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What's for dinner? This Vancouver restaurant's pandemic pivot provides a piece of the puzzle

For Vancouver's Tractor Foods the silver lining amidst a 'gruelling, devastating year for restaurants' is their new problem-solving home food delivery service.
Tractor At Home is a new food delivery service available in Vancouver that features grocery items, prepared foods, heat-and-serve dishes, and ingredients prepped for cooking.

In a city packed with cubicle dwellers and folks looking for quick, healthy eats on the go, a business like Vancouver's Tractor can solve a lot of lunchtime problems, thanks to its cafeteria-style model of mix-and-match eats. So what happens when a global pandemic leaves downtown offices empty and eats up a core of your business? 

For Tractor Everyday Healthy Foods' Meghan and Steve Clarke you find another consumer problem, and you get to work growing your business to solve it.

That's how Tractor At Home, a clever "middle ground" option that is essentially a hybrid grocery-meal prep-prepared foods delivery service rolled into one, and heaps of room to mix and match.

Creating a whole new category of food delivery

"It's a little bit in its own category," Meghan Clarke explains to Vancouver Is Awesome in a phone interview. "What we really wanted to do was to create something that was more of an extension of a restaurant," adds the business owner and mom, who says the initial impulse was to come up with a way to help busy families get nourishing dinners on the table without having to put a lot of thought into it. 

In fact, the thought is as simple as using Tractor's custom-built ordering platform to set up a delivery, and the box is brought right to your doorstep.

The customizable Tractor At Home menu includes dozens of options including heat-and-serve fully-cooked entrees like chicken enchiladas or vegan cabbage rolls, mains and sides that come cut and marinated and ready for the grill or oven like chicken thighs in a tangy Kansas City-style BBQ sauce or carrots you roast and toss in a pomegranate glaze. There are side salads and soups, an array of pantry staples, fresh produce, snacks, and even B.C. wines, craft beer, ciders and spirits hand-picked by Tractor At Home’s in-house sommelier, Maude Renaud-Brisson.

To make things even simpler, customers can also opt to have Tractor curate their weekly meals, which means you don't have to do anything except unpack your box when it arrives. Weekly meal subscriptions are available at three price points: Three meals for approximately $40 per week; six meals for approximately $80 per week; and 10 meals for approximately $130 per week. You can also build your own box and add on or replace items as desired.

Clarke says she and the Tractor team are especially proud of the quality and quantity of what's on the menu, and they are continually developing new recipes, like the just-launched summertime barbecue series of dishes like Turkey Zucchini Burgers, Veggie Skewers with Herby Chermoula, and Bourbon Molasses BBQ Ribs.

Tractor At Home began last summer when the Clarkes approached a group of 10 friends to have them test out the food delivery model. Since then, attests Clarke, the Tractor kitchens have created and tested out 150 recipes. "It’s been a mad dash to create new recipes," explains Clarke. "The quality is pretty exceptional, and we have tried to keep the pricing really aggressive to be like grocery services."

Bring on the veggies!

One of the Tractor Foods in-house staff has a background in nutrition, so she has been able to give feedback on the dishes on offer. As a further bonus, one of the Tractor chefs follows a primarily vegan diet, which has in part influenced how heavily focused on veggies the "at Home" menu is. 

"Veg heavy or veg forward meals are super top of mind," adds Clarke, noting that she and her family tend to sit down to meals where veggies comprise at least half or two-thirds of what's on the table. Lean proteins, particularly chicken and fish - though they do have things like tender Maui-style beef short ribs on the menu - are a priority for inclusion. 

Flexibility for customers is key, though. "What we're really trying to do is create categories," explains Clarke. Those categories can be a game-changer - or dinner peacetime saver - for families with pickier younger eaters. Those kids might be keener to tuck into the chicken fingers or macaroni and cheese while the parents prefer a fish with a zingy sauce, for example. 

tractor-at-home-02Tractor At Home's menu includes heat-and-serve meals, including several that are vegetarian or vegan. By Courtesy Tractor At Home

All the cooking and prepping to get the "At Home" items ready for delivery has been happening inside Tractor Foods' locations, in particular in downtown where the micro-chain had been previously operating what they called "Tractor Digital." Situated on the basement level of a high rise at Burrard and Dunsmuir, the outpost was a pick-up spot for customers who pre-ordered their meals for grabbing from racks. Created to serve workers in the office tower and nearby, when the pandemic drove those workers to home offices, Tractor opted to make the space work differently for them. 

Tractor Digital marked the business' first foray into the "digital-only" realm, and there were valuable lessons learned there that informed the Clarkes as they developed the home delivery segment, which they've already grown to serve about 1,000 active customers placing an average of 500 to 600 orders per week altogether. They've added an East Vancouver space for prepping and packing, and they handle all the deliveries in-house, though Tractor Foods does work with third-party apps for getting its restaurant fare to customers. 

Because of the very focused grassroots approach, scaling up has happened rapidly, but there's still the drive to grow, as Tractor at Home hopes to add more Metro Vancouver communities to its delivery zone. 

A silver lining amidst a 'gruelling, devastating year for restaurants'

Meanwhile, back at the restaurants, things are carrying on, despite the challenges the pandemic has dealt the restaurant industry. You may eventually see some Tractor at Home items available to add-on to your orders of the restaurant's signature salads and bowls, as Clarke says they are exploring the in-store model. (Tractor Foods has eight locations in B.C. of which seven are in Metro Vancouver; the most recent to open was in West Vancouver at Park Royal, which launched last August.)

No matter what, though, one lesson the pandemic has taught the Clarkes is that the way people shop has changed forever. 

"I think people will continue to order - whether it's clothing, household items, or food - to their homes," says Clarke. "It's too easy and convenient for people."

And like so many home consumers, the pandemic has taught the Clarkes to be even more diligent about their bottom lines, especially food costs. "The silver lining in this right now is that it's made us become much stronger operators," adds Clarke. 

In turn, with Tractor at Home, the extension of the business they've created is another way to help consumers who are shopping differently, and who are also being more careful with meal planning. 

And that has Clarke and the Tractor team downright excited - excited about the product they’re offering, and excited about the future.

"As much as it's been a gruelling, devastating year for restaurants, I do think it’s going to get better," adds Clarke. 

Tractor At Home currently offers delivery to Vancouver, Richmond, Burnaby and the North Shore