MamaSezz enters growing meal delivery niche with whole food, plant-based fare.
When Meg Donahue, co-founder of MamaSezz, Googled “how do you survive congestive heart failure” late one evening in 2012, she wasn’t hoping to find a miracle cure, she simply wanted her mother to have a little more time holding her newborn baby granddaughter.
Suffering from congestive heart failure and given only a few weeks to live, Meg brought her mom, Millie, home from the hospital the same week she brought her tiny daughter, born at just 26 weeks, home from the NICU. “What a trio we were,” said Meg. “All three of us were a mess.”
Exhausted, but desperate to care for her family, Meg’s Google search revealed what she already knew—there was no magic pill that would cure Millie. However, the results turned up Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, an advocate of whole food, plant-based diets to reverse heart disease, and Meg figured she had little to lose.
Food, family and a miraculous recovery.
She and her partner, Lisa Lorimer Donahue, threw themselves into whole food, plant-based eating. Operating under the premise that inflammation is the root cause of most chronic disease, the diet advocated by Dr. Esselstyn boosts fruit and vegetable intake while eliminating most oils, chemicals and preservatives. Starting with small meals they hoped would give Millie the energy to simply sit up and hold her tiny granddaughter, Meg and Lisa continued their research and adopted a holistic approach that centered around a whole food, plant-based diet, moderate exercise and, most importantly, love and connection with family.
Millie’s improvement was slow but steady. “She went from barely having enough strength to get out of bed to walking down the driveway,” said Meg, “and eventually she wanted to drive again. Her first stop was the community pool, where she signed up for water aerobics. It was incredible.”
Astounded by Millie’s recovery, Meg and Lisa felt they had stumbled upon the secret to health and longevity. “The research was there and we could see the results for ourselves,” said Meg, “We kept thinking, why aren’t more people doing this? It reduces health care costs, is better for the environment, and can have a huge impact on personal health. There is no downside.”
Except, they realized, that preparing vegan food is time-consuming and can be expensive. “We spent half our life chopping vegetables and half our paycheck at the co-op buying produce,” said Lisa. “It’s a lot of work.”
A business calling.
Not willing to abandon the diet but feeling overwhelmed, Meg again turned to Google. “With all the meal delivery services out there, I figured there must be one that offered whole food, plant-based meals,” said Meg. But although they found a couple of vegan meal delivery options, none of them were committed to whole food ingredients and therefore fell short.
And so, Meg and Lisa decided to start a company.
Building on their research and, by then, years of experience developing recipes, the pair launched MamaSezz, a vegan, prepared meal delivery service, in 2017. In addition to a commitment to whole foods, they wanted MamaSezz meals to feel familiar and accessible — nothing too fussy or time-consuming. Their menu includes classic favorites such as lasagna, “gardener’s” pie (their take on the classic shepherd’s pie), chili, and even a vegan mac n’ cheese, as well as staples like salad dressings and protein bars.
No stranger to Vermont’s food industry (Lisa was the president and CEO of Vermont Bread Company for 24 years), the pair leased space at a recently closed food venture center in nearby Keene, NH and began to build their business. The first round of investments came easily from friends and family, many of whom were already connected to their incredible story. But as their idea took off, they realized they would need to increase marketing, build a professional website, and raise additional capital in order to grow.
“We had operations and product-market fit,” said Lisa, “but needed to step up our marketing.” Calling an old friend, Lisa reached out to Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, who put them in touch with Janice St. Onge at the Flexible Capital Fund.
Investors with values.
“We were careful to bring on investors who shared our values,” said Lisa. “Janice was steady and thoughtful, and the Flex Fund has a long record of supporting local food producers and a livable wage, both of which are core to our mission.” The $150,000 investment was structured as a common stock purchase, a first for the Flex Fund, to ensure that all stakeholders were on the same footing. Using that round of investments to launch MamaSezz to a wider audience, today the company is a leading whole food, plant-based meal delivery company, offering more than three dozen meal options on their website. In 2020, Forbes Magazine named MamaSezz the “best vegan meal delivery service” in the country.
“The Flex Fund prepared us for the next level of growth,” said Lisa.
Meg and Lisa’s experience and self-taught knowledge landed them at the forefront of a global movement toward plant-based eating, widely acknowledged today to be better for health and the environment. While the company was founded with a health mission, Meg and Lisa are also committed to minimizing the impact of their business on the planet. Each box comes with a prepaid return label, so customers can send back the packaging to be reused or recycled. “That’s the first iteration,” said Lisa, who notes that they are looking into packaging made from recycled plastic gathered from the ocean.
Hopeful for a plant-based future.
Like many other businesses, 2020 was a tough year, but Meg and Lisa are hopeful that increased understanding of the benefits of plant-based eating will bode well for the company, and more importantly for individual and planetary health.
“I’m hopeful that coming out of the pandemic, more people will be aware of how diet impacts our immune systems, overall health, and climate change, and feel empowered to make some adjustments,” said Lisa. “It doesn’t have to be complex or rigid—small changes can have a big impact. If nothing else, just do what your mama always said and eat more veggies!”
Today, Millie is 90, swimming three times a week and greeting her grandchildren, now 9 and 13, with an afterschool snack every day—vegan, of course.
About the Flexible Capital Fund
The Flexible Capital Fund, L3C is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and impact investment fund that provides flexible risk capital in the form of subordinated debt, revenue based financing (also known as royalty financing) and alternative equity structures, to growth-stage companies in Vermont and the region’s food systems, forest products, and clean technology sectors.