(EDITOR'S NOTE: This was reprinted from the Redondo Beach Patch in the BLOSSOM CHRONICLES column. The service is available in Studio City and they are now offering a $10 discount to all customers referred by Patch. All you have to do is type the name "patch" as the promotion code when ordering.)
It is common in Australia and Europe and all the rage in Sweden—home delivery of everything you need to prepare three to five dinners per week, including recipes corralled from around the world.
Though the type of service is pretty much unheard of in this country, the genius behind Sofi’s Grocery Bag is that it not only saves time, money and waste—the meals also take less than 30 minutes to prepare and are guaranteed healthy and fresh.
That’s because Sofi Sullivan, 38, who imported the idea from her adopted Sweden, avoids all processed foods in her menus and has a leg up where shopping is concerned, especially when it comes to meat, fish and produce.
“You are never sure how long produce and meat may have been sitting on the shelf in the grocery store,” she said during an interview in the two-story Redondo Beach home she shares with her husband and two sons, a place that reflects her love of Sweden. “In many cases (it) can exceed four days.”
Sullivan’s customers receive their grocery bags the same day fresh foods arrive at a distribution center in Hawthorne—before products are delivered from the distribution center to supermarkets. Bags contain ingredients for three or five dinners (depending on the option chosen by the customer), a list of ingredients, photos of each meal and step-by-step instructions.
The meals feed four, are seldom repeated, and range from chicken piccata with roasted asparagus to barbecued steak with homemade French fries to carne asada lettuce wraps with rice.
For Char Harding of Manhattan Beach, the tiresome question of "What's for dinner, Mom?" has ceased.
Now that Harding has hooked up with Sofi's Grocery Bag—a service she initially had doubts about—her kids say, “Hey, Mom, which one should we cook tonight?”
Char and Bill Harding, both retired from the U.S. Air Force, have three kids at home, Austin, 17; Chase, 10; and Candace, 7. (Daughter Christina, 21, a student at UCLA, comes home some weekends.)
Up until a month ago, Harding always left the cooking up to her husband and older son.
“I’m an anomaly because I have never cooked,” said Harding, who didn’t know oregano from ginger before Sullivan came along. Now she glories in making her own salad dressing from scratch—grating the ginger into the olive oil, squeezing the limes. “It was so good, so unique, not just ready made.”
Although Harding felt “inundated” the first week the groceries arrived at her door, she was relieved to see that “everything is laid out so nicely. There’s a list of each meal, which ingredients go with each meal, pictures.”
That her younger children not only take joy in cooking, but also eat foods they previously shunned, was a shock.
“I can’t believe this is happening!” Harding said the night Chase and Candace “devoured” a pizza they made from scratch with shallots (which Harding had never laid eyes upon until that night), garlic, sliced ham and tomatoes.
Strictly cheese-and-pepperoni types prior to Sullivan’s service, the kids “normally won’t touch a tomato,” their mother said. Harding snapped up her camera, took a picture, and posted it on Sofi’s Facebook page, something she now does regularly.
In business only five weeks, Sullivan—who was born in South Korea and adopted by Swedish parents when she was a year-and-a-half—spent months locating distributors (Randall Farms for meat, for example), researching recipes, and exchanging emails with counterparts in Australia and Sweden, where 1 in 10 families use or have used such a service, she said.
As if starting her own company didn't keep her busy enough, Sullivan has a family to care for: husband, Greg Sullivan, 44, manager of Rolling Hills Country Club, and their two sons, 10-year-old Toby and 8-year-old Zac. Brianna, 21, is a college student in Arizona.
Parental considerations play a huge part in Sofi Sullivan’s professional and personal life. Her early years were splintered by her adoptive parents’ divorce; the death of her mother from cancer when Sullivan was 16; her father's death of a heart attack when she was 18; and a hostile stepfather.
Although she describes her upbringing as “dark,” she remembers gathering lingonberries and mushrooms in the forests of Örebro with her Swedish grandmother, and the adoptive father who brought her hot chocolate and warm bread in the “freezing dawn” before they sold flowers at the farmer’s market.
Emancipated by age 16, Sullivan was living on her own and working to support herself. It was an often lonely time that underlies her emphasis on the importance of families cooking and eating together.
The benefits of family dinners, she said, range from stronger family ties to better communication to improved academic skills.
“It makes a difference as far as kids staying way from drugs, alcohol and smoking and staying out of trouble,” she said in her upstairs office with the forest wallpaper that reminds her of Örebro. “The most valuable time you have is when you sit down as a family and talk.”
Sofi’s Grocery Bag evolved through a lot of soul searching, traveling the world (she has visited 62 countries, including South Korea, where she briefly, if awkwardly, connected with her birth parents) and a passion for good food.
“I’ve always been a career person,” she said, reeling off jobs in fields including advertising, journalism and television. In fact, it was a job in television production in Stockholm that led her to Southern California in 1999. “I had no desire to go.”
The day she arrived in Redondo Beach, however, she met Greg Sullivan through friends—“the most amazing man I’ve ever met,” she said—and realized she wanted to stay. Acquiring a student visa, she enrolled at Santa Monica College, and the two were married in 2000.
Intending to join the airlines, Sofi Sullivan got her pilot’s license, only to find—after she gave birth to Toby—she couldn’t bear to leave her baby. Once Zac came along, she started thinking of ways to work from home.
The food business, which her husband had been involved in for 25 years, was a natural progression, she said. The meal-planning/shopping/delivery craze sweeping Sweden—where the Sullivans vacation every summer—fit with her love of cooking, devotion to health and fitness, and distaste for processed foods.
Working out the details took months, as she searched “high and low” for recipes, tested every single meal, and found a flexible delivery service able to accomodate the entire South Bay and beyond. Leila Hirchert, a second-grade teacher at Alta Vista Elementary, where Sullivan's sons go to school, created the eye-catching menus.
It was a tall order, drumming up customers for a business that nobody had ever heard of.
“At first it (was) 85 percent friends,” said Sullivan, who spends 14 to 18 hours a day on the job. “Now it’s 95 percent new people.”
Here’s how it works. On the Sofi’s Grocery Bag website, customers choose between several delivery options—five meals for $129 per week or three meals for $89 per week. Customers can add a crate of fresh fruits—such as papayas, berries or apples—for $25 extra.
One of the three meals always consists of some sort of fish, and there are no substitutions.
All orders must be placed by 11 p.m. Wednesday to receive a bag the following Monday between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., depending on the customer’s wish. Menus are emailed the preceding Thursday.
It’s possible to purchase the service for a week and suspend it for any reason, including vacations, Sullivan said.
The lack of a choice is the main concern of those wondering whether to sign up, Sullivan said.
“One of the differences between Sweden and here is that Americans are more used to getting exactly what they want,” Sullivan said. “In Sweden they say, ‘I can’t wait to see what they bring next week.’”
For Jenny Hinyub, 32, of Palos Verdes Estates, signing onto the service “was questionable because I really don’t eat fish—and I don’t know how to prepare it.”
Husband Kevin, 45, on the other hand, “loves seafood,” Jenny Hinyub said. There were their two children to consider, Juliana, 3 1/2, and Spencer, 1 1/2—little ones not likely to consume full portions.
But Hinyub was in for a surprise. Where “my 3-1/2-year-old daughter has eaten pretty much everything,” she said, and Spencer consumes half, “I’ve eaten all of it … the shrimp dish, the tilapia, and I loved it.”
She also likes having leftovers.
Another aspect for the Hinyubs, who have been “super busy” remodeling a house and moving in, was the convenience. “I never had time to make a decent meal,” she said. “This has totally changed our evenings and our dinners, and Juliana helps cook all the recipes with me, so it’s really been fun.”
For more information about Sofi's Grocery Bag, visit the website at sofisgrocerybag.com or call 310-748-BAGS (2247).