Ditching the Desk for Family Dinner

Family DinnerErin Baumgartner of Family Dinner. Photos by Chris McIntosh.

Erin Baumgartner spent the last the 10 years working at MIT’s Senseable City Lab, but her attention kept getting pulled back to food.

“We loved to cook, to eat, and to have people over,” she says about herself and her husband of five years, Tim Fu. “That’s really how we love to spend time, having 20 people over and cooking a massive pile of food for all these folks. We both believe that you build community around it.”

Their idea for a locally sourced food delivery service was an attempt to fill a vacuum that they’d noticed since the delivery program Something GUD closed in 2015.

“We realized that it really left a hole in our culinary lives,” Baumgartner says. “We really enjoyed what they were bringing, the farmers, the products, and the experience of cooking these things together. We’d bought into this concept of eating much more locally.”

Baumgartner and Fu decided to take matters into their own hands and start Family Dinner, a meal kit service focused on emphasizing farmers and providing cohesive ingredients with a common theme.

Family Dinner, launched in September, works with local farmers and purveyors to offer shares of vegetables, meats, grains, and more. Family Dinner differs from other meal kit services by not shoehorning people into following a specific recipe. Instead, Baumgartner explains, the shares are crafted based on what farmers have available and are intended to create a cohesive box.

“What’s interesting this week? If there’s steaks, we’re thinking can we get fresh blue cheese, can we get bread and potatoes to sort of wrap a vision for the week around,” Baumgartner says. “We’re hoping to meet the spectrum of home cooks here—people who are a little more adventurous and also folks who are just beginning to dabble in cooking themselves.”

Family Dinner

Part of the appeal of Family Dinner is that it can be an at-home alternative to farmers’ markets, which Fu explains can often put stress on farmers.

“To run a successful farm, you have to plant the crops, grow the crops, harvest, store, and then the real work begins where you have to market it, sell it,” Fu says. “What we want to do is make sure that the farmers can be farmers and do the thing that they’re really great at.”

The focus on farmers is a vital part of Family Dinner’s approach. Its website includes a list of its farm partners, all but two of which are in Massachusetts. The founders visit the farms, and often write a description of an interaction with a farmer or purveyor that helped shape the week’s shares.

The site also offers up recipe ideas based on the weekly shares and cooking tips, though Baumgartner says they aim to leave plenty of room for experimentation.

Family Dinner offers four separate options for types of deliveries: omnivore, vegetarian, pescatarian, and paleo. While the options are different, the base of each box remains the same, and the pair makes tweaks based on individual dietary needs.

“We tried to keep it as simple as possible right off the bat,” Fu says. “We were doing the trial with friends and family, and were only doing omnivore. And word started getting around and people asked, would you ever do a vegetarian version?”

One share from March 30 focused on Mediterranean flavors, and included chicken, eggs, Greek yogurt, fresh pita, a kozani spice blend, beets, garlic, spinach, and assorted herbs. Pescatarian shares replaced the chicken with hake and scallops. Recipe suggestions included “Greek Chicken Under a Brick” and “Baked Hake with Lemon and Herbs.”

The first few months of deliveries were just to friends and family as the pair figured out the basic logistics of the process. Fu works for a software company, and he says his experience with software streamlined the process of getting the website and subscription service up and running.

Family Dinner

Tim Fu (left) and Erin Baumgartner.

As business expanded beyond the first few trials in September, Family Dinner began operating out of the shared culinary workspace Foundation Kitchen. Baumgartner and a rotation of five others pack all the shares there each weekend and deliver them.

While it may seem daunting to leave a position at MIT to pursue a new venture in an entirely different field, Baumgartner says it felt like a natural move.

“When you’ve been somewhere for 10 years, it becomes a part of you and it’s nerve wracking to leave it,” she says. “But we had been starting this company and we wanted to push it and get it off the ground. Everything came together in this perfect storm.”

Despite the big career shift, Baumgartner explains that her experience in urban planning has been relevant in launching Family Dinner.

“I was always very interested in using data analytics to understand food systems,” Baumgartner explains, specifically pointing to the environmental impact of food. “It was never a route that our lab went down, but it was definitely an area of focus for other labs at MIT. It’s amazing the amount of data that comes along with a tomato you buy at the grocery store.”

But while data may be useful, Family Dinner’s focus is on human connections. Baumgartner loves to hear about personal experiences from customers.

“That’s our favorite part, these emails that you get from people saying, ‘That chorizo was outrageous, we inhaled it all, everything’s gone,’” Baumgartner says. “It makes us feel like people are enjoying it and they’re getting to experience new things.”

This story appears in the Food, Glorious Food! issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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