As a 77-year-old diabetic, Dana White found himself in the position many at-risk Santa Barbarans were in when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Mr. White taught English at Laguna Blanca School for 35 years, but now living alone in retirement he needed to find a way to get his meals after the county’s restaurants shut down and crowds began packing local grocery stores.
Fortunately, his trainer at Variant Fitness Lab told him about a new business delivering custom made meals. Mr. White got in touch with co-founders Hunter Rusack '09
and Kevin Lunn '09
to find out more, and realized there was something familiar about the two.
“I said I thought I had been in touch with them before,” Mr. White told the News-Press
. “Kevin said, ‘Well you were in touch with me a long time ago. You helped me with my college essays!’”
Ten years after Mr. Rusak and Mr. Lunn graduated from Laguna Blanca, the two were reunited with their teacher and college counselor through Quokka
, their new business delivering local, nutritious, ready-to-eat meals based on personalized nutrition plans.
The two never imagined they would be in a position to come back to Santa Barbara years later and help their teacher in a time of crisis.
“I have a strong memory of having a wonderful time joking with him, basically sharing very personal stories that you need to craft your college essay. I remember him being just a wonderful collaborator as he helped me in many ways through that often times stressful college application process,” said Mr. Lunn.
“He always had a smile on his face. He’s no different now. When we made our delivery he was very much the same.”
After graduating from Laguna Blanca where they were friends and competitive athletes, Mr. Lunn attended Yale University and Mr. Rusak Bowdoin College. Years later, the two reconnected and found that they shared a passion for promoting health and helping people achieve their nutrition and wellness goals.
“We wanted to fill a gap that we saw by helping people enhance their nutrition plans by delivering custom made meals that were specific to each member,” said Mr. Lunn.
The two brought in Julian Martinez, an old friend and a Cate School and Claremont Mckenna alum, who is now the owner and executive chef behind Santa Barbara’s Barbareño restaurant, and Quokka was born.
Quokka connects every one of their members with a nutrition expert to develop a personalized nutrition plan.
“We start by understanding their unique characteristics and their goals, developing a nutrition plan based around those goals, and then delivering fresh local meals that are tailored specifically to those goals,” said Mr. Lunn. “It’s all part of an effort to make it as easy as possible to stick to the nutrition plan that supports your goals.”
With a team of nutritionists around the country, one of whom works at Cottage Hospital here in town, Quokka works with clients to develop a personal nutrition plan that varies the amount of macronutrients they receive in their varied diet.
“What that entails is the numbers of grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates that are individually tailored in each of their meals,” said Mr. Lunn.
“By following that more scientific regime, you can really dial in the exact nutrition plan that’s going to support each member’s goals.”
Those goals can be quite varied, Mr. Lunn explained.
“We hear everything from wanting to improve athletic performance, we’ve got some competitive athletes that use Quokka, to wanting to lose weight, to wanting help managing certain chronic conditions like diabetes and tackling obesity issues,” said Mr. Lunn.
The personalized touch and attention to detail is perfect for someone like Mr. White, especially during the pandemic.
“I’m a diabetic, so I can’t eat mashed potatoes or any white potatoes, I shouldn’t eat white pasta, so they’re making food for me now with sweet potatoes,” said Mr. White.
“It’s been wonderful.”
Quokka’s menu is one of the features that makes the business unique. The items aren’t basic, and the recipes Mr. Martinez has crafted are ones that you might find at a nice restaurant.
Quokka’s creativity is something that Mr. White really appreciates.
“I had a turkey breast over mashed sweet potatoes. I looked in the box and went, ‘Oh there’s no cranberry jelly!’ You can’t eat turkey without cranberry sauce. But they had this little container in there. Julian apparently invented it. It was full of cut up fruit. I spread that over the turkey and it was much better than cranberry sauce!”
Quokka launched in November of 2019, but since January they have seen their business double. They are now serving between 30 to 40 clients in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
“Our clients were looking to avoid going out to grocery stores. Many of them don’t know how to cook very well or at all, and they really wanted to focus on hunkering down and maintaining social distance," said Mr. Lunn. "But they still wanted great meals.”
Typically, Quokka drops off meals on Sundays and Wednesdays at gyms like Variant around town. However, since the coronavirus pandemic hit, they’ve had to adapt.
“Since people are no longer able to get out and go to the gym to pick up their meals, we’re now only doing free delivery straight to their homes, which has been beneficial,” said Mr. Lunn.
“It makes it a nice comforting option, especially when folks can’t really go out to restaurants at the moment.”
With just Mr. Martinez and one other cook, the Quokka kitchen staff is small, but Mr. Martinez said this has proved to be an advantage during the pandemic as it allows them to make sure they have control over every step of the process.
“That’s what sets us apart from many other restaurants where you don’t quite know who’s touching everything. Here it’s a very controlled environment,” said Mr. Martinez.
Despite the major increase in business, Mr. Lunn said they made sure Quokka was extremely scalable, and that they have been growing well in the past few weeks.
“We’ve still got room to grow, which is great,” said Mr. Lunn.
Mr. White has already recommended the service to multiple people, including a Cottage Hospital development officer.
“She said, ‘Well, I’m going to put in some phone calls because our doctors and nurses are very busy and stressed out, and they can’t possibly go to the grocery store and cook and do what they’re doing. I’ll bet you anything some of them would like to try this service,’” said Mr. White.
Mr. Lunn and Mr. Rusak could not have foreseen the coronavirus pandemic or that they would reconnect with Mr. White in such a way, but they are grateful for the opportunity to provide the community with a way to stay safe while ensuring optimal nutrition.
“We’re just excited to be able to provide a service that’s valuable at the current moment when we are in such a crisis,” said Mr. Lunn.