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Winter 2011 Carts Plump Diet-to-Go’s Bottom Line

A healthy meal plan provider uses mall carts to broaden its reach and marketing message.

After 20 years of business, the Lorton, VA-based-company Diet-to-Go, decided it was time to broaden its audience and its potential customer base. Originally functioning primarily out of health and fitness clubs, Diet-to-Go decided to give a mall cart a try last spring when it opened one in Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax. That experiment was such a success that it opened a second cart operation in Tyson’s Corner Center in McLean for the months of September and October.

Meal plans

Diet-to-Go delivers 30,000 healthy meals every week through a network of distributors and by mail. Meal plans can be created from three menu categories—low fat, low carb and low fat vegetarian. Customers can also choose from two calorie levels in each category—1,200 or 1,600.

The program’s flexibility is a major part of its attraction, says Michele Trankovich, national business director. Unlike many of its competitors, Diet-to-Go does not charge a registration fee and customers can purchase as few or as many meals as they want each week. A full weekly plan of 21 meals—three breakfasts, lunches and dinners—costs $128.99. Customers who pick up a week’s worth of meals at a distribution center pay a $3 fee, while those who receive the whole week’s portion by mail pay shipping charges.

Trankovich says meals are made fresh with no preservatives. Options vary from a breakfast of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup and turkey sausage (from the low fat menu); to a lunch of Spanish stuffed peppers, with rice and Parmesan cheese and sauce, and a Mediterranean veggie blend (from the vegetarian menu); and a dinner of prime rib with red wine sauce, kale and cauliflower (from the low carb menu).

The company has a network of distributors that are mostly health and fitness clubs in the Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Francisco areas. “We started with fitness centers, because they’re a natural fit,” says Trankovich, who notes meals are delivered to the centers twice per week to be picked up by customers. For those customers who live outside the coverage area, the company vacuum seals, and flash freezes meals—which are then shipped.

Mall experiment

The carts have been incubators to see how the business fares with the public as a whole and in malls in general. Diet-to-Go operated the Fairfax cart for three months. Staff handed out free samples, provided education about meal plans and took orders from customers, who could then pick up their meals at any of about 110 distribution centers in the Washington metro area. The temporary nature of the carts also allowed the company to “pop up” in a certain geographical area for a while, spread its message and then move on. In the first quarter this year, Diet-to-Go anticipates trying a third cart in the Philadelphia area, to coincide with a planned television advertising campaign and an expected expansion within that market.

Lessons learned

“A mall cart provides easy access for people and allows us to reach people who don’t necessarily go to a gym,” Trankovich says. “At the cart, people were able to get their questions answered face to face and get assistance with placing their orders. And they had the opportunity to sample the food, which they can’t do when they place an order over the Internet.”

Trankovich says the mall experience taught the company some valuable lessons about peak traffic flow and how to staff accordingly. “There are certain times of the day—usually later in the afternoon and evening and weekends—when people are more receptive to us,” she says. “In the mornings, people seem in a hurry, and fewer of them stopped by. We learned to have more staff on duty during the busier times.”

While Diet-to-Go has tossed around the possibility of offering its mall cart concept as a franchise in the future, for now it plans to operate carts on its own.

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Bernadette Starzee

Starzee, a Long Island, NY writer who covers business, sports and lifestyle topics, is a senior writer for SRR. She can be reached at .

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