It's 2014, and Omar Radwan is desperate to lose weight and he begins talking to a friend about diet issues.
See, the friend operates a healthy meal service, delivering pristine vegetarian-inspired cuisine to customers' front doors.
Two years later, Radwan not only has lost 110 pounds, but he bought the company known as Vittle, located on Heron Road at Bank Street in Ottawa's south end. The former engineer has some experience in the food business industry, squeezing melons and tasting sauces for a living before his latest venture.
“The business showed me that you can eat healthy food that's delicious,” Radwan, 35, recalls. “I lost the weight, got my health back, all because of the food choices I made then. I still love steak and lasagna, but I eat here all the time.”
Radwan's vision was to create a whole food service, one that would buy the groceries, create the menu, prepare and deliver the meals on a subscription basis. Some subscribers buy meals five days a week, others will buy occasionally, depending what's offered on the online menu at www.vittle.ca
“The business was undervalued by its original owners, and consequently, not managed well,” Radwan remembers. “I saw the potential to buy an undervalued company. That intrigued me as a business opportunity.”
The website features glowing photos of meals from breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks. In addition to prepared meals, Vittle delivers groceries and offers nutritional guidance. It's like ordering room service at home.
“We were among the first companies to deliver meals in Ottawa everyday,” Radwan claims. “Our kitchen runs 14 hours a day, preparing three meals a day for subscribers, as well as a ghost kitchen where we prepare meals for other take-away services, like fish and chips.”
It takes 10 staff cooking and driving to make and deliver the 25 or so meals they prepare for more than 200 subscribers every week. The menu changes everyday and the food is delivered the day before.
“We provide all kinds of cuisine here because we don't want to be restricted to a specific type,” adds Radwan. “There are all kinds of people here with different tastes. We use all these influences in our cooking. Our goal is healthy food that tastes good.”
Radwan won't or can't say how many subscribers are signed on for the service. Those numbers largely depend on the season (winters tend to be busier than summers), how active the city is, how many public servants are working from home and how many working couples and families there are. Vittle's bread and butter clients are people who lead busy lives and don't have time to prepare healthy meals from scratch.
In the meantime, between menu planning, buying food, scheduling staff and making prompt deliveries, Radwan's job must at times feel like cooking a lasagna while driving the Highway 401 at the same time. Plate-spinning seems to be the nature of this inherently stressful business. Add to an already volatile environment and new challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and now inflation hitting both food and gas prices big time, and all you can do is wonder.
"It's a stressful business,” Radwan admits. “Sometimes it's annoying, sometimes it's a lot of fun. Sometimes you get hit by a million issues all at once. I like being in business because I can control the outcome. Everyday is different.”
Of course, with hundreds of thousands of office workers working from home, the pandemic lockdowns were brutal on Radwan's business. Like most independently owned shops, Radwan's immediate goal was to pay his staff and keep Vittle going.
“Suddenly, everyone had time to cook and subscribers took a break,” he recalls. “They're coming back because it's a lot of work to make healthy delicious meals, and we do it everyday. No problem.”