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Back in 2005, when Johel Woodliff’s squad of Marines was guarding a bridge in Iraq, you’d think their supply of MREs (Meals Ready-to-Eat) would be the last of their concerns. But you’d be wrong.

“We’d already been out there 35 days when our resupply was ambushed,” Woodliff revealed. “It was another week before they got out to us, and we were down to one MRE a day. It was miserable.”

Soldiers understand more than most that food is fuel for the mind and body—as essential in any fight as arms or intel. After all, it wasn’t the Russians who defeated Napoleon so much as snow and supply lines.

That keen insight and camaraderie of three local Marines was the inspiration for MRE Columbus, a meal-prep service that combines the convenience of comfort food delivered to your door with a nutritionally-minded menu that doesn’t compromise on common cravings or complex flavors.

“We get a mixture of a lot of different careers, but gyms have been the primary contact we’ve had for promotion. We have a strong female clientele,” Woodliff said. “There is a discount for veterans as well. We like to thank them personally for their service, from one veteran to another.”

The three are all hands-on owners, but have divided their disciplines to match their military and civilian expertise.

Woodliff, as director of marketing, promotions, and events, runs the outreach side of the enterprise. Director of Food Service Operations, Jeff Cipro handles culinary creativity. Josh Shields, director of operations, manages the business side of things. There’s obviously collaboration in a startup this small, but staying in their respective lanes keeps things moving smoothly.

Shields is a Columbus native. Woodliff and Cipro, both of Massillon, have been friends since high school, but happened to end up serving together in the Corps as well. The venture combines their unique blend of business degrees and client relations with restaurant management and military mess hall experience preparing meals for thousands. All three are OSU alumni.

One of the most distinguishing selling points about MRE Columbus isn’t what you get — it’s what you don’t. Their meals are all GMO-, antibiotic-, gluten-, and dairy-free.

“We were looking for a commercial kitchen to lease and found one in Dublin that was also used as a gluten-free bakery,” Woodliff noted. “That’s initially why we decided to stay gluten-free.”

MRE Columbus quickly outgrew that first facility and soon moved to a larger kitchen, which they recently purchased. In fact, they bought the entire business from whom they used to lease space, for anticipated expansion of menu items and hours of operation.

Online ordering isn’t just easy, it’s also informative—with exact calorie, fat, protein, and carb counts, as well as a list of ingredients. Allergy, preference, and substitution options are always available for those whose needs or goals require customization. Deliveries match the Sunday evening schedule to which most meal preppers are already accustomed, with each order arriving in an insulated bag.

One of the driving differences offered by individual meal prep, or services like MRE Columbus, are options that just don’t work with TV dinners, “healthy choices,” or other frozen fare. Nothing I tried tasted like leftovers either, or needed Tabasco—still the standard issue condiment of the Marine Corps.

The steak fajita bowl held up shockingly well. Microwaved beef is hard to do right, even more challenging than chicken. I tried the steak before and after reheating—still moist and tender. Dry and tough are the norm, by my experience reheating most carved meats.

The more mildly-seasoned turkey meatloaf paired with the cayenne pepper of the spicy sweet potato mash had great contrast, new yet familiar—like Thanksgiving’s cousin from an alternate universe. I’m also a sucker for succotash, and the bison bowl’s blend of corn and lima beans to round out the brown rice base had a bright, light depth for such a nutritionally dense meal.

The visual appeal of ready–made meals is often an underrated consideration or frequent compromise. Everything looked plated, not simply prepared. Each meal was on point, with some unexpected synergy. My hands-down favorite was the spaghetti squash chicken parm. With thin ribbons of squash to twirl on your fork, it has all of the comfort food feel you’d expect, without the guilt or gluttony of pasta.

“When Jeff suggested using spaghetti squash instead of gluten-free noodles to keep the carbs down, Josh and I were skeptical. I hate squash—have my whole life,” admitted Woodliff. “But it’s become one of our surprise hits. The sweetness of the squash and the marinara together just works.”

There have been misses as well. Hopes were high for their flank steak pinwheels, but declining orders quickly pushed it off the menu. It was just a difficult cut of meat to cook consistently at a large scale. MRE Columbus surveys their customers candidly to ensure both their meals and their service continue to adapt and evolve to meet demand.

“Our clients are very supportive and willing to work with us, offering feedback and suggestions,” Woodliff explained. “When we fall short of their expectations, they let us know. Giving new businesses a chance, and becoming involved in that growth, is just part of the Columbus culture.” 

For more, visit mrecolumbus.com.

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