The recipe for a successful startup soup is as follows: throw super-bright nerds in a saucepan, sprinkle liberally with enthusiasm, and heat with as much funding as you can scrape together.
It sounds simple, but the failure rates are high. No matter how hard you stir, or how brilliant your nerds, your soup can end up tasting like cheap packet ramen. Which is why so many startups are now hiring in-house chefs.
Successful companies like Google, LinkedIn, Zynga, Palantir, Dropbox, and Airbnb all started food programs early in their lifetimes. Hiring an in-house chef hasn’t always been high on a startups’ list of priorities, but it was only a matter of time before smaller companies began to catch on. Bandpage, a music startup in San Francisco, hired a chef as the fifteenth full-time employee to prepare free meals for the company and guests.
For the CEO of Bandpage J. Sider, the economic calculation is simple. In the Bay Area startup scene, the average employee salary is around $100,000. Break that down to a per-hourly rate, and each employee costs $48 per hour-long paid lunch break.
“The reality of serving food in-house,” says Sider, “is that people end up taking somewhere between 30-45 minutes for lunch instead of the full hour.” That’s a saving of up to $24 per employee every day. Projected over an entire year, the average saving is $93,600 for 15 employees. According to Sider, that’s enough to pay for a chef’s salary as well as food costs. And those numbers only get more compelling with scale.
Because the operational costs of food programs are both ordinary and necessary, they’re tax deductible business expenses. Coupled with the fact that unconsumed food can be donated to organizations like Food Shift for tax write-offs, building a food program early is a phenomenally compelling business decision.
The equation is even better for employees. Assuming that an average meal ticket at an area restaurant is $12, eating two meals a day at the office at least four days a week can save over $5000 in post-tax money a year. Many food programs also supplement meals with snacks, CSA boxes, and alcohol, meaning that the actual savings are higher. One software engineer at Stripe, the mobile payment platform for developers, reported that eating at the office’s in-house food program was now saving them close to $10,000 a year.
Redefining Work Life Balance
Of course, it’s possible to construe these programs as a sinister tactic to keep employees bound to their desks for more hours. But, sharing meals has a more complicated relationship to success than the purely economic.
For Airbnb’s Chef Sam Lippman, food provides an emotional connection. No matter what you’re working on or who you’re working with, says Lippman, lunch-time is a shared experience, an informal chance to talk and exchange ideas. “It brings disparate teams together, allows for cross-pollination of ideas, and is one of the secrets to our success.”
Silicon Valley is notorious for having the youngest employees of nearly any industry: at Google, the median age is 29. According to the Bureau of Statistics, that’s 13 years younger than American median employee age of 42.3. It’s an age forced down by the fact that people flood to the Bay Area right out of college, keen to jump into work but with little experience taking care of themselves, and far away from their families.
It’s hardly surprising that in-house chefs see themselves as providing an intimate form of support. Thumbtack’s Exec Chef Aubrey Saltus says that she feels like a mom to the whole company. “I provide a home cooked meal each day and an opportunity for family bonding. I’ve developed a strong connection that transcends food… I’ve had employees come to me and cry on their last days.”
As engineers brag about their startup’s food quality to friends, food programs have become powerful recruiting and retention tools. At Bandpage, says Chef Callie Waldman, all interviewees are screened around the lunch table in a casual setting. “This tends to put people at ease and I’ve had current employees tell me that our kitchen was a major driver in joining us over another opportunity.”
MVP and The Consummate Hacker
With in-house food programs fast becoming a competitive industry, hiring a chef is no longer a lavish Silicon Valley extravagance. Just start with the “minimal viable product [MVP]”, and hack it from there. According to Waldman, “No stage in a startup is permanent, and your food program can be bootstrapped too… Start with a part-time chef, one meal and a few snacks a week. Just make sure you lay the groundwork with intention.”
Zynga’s Bairam Jacobsohn also advocates a back-to-the-basics approach. “Start with sandwiches and build from there. Get product development feedback from your employees — they know what they need, and they are your user. Develop an MVP around them and work closely with your office managers. And sooner or later you end up with the oven you need.”
Today, both Airbnb and Zynga sit at the pinnacle of the corporate dining experience. But it didn’t start that way. According to Lippman, Airbnb fed almost 300 employees with an improvised kitchen. “We had a grill on the roof, rice cookers and inductions stoves, and we did a bunch of raw vegan stuff.”
Zynga’s Jacobsohn describes the beginning of their food program as a guerrilla world. “It was a lot of responsibility. But we were ready for the challenge. Ready to solve problems. Facilities and equipment can be expensive, but we proved that benefits outweighed the costs with our approach. The costs came down with scale and then flattened out.”
Chefs, by the nature of their work, embody a consummate hacker ethos. They ship rapidly iterated product every day, to real customers. Recipes are their spec sheets, and the tools in front of them, no matter how limited, are the resources they use to build. This can be inspirational to the rest of the team, because the right chef “knows how to roll with the lunches” says Jacobsohn. “They’ll go to the end of the earth to make sure their employees are healthy and happy.”
Finding the right chef is easier than you think
Chefs are attracted to startups by a full-time salary, benefits and sane working hours, all of which are rare in traditional restaurant kitchens.
Former CouchSurfing Chef Ken Hernandez advocates “plugging into the active and vibrant office manager network,” like OrgOrg. Office managers tend to work closely with chefs. “Look for candidates that are flexible and have experience scaling meals.”
Most importantly, your candidates should reflect the culture you want to build and have passion for your company’s mission and vision. A chef who doesn’t gel with the company can kill the entire program. “It’s such an important position,” says Lippman. “You need to make sure that their interests align with yours, just like for any other leadership role at a successful company.”
Once you’ve narrowed down your list of candidates, make sure you test them hard. Founders and HR folk will already be familiar with the relevant interview techniques, as hiring a chef is strangely similar to hiring an engineer! “Ask to test them for a week and pull out some Top Chef-style [stuff],” says Jacobsohn. “Throw in some wrinkles and challenges to see how they react… The best chef for you is a problem solver who shows a passion for what they’re doing, and for what the company is doing.”
In data-driven Silicon Valley, the proof is in the pudding. Or the sandwich, or the soup. No matter which crappy pun you decide to go with, in-house chefs are proving that they play a successful role not only in providing companies with an economic edge, but with a social one as well. After all, if your programmers aren’t eating, they’re probably not coding either!
Sourcery is a startup based in San Francisco, whose mission is to help food businesses thrive. A chef can’t waste valuable time hunting down ingredients. Sourcery takes care of the heavy lifting; from identifying which suppliers are able to deliver products that satisfy your needs, to optimizing your ordering workflow and managing your payments, so you can focus on what you do best: cooking great food for the rest of us.