshma Garg

What was the small idea? And what’s your definition of what’s the bigger idea?

Well, the first idea was what we called Peer-to-Peer Lasagna, and how it manifested was, we had an online marketplace for people to order homecooked food from other people, like hobbyist chefs, aunties and uncles and grandmas and grandpas nearby. So when I first started Gobble, we had home chefs in the Bay Area making some extra portions of food. And I was the delivery driver picking up that food and delivering it to hungry kids or employees at tech startups late at night. But that model wasn’t very scalable. Once, an Italian woman’s eggplant parmesan got popular. But she wasn’t able to make 200 of them per night. She was only able to fulfill 20. In addition, we were limited by how far we could drive. And if you’re only paying 5 or 6 dollars for delivery, someone can’t drive from San Jose to San Francisco two hours to deliver the food.

I learned that by doing and saw how hard we were working to fulfill a limited amount of potential. And that’s where the iteration comes in. I thought about how we could reach more people, and that’s how we came upon refrigerated shipments. And now, instead of just seven miles, we could reach seven states across the West Coast. And that was so exciting for me. By a simple change in the model, I didn’t have to earn that growth, I just had to be smart enough to design that growth.

You must have a packed schedule. What do you do to unwind? What are your other interests besides food?

Well, I’m a big fan of the outdoors, and I live near Golden Gate Bridge. There are a number of parks in San Francisco, where I go for walks almost over an hour long every day, just to clear my head as a kind of walking meditation and just to be with the outdoors. It’s so grounding and important. Also, I just love learning…I don’t have just one hobby…I’m always going out and reading new books or exploring new places. Really soaking up all the different museum exhibits and live musicians and, arts and culture here. I’m just a big fan of putting myself out there learning and experiencing new things.