A passion for health and wellness combined with hospitality industry experience and an entrepreneurial spirit led College of Health Solutions student Tyler Perez to found True Flavor Kitchen, a business that preps and delivers nutritious meals to on-campus students who want to supplement their ASU dining plan.
Perez’s budding business just got a $10,000 boost after he pitched it and won a top prize at Venture Devils Demo Day, a biannual competition for Arizona State University-affiliated startups who vie for $250,000 in funding and support for their entrepreneurial projects. True Flavor Kitchen was first in the Sarsam Family Venture Challenge category.
He and his business partner Steven Heitzman, an ASU alumnus of the mechanical engineering program, plan to use their Venture Devils funding to develop delivery software and an app to, as Perez puts it, “reinvent the way students experience dining while away at school.”
ASU students are definitely buying in. True Flavor Kitchen currently delivers meals to an average of 75 on-campus students a week, with projections of up to 200 a week by the end of the spring 2022 semester.
It was Perez’s vision for a new ASU student dining experience that caught the attention of Venture Devils investors.
“When we take a look at how university dining halls around the country are responding to student and parent demands, especially after the pandemic lockdowns that students experienced, we know that traditional dining halls are becoming a thing of the past,” he said.
“Universities everywhere are introducing mobile ordering, ghost kitchens and delivery services. Not only that, but with rising tuition costs, the demand from parents and students for higher quality in their dining options is at an all-time high.The college experience just does not happen on campus like it used to. College towns like Tempe are expanding at a rapid pace, and so are the entertainment options. Because of this, students are spending less time on campus and thus less time in dining halls, which means the old model that requires students to select a dining hall-based meal plan needs to change.”
Perez started True Flavor Kitchen in 2017 as a meal prep truck, partnering with gyms that lacked in-house cafes, but his concept gradually shifted to university dining in 2019 when he began delivering to ASU’s on-campus students.
Focusing his operations at ASU presented its own set of obstacles, most notably making connections with the right people.
Guiding him through the complex university environment is Maureen McCoy, a senior lecturer at ASU’s College of Health Solutions and the director of the degree that Perez is pursuing — the Bachelor of Science in food and nutrition entrepreneurship, a program that prepares students like Perez with nutrition principles and business acumen for this growing field.
McCoy said it is Perez’s passion, drive and experience that has carried him to his current level.
“Tyler has been in the restaurant industry for many years, and True Flavor is one of his newest ventures. He has an incredible business mind and drive, and won’t stop if he reaches a roadblock. He takes on challenging conversations and brings solutions to the table. He will not take ‘no’ or even ‘maybe’ as an answer,” she said.
Developing a strong relationship with on-campus entities is a priority, but Perez also wants to foster connections between local food service and hospitality leaders and like-minded students who share a passion for the industry. This fall, he started the Food Service and Hospitality Coalition at ASU to increase opportunities and resources for students who want to pursue those careers.
“... With Tempe and Scottsdale being such large hospitality hubs, I feel there is so much untapped potential with our food service and food entrepreneurship students,” Perez said.
The new student group has about 15 members who plan to connect with successful food service and hospitality companies through networking events such as a speaker series. They have also applied for a Changemaker Challenge grant to fund a project where students can showcase their food concepts and funding pitches in an ASU campus space.
Perez and Heitzman will use their Venture Devils winnings to expand True Flavor Kitchen to other universities and to develop pick-up locations on campus, increasing access for students. They recently ran a two-week trial at Sun Devil Marketplace to test a pick-up location and are excited to see how it works for the spring semester.
While Perez buzzes with energy and enthusiasm for the future, it is present-day operations that take up most of his time. When school is in session, he preps, cooks and delivers about 500 meals each week by himself, leaving the business and technology side of things to his partner, Heitzman. Sundays are spent shopping and preparing all the ingredients for cooking on Monday. He also prints and organizes packing slips and customer labels. Then he's up before daylight on Monday to cook, cool and pack all the meals and head out for delivery by 1 p.m. His day ends with the last drop-off at 5 p.m.
For him, though, it is a labor of love, and a chance to create a business around his passion for healthy eating.
"Because students are developing most of their critical eating habits while in college, they tend to carry them into their adult life. That is where True Flavor Kitchen makes a real difference,” he said.
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