DAMASCUS, Va. — A Damascus woman is making it her business to help people eat healthier in the new year.
“About this time of year, our resolutions begin to fade a bit,” said Shelley Gadola. “But it’s never too late to start eating right.”
An ultra marathon runner, Gadola, 41, is helping nearly 100 people in the community stay on track with their fitness goals through a meal-prep business she started in 2018.
Sun Meal Prep allows customers to preorder weekly her homemade meals, which are not only healthy and convenient but creative. A customer favorite is “My Mama’s Cabbage Rolls,” the same recipe her mother made when Gadola was growing up in Pennsylvania.
“It’s like my childhood in a pot,” she said.
When the entrée is on the weekly menu, Gadola makes as many as 400 cabbage rolls at a time.
Her meal solutions service has grown exponentially in the past four years — she prepares as many as 700 food items for nearly 75 customers per week.
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Unsure the business would take off four years ago, the professional meal prepper must be doing something right as she embarks on her fifth year of operation.
What’s the greatest appeal? Gadola said many of her customers want to avoid the hassles of preparing home-cooked meals, or they simply don’t have time to prepare healthy meals after working all day.
Standing in front of the refrigerator or freezer trying to figure out what’s for dinner is an all-too-common problem for working people today, she said. Although popping a pizza in the oven or going through the McDonald’s drive-thru sometimes can’t be avoided, Gadola said there are better options when it comes to preparing good-for-you meals for one person or the whole family.
Her freshly prepared meals are simply reheated in the microwave at home, giving customers the freedom to choose from weekly entrees, breakfast meals and snacks.
How it works is simple. Customers place orders online each week for fresh, ready-to-eat meals straight from her commercial kitchen in town. They choose from several meal options available that week, and a few days later, the prepackaged meals are delivered in cooler bags and ready for pickup at the customer’s choice of five sites in the region.
Many customers order enough meals to do them for a week before it’s time to order online again.
Gadola is one of many entrepreneurs who are taking part of this unique niche of the food industry.
According to Statista.com, the meal kit delivery service is a booming business. The revenue from meal kits is expected to grow to more than $13 billion in 2022, partly because of the surge of COVID-19 and consumers’ reluctance to grocery shop in person.
After Gadola and her husband, Paul, opened Iron Mountain Fitness in Abingdon in 2013, she heard many comments from clients who wanted to eat better, but they didn’t know how.
Ready for a change in her career, Gadola used $400 she had saved from server tips to open the meal-prep business, purchasing a few pots and pans and two household ovens.
Inspired by the homemade meals made by her father, an Army cook, when she was a child, Gadola started the meals solutions service in a small kitchen behind the fitness gym.
The business with very humble beginnings began to grow, mostly from word of mouth.
“I started cooking for a few gym members, and pretty soon the word had spread,” she said.
Two years later, Gadola was able to relocate to a commercial kitchen at Iron Horse Campground in Damascus, where her business is flourishing despite the challenges facing business owners during COVID-19.
When COVID-19 practically shut down the world in 2020, Gadola thought her business surely would struggle.
But it continued to thrive and even grow.
“While sheltering at home, many people didn’t want to risk grocery shopping in person,” said Gadola. “That’s when we saw a 20 to 30% increase in business.”
Gadola does it all, from shopping, prepping ingredients and preparing the meals, along with help from Melanie Holmes, a full-time employee, and three part-time employees.
“I have some people order meals for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks,” she said.
“One customer ate my meals for four or five months and lost a lot of weight and even was able to get off some of his medications,” she said.
Sara Roark, of Mountain City, Tennessee, has been using the meals for her family of four since 2018.
“It started out as a convenience, but we got hooked immediately,” she said.
In 2019, Roark was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I genuinely attribute a good portion of my recovery to the fact that we were eating these healthy meals on a weekly basis. We’ve continued almost weekly ever since then,” she said.
Last week’s online menus featured turkey meatballs with marinara sauce, stuffed barbecue chicken sweet potato, cobb salad and butternut squash soup. All meals are gluten-free, including snacks like brownies and avocado chocolate mousse. A cinnamon apple quinoa breakfast bowl helps start the day off right, she said.
Other customer favorites are her Philly steak bowl made with farm-raised beef from Laurel Springs Farm in Marion, covered with sweet potato wedges, mushrooms, peppers, onions and Provolone cheese.
“I always try to offer a salad option,” said Gadola, who makes her own dressings and sauces for recipes.
Quality is an important ingredient for her meals.
She uses alternative ingredients including coconut sugar, a plant-based natural sweetener, locally produced honey by Abingdon Bee Co. and molasses for many of her recipes that need to be sweetened. Her homemade peanut butter cookie is the healthy version of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
“The meats are locally sourced, and the vegetables are grown locally when in season. I don’t prepare anything I wouldn’t eat,” Gadola said.
Many ingredients come from Nathan Breeding of Southern Culture Cuisine, a local food service distributor.
Gadola works several hours each day, preparing the menus and ingredients for each week.
Her big cooking day is Monday, when she arrives at work at 4 a.m. to start measuring ingredients and building the meals for the week.
She puts up a new menu online each Tuesday, allowing customers until Friday to place their orders. On Tuesdays, the meals are delivered by part-time helpers to drop-off locations at Iron Mountain Fitness in Abingdon; Anytime Fitness in Marion; CrossFit 423 in Bristol; CrossFit Beartown in Lebanon; and her own kitchen at Iron Horse Campground in Damascus.
Additional meals that are not preordered by customers are left at Blue Hills Market in Abingdon on Tuesdays.
Thursday is reserved for making snacks and sauces. Friday is a big chopping day. “I chop 10 to 12 gallons of vegetables for one week’s meals,” she said.
When one week comes to a close, it’s time to start planning for next week’s meals, she said.
“It’s a good thing I like to cook.”
Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at [email protected].