Lists & Rankings

How Quebec meal-kit company Cook it rapidly grew and transformed during lockdown

The Montreal firm turned the ultimate test of survival—too much business, not enough staff—into a sterling revolution of company values

Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies
Cook it’s co-founder Judith Fetzer (Photograph by Stacy Lee)

Cook it’s co-founder Judith Fetzer (Photograph by Stacy Lee)

If one were to compare Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to most modern companies’ employee-compensation structures, they might start to notice some uncanny overlap. Where the American psychologist listed “physiological needs,” like food and shelter, on his oft-studied pyramid’s base, employers have salaries and water coolers (or Nespresso machines).  Climb ever further up the triangle, and intangibles like “belonging,” “esteem” and “self-actualization” crop up. But, in 2020, for Canadian companies grappling with the literal life-or-death cataclysm that is COVID-19, what place could fostering workers’ sense of purpose have in a pandemic?

If you asked the top brass at Quebec’s Cook it—the province’s first-ever ready-to-cook meal-kit company—their operation simply would not have survived to see a post-lockdown economy without a radical, new-found emphasis on its workforce’s intrinsic values.

Business Cinderella stories are a rarity in COVID-19’s economic climate, but Cook it (No. 21 on Growth 2020, with 3,860% growth over five years) is certainly one. Within three weeks of the shutdown, Judith Fetzer’s brainchild had achieved two years’ worth of projected profit growth; by week five, its revenue had tripled.

Founded in 2014 by Montreal mom of three Fetzer (and two partners), Cook it’s raison d’etre was to provide a plethora of locally sourced, nutritionist-approved and occasionally vegetarian meal options to reduce food waste and dinner-time decision-making stress within harried Québécois—and later, Ontarian and Maritime—family units.

After pivoting from an à la carte model to a subscription-based service in 2016, sales—and Cook it’s employee count—tripled within one year. In 2017, following a command performance by Fetzer on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, Arlene Dickinson and, later, Alain Bouchard—former CEO of convenience-store chain Alimentation Couche-Tard—signed on as key investors. And by December 2019, Cook it had all but levelled its direct competition, having acquired both Kuisto and Miss Fresh, the latter previously owned by Metro.

On the eve of Quebec’s (and greater Canada’s) COVID-19 shutdown, Cook it’s 200-strong workforce—marketers, customer service workers and production clerks—was sitting pretty, having upgraded into a 34,000-sq.-foot industrial facility. The rest is recent history: as of March 23, the province had all but shuttered, rendering meal-delivery services an essential—and suddenly incredibly lucrative—service.

For Fetzer and company, an already all-hands-on-deck situation now required even more hands, presenting what she called “a fun challenge.” Speaking to Cook it’s sunny CEO as she worked from home (and cared for her puddle-jumping son) in her Plateau neighbourhood in mid-July, it quickly became clear that Fetzer’s demeanour makes her suited to steer a rapidly growing team through a thorny acquisition, a physical move, a workforce integration and an unprecedented global health crisis, all within a single business quarter.

“I don’t really know what ‘risk’ is,” says Fetzer, who worked in Montreal’s bustling restaurant scene in her 20s before hopping continents to start her own commodities-importing business in Ghana on a whim with two friends. (Though a lover of uncertainty, for Fetzer, malaria was one wild card too far.) “Let’s enjoy the ride,” she says. “I still see Cook it through the eyes of a startup.”

To navigate the quarantine economy, Fetzer says Cook it’s existing team “came together like a big family,” though the shifts required of employees—18 hours per day, seven days a week to compensate for the insane uptick in demand—were “exhausting.” The next step, which involved the minuscule task of hiring 600 new workers, well, yesterday, required the formation of a six-person human-resources recruiting task force, headed up by Céline-Audrée Desautels—a friend of Fetzer’s and a chef whose vegan restaurant, Planté, was forced to postpone its opening. “We thought, ‘It can’t be that hard to find people to work when everyone’s losing their jobs,’ ” says Laurence Gagnon Beaudoin, Cook it’s director of marketing, half-laughing at her past ignorance.

Between the “27-hour shifts” and endless posting on Facebook and recruiting platforms, Desautels recalls that, at one point, the HR squad was hiring 50 workers per day to prepare food portions for packaging and carry out other labour-intensive tasks: laid-off teachers, single moms, foreign students and people who—in Beaudoin’s words—otherwise “weren’t content to sit at home and bake bread.” Some had “zero experience,” and some “only wanted to work one Monday every two weeks.” Which was fine by them.

But without a robust onboarding protocol in place, and compounded by the new health standards mandated by Quebec officials (read: masks and face shields), Cook it’s usual standards for candidates were sacrificed, which both Beaudoin and Desautels aren’t too proud to admit. (To put it bluntly: “It was a s–tshow,” Desautels says.) The 600 new workers were brought on with stunning expediency, the majority of whom went into the production facility. Within two months, half remained.

On top of the rapid exodus, the company’s usual error rate for meal-kit packaging—which tracks everything from shipping delays to missing garlic cloves—had quadrupled, from two to eight per cent.

It was a painful but necessary moment of reflection for Fetzer. “The business was thriving, but we weren’t necessarily the most welcoming employer at that time, which was already scary for workers,” she says. Customer subscriptions were increasing by 25% week over week, but internal morale had never been lower.

“COVID gave us the opportunity to rethink everything about our culture—to start a new startup, basically,” says Desautels. Among the changes were revamped training videos, a lengthy new checklist to ensure skill-building in new workers, and a “buddy” (or mentorship) system enacted to build relationships between supervisors and their subordinates. But, according to Desautels, the lion’s share—and most meaningful aspects—of Cook it’s top-down culture renewal addressed primarily emotional touchpoints, like “ambiance” and attitude. Or: the feel-good ephemerals closer to Maslow’s pyramid’s peak.

“When I started, some workers were like, ‘I’ve been here six months and no one’s ever asked me my name!’ ” says Desautels, audibly shaken. The installation of two chipper front-desk workers—or “sunshine girls” as the workers call them—were an unironic game-changer. Simply having a friendly face (or two) to wish Cook it’s factory staff a good morning, explain a punch-clock glitch, show new hires to the washrooms or ask how the bus ride was “may sound foolish,” says Desautels, “but before, all they had was an automated mailbox. Human connection matters.” Cook it’s long-standing talent pool got some extra love, too, especially considering how easy-going they were about the company’s new Zoom-centric meeting system. (The average age of a Cook it employee is 22.)

In short order—Cook it’s apparent preferred speed—the internal culture flourished: up popped daily cinq à septs (also live on Zoom), intra-office games and even optional history quizzes on Slack. The new sense of goodwill then overflowed: on Fetzer’s orders, Cook it donated 1,000 meal kits to workers in Quebec’s restaurant industry, hosted 11 a.m. cooking classes (starring Montreal-based chefs) for kids cooped up at home and added stock from local food suppliers to the company’s ingredient list to spotlight the province’s hard-working (and beleaguered) producers.

Desautels’ voice cracks when I ask what will carry Cook it through. “You know, it’s four degrees at some places in our packaging plant, and right now, with the masks, our people can hardly see anything,” she says. “They weren’t exactly too happy to come in, and we had to give them meaning [beyond] making boxes. So we told them, ‘Every day, you’re helping 12,000 families who can’t make it to the grocery store. You’re helping them eat. You’re helping them live.’ ”