“I always start with how I grew up. My mom was a from scratch cook,” Erica Tuggle begins, tracing the roots of her culinary venture, Cookonnect, back to her family’s traditions. It’s this rich familial history that feeds into the very essence of a business that’s making dinner easier for busy families by bringing them the services of talented in-home chefs.
Her path to entrepreneurship wound through the corporate world, from New York to Atlanta, from American Express to Coca-Cola. Despite a solid career, she felt the pull towards creating something of her own, an impulse she nurtured even when she took a chance at selling Mary Kay makeup. She humorously admits, “I ended up with a lot of extra product.” This entrepreneurial itch didn’t sop though, and it led her to pursue an MBA at Harvard Business School.
Afterward, the impetus to start Cookonnect came from a personal need, a gap she saw in her own life that mirrored a wider market demand. “As I lived my own life, because I was traveling a lot for work, finding the hours to cook when I just wanted to spend time with my family once I finally got home was not easy and often it wasn’t feasible,” she says. “So that’s where the initial idea came from.” While at Coca-Cola, she spearheaded efforts to bring their products into the retail market, providing a laboratory for understanding consumer behavior around food. “The challenge of eating well and eating conveniently is still really hard for people,” she shares. With that in mind, the service is not just a means to a meal but a platform for economic growth for chefs, and a driver for healthier communities.
“A lot of convenient meal solutions are not the healthiest, and then on top of that, a challenge of having people believe a homemade meal is the best thing you can have is, who has time to create that? And that was another challenge that I heard loud and clear as we did our research,” she says.
Cookonnect’s humble beginnings involved Tuggle cooking in the homes of clients she accrued, a grassroots approach that she believes was essential to shaping the service. “I myself started going into kitchens and cooking and that was an opportunity for me to understand what would it take to build this thing,” she says.
Her participation in Techstars Atlanta marked a significant milestone, where she received not only funding but also validation and support in her burgeoning business. “It was really exciting to get some investment early on,” she expresses. This experience was pivotal, providing capital and mentorship crucial for an early-stage startup. “Capital is really difficult to come by as a female founder, as a Black female founder.”
That money has helped to expand her business greatly to the level it is now. Through Cookonnect, families can pick a day or days when they will need meals made. They can share any customizations through a family profile, allergies as well. From there, they secure a chef, some with formal training, others informal, who obtain fresh ingredients from local groceries and they come to an individual’s home and make the meals, which start at $20 per plate. All cooks complete a background check and meal service quality screening.
“It’s helping to create a really easy way for customers to manage meals,” she says. “You come in, you pick your menu items, you set your date and time and you’re basically done. The point is to save you time, not only in the meal prep, but also in the planning. And then on the other side for the chefs, what our technology is doing is giving them a platform that essentially helps them manage a business. They can track their earnings. They can get reviews from their customers. So they know what to work on or how they’re performing. They obviously see all of their bookings and all of their upcoming work and their past work and work that’s available for them. It gives them a tool to be able to be a personal chef without having to find their way into that business because they work through our platform.”
Reflecting on the leap from corporate America to starting her own business, she credits her support system, her husband and family, for giving her the courage to pursue her passion. “Sometimes when you lack that [confidence] in yourself, having those people around you who are like, ‘You can do this,’ is really important,” she says.
Looking forward, Tuggle envisions Cookonnect as a platform that doesn’t just simplify meal prep but also champions health and wellness. She is excited about the prospect of integrating nutritionists and health experts into the service, thus expanding the business’ role from a meal provider to a comprehensive wellness partner. For now, it’s already making a great impact with its growing clients and chefs.
“It’s about helping families live better by eating healthier, but also about having more time together,” says Tuggle. “And it’s about helping our chefs achieve greater economic opportunity. That’s really what’s at the center of what we’re doing.”