- Associated Press - Saturday, July 26, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Like many of the best business ideas, the one behind Chefs for Seniors came from the personal experience of Barrett and Nathan Allman, the company’s father-son founders from Sun Prairie.

Chefs for Seniors, a first-of-its-kind grocery shopping and in-home meal preparation service exclusively for senior citizens in the Madison area, will finish its first year of serving clients in August.

Aimed at helping older people live longer on their own, the business started as a winning entry put together by Nathan Allman, now 21, in last year’s Burrill Business Plan Competition at UW-Madison, the venerable annual contest recognizing outstanding student entrepreneurship across campus.

But Nathan, who has one semester left to earn a double major in finance and marketing, had been thinking about the idea that would drive the new business longer than that - ever since he and other relatives noticed about six years ago that his great-grandmother, Virginia McIlwain, wasn’t eating enough.

Living alone in her home in Rockford, Illinois, she was forced at age 85 to make a change after it became clear she could no longer cook for herself.

“She went kicking and screaming into an assisted living facility,” Nathan Allman recalled. “She had been living in her home for 60 years and had kids scattered all over. We looked around at different resources (to get help with meals) and there really wasn’t anything good.”

“Senior nutrition is a big issue and often an overlooked issue,” he added, “and it’s one that I hope our company can shed some light on and help solve.”

“We wondered why there was not a service available that would prepare customized, nutritious meals for seniors in their homes,” agreed Barrett Allman, 46, a professional chef and restaurant owner for the past 14 years who most recently operated a cafe in Monroe.

Channeling their frustration over needed senior services into a new business endeavor - while doing something they both found enjoyable - made sense for the Allmans as a family. But it also was a savvy business decision to target older customers, based on demographic studies for the U.S. population.

The huge baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, are reshaping the face of housing, health, consumer and other services to an unprecedented degree - promising both outsized need and business opportunities.


At the same time, one thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of eating well. Eating enough and eating nutritiously are as vital for seniors as they are for anyone else, even as the realities of growing older seem to conspire against it happening.

Betty Abramson, deputy director of the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging, has seen the grim downward spiral that can occur with food issues.

“For a lot of older adults, the nutrition of their food, and therefore their health, declines enormously as they age,” she said, “either because of arthritis or some other condition that prevents them from cooking the way they used to, or from getting out to get the groceries, and, most important, because of eating alone, for some people. Particularly older men, after their spouse dies and they don’t have anybody to eat with or cook for - it gets really lonely and they don’t eat well or at regular times anymore.”

“They don’t like eating without somebody,” agreed Michelle Neeb, who runs a personal services business for seniors in the Madison area that includes meal preparation for some clients. Neeb sits down and shares some of the meals she makes for clients.

“I primarily focus on their nutritional needs, but sometimes they want that companionship, so we’ll sit together then and eat a meal I make,” Neeb said. “I think there is an extreme need out there for people to spend more time with the aging population.”

Carving out time to socialize with clients during business visits to their homes is easy to do for Barrett Allman, who closed his Monroe cafe at the end of 2012 to work full time with his son starting last year.

“I always found that my favorite customers in my restaurants were the seniors,” he said. “I’m just one of those people that really enjoys listening to a senior talk about their memories. I literally can do it all day long.”

“A lot of people stand in their kitchens and tell us what we’re doing wrong,” Nathan added. “We love that. It’s really a two-way street. The service is at its best when our clients are opinionated and there’s give and take.”

At a recent appointment in the home of Sharon Hanson, a Verona client, the Allmans spent more than an hour making a variety of dishes, including salmon cakes, pork tenderloin with apples and thyme, a Mediterranean-style pasta dish and pumpkin pancakes.

While they cooked, Hanson watched and casually joked and chatted with Barrett, whom she’s known for many months. She wasn’t shy about grading him on his entrees, either, at one point noting she didn’t like the gravy and biscuits that he made last time but did like the banana nut pancakes and wanted more of those.

“It’s always kind of a surprise when I open the fridge and see what he’s made,” said Hanson, who first hired the company to make meals for her in January, after a total knee replacement at the end of December left her unable to shop or do much cooking of her own.

Unlike many other clients, Hanson still works a full-time job, in addition to being a resident manager at the Verona senior apartment building where she lives.

“It was very nice,” she said. “All I had to do was take care of myself. Now it’s a nice convenience. I just pop the food in the microwave. I know how important it is, too - for the hours I work, I have to eat properly.”


Chefs for Seniors now boasts 34 clients, with five chefs hired for the operation in addition to Nathan and Barrett Allman, who each still see a handful of clients. They hope to expand into Rockford by the end of the year.

The Allmans said they begin their service by taking an inventory of a new client’s kitchen and then meeting with them to learn about special dietary needs they may have, as well as personal likes and dislikes. Some clients prefer their own recipes, while others are more open to trying new dishes.

The Allmans charge an hourly rate of $30 for the time they’re in a home cooking, and a flat $15 fee for grocery shopping.

One cost-saving technique they use is making several meals from one main ingredient. For example, cooking a whole rotisserie chicken and dividing it up to make a stir fry, chicken salad and a pasta dish with chicken and fresh vegetables. Or using lean ground beef to make a meatloaf, meatballs with marinara sauce and a shepherd’s pie.

“It saves time and money, and it’s important that there is no unused product that would have to be stored,” Barrett Allmann said. “It also gives the chef an opportunity to introduce new ideas and be creative.”


It typically takes a couple of hours to prepare meals for a week or two for most clients, the Allmans said, adding that they can work within most seniors’ budget by varying the number and frequency of meals.

Like most professional chef companies, the service includes chefs putting prepared food into reheatable containers, labeling them and storing them in the refrigerator. The chefs also use their own cooking equipment and clean up after themselves before they leave, the Allmans said.

Nathan Allman’s business plan for the company took fourth place in the Burrill contest, winning the pair $1,000 for start-up costs. Those have been minimal, they said, because they don’t have to rent a storefront or pay outside utilities, running the business from the family home and cooking in clients’ homes.

It has also gone smoothly because Nathan Allman, who will spend his last semester this fall earning an environmental studies certificate, devoted time to figuring out how the company could be best operated for the business plan contest, said John Surdyk, a faculty associate at UW-Madison who runs the contest.

“What really stood out (about Nathan’s plan) is that he had clearly been thinking about this long enough to answer the important questions of what it would take to deliver the service effectively and cheaply,” he said.

Barrett Allman also credited his son’s work on the plan for the company’s success, noting he’s found it “incredibly rewarding” to blend his own years of practical experience in food preparation with his son’s knowledge of the latest business management trends and techniques through his education at UW-Madison.

“The fact that (Nathan’s) idea is meeting a need is what makes it such a good idea,” Barrett Allman said. “It changes lives. It’s a business that solves a problem.”


Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, https://www.madison.com/wsj

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