Table + Teaspoon started, appropriately enough, over a meal.
“While I was studying for the bar exam, I was going stir-crazy at home,” founder Liz Curtis explains. “A friend came by with lunch and put on Barefoot Contessa, which I’d never seen. I decided that if [Ina Garten] could make it look super-easy to roast a chicken, I could do it too.”
This was in 2009, when Curtis was preparing to become a corporate litigator — and no, she didn’t drop everything to pursue a new career in the food and events industry. Not yet.
Instead, she started a blog.
“I never thought that it would turn out to be anything other than a creative outlet.” After posting some dinner party photos on Facebook, Curtis’s friends suggested she start writing about her experiments in cooking and entertaining. Curtis called her blog Table + Teaspoon, combining the two elements of a good meal: the food you cook, and the table you share.
Curtis spent four years writing for Table + Teaspoon — lawyer by day, blogger by night — before she started seriously thinking about whether she could turn her passion for food and design into a successful startup. Taking the kind of career leap-of-faith that most people would find frightening, Curtis exchanged her lawyer’s salary for a caterer’s wage and started to get to know the industry.
“I had to figure out how to get my hands dirty,” Curtis said — and she did, working private catering events and weddings, and quickly moving up into the world of event design.
Two years into this career change — that’d be summer 2015, for those of you keeping track — Curtis had an unexpected moment of inspiration.
She’d just finished working a 50-person dinner in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, and was returning the rented table services back to a warehouse in Burlingame before driving back home. Again, for those of you keeping track: that’s about an hour’s drive each way.
“It dawned on me,” Curtis said, “that you can get a chef on demand, you can get a sommelier on demand, you can get meal kits, you can get food from your favorite restaurant delivered, but you can’t get a table setting delivered.”
As she drove, Curtis went from asking why can’t you get a table setting delivered to why can’t I deliver them?
“If I could figure out how to put together packages that were designed, it would eliminate the event planner fee, which is exorbitant. If I could figure out the packaging component — which took ten months, as it turns out — it would eliminate the need to drive to remote warehouses to drop off your rentals.”
That’s when Table + Teaspoon began to transform from a blog to a business.
Curtis wanted to make in-home entertaining accessible, and she set out to create a company that would allow people to quickly and easily rent table settings — and quickly and easily return them. “Table + Teaspoon is an on-demand tabletop rental company where you get a complete setting for each of your guests delivered in the mail. You put it back in the box when you’re done and send it away dirty.”
The whole concept, from idea to execution, took about four months. Curtis wrote a business plan, bootstrapped the initial funding by combining a loan from her mother with her own savings, and got to work.
“I designed all of the flatware and linens, formed relationships with glassware and china manufacturers, had to find a place to store all of the goods, had to learn all of the sanitizing regulations, had to learn about shipping — all of the components that go into building a successful company.”
Curtis didn’t have a background in design, but she knew what she wanted and she knew who to ask. “I don’t know how to sew, so I was calling my mom at midnight to ask if it was possible to make a dual-sided napkin without it feeling too cumbersome in everyone’s hands.”
Details like the dual-sided napkins — the nautical-themed Cabot setting includes napkins with a navy-and-white print on one side and an octopus print on the other — allowed Curtis to give her customers options without overwhelming them with choices. She didn’t want Table + Teaspoon to feel like a Bed, Bath & Beyond; she wanted it to feel like a curated selection of luxury place settings, each designed to meet a potential need.
The hardest part, as it turns out? Designing the box.
“We needed to design a box that was as cheap as possible for shipping, since we’re shipping to someone and shipping back.”
Curtis knew each box would include 65 items — 66 counting the box itself — all of which needed to be washable and sanitizable. Minimizing waste made sense from both an environmental and a cost standpoint, but that also meant that Table + Teaspoon couldn’t pack its table runners and teaspoons in foam or cardboard. Curtis needed packing material that could be sanitized and reused in the next shipment, and it took over two dozen iterations before she got the box and the interior she wanted.
“We ended up with a corrugated plastic box with corrugated plastic compartments.” Each box includes plates, flatware, and glassware along with paper goods such as place cards and menu cards. The breakable items are packed in reusable, sanitizable bubble wrap sleeves. The linens folded on top, and at the very top of the box — the first thing you see when you open it up — is an infographic card, explaining where to place each item.
“It seems easy to set a table,” Curtis explained, “but again, for a dinner for four, you’re getting 66 items. That could be easily overwhelming.”
As with the design options, Curtis wanted the entire process to involve as little overwhelm as possible, which is why she made it easy for both herself and for the people using her place settings: All the boxes pack the same way. All the materials are sanitizable. The dishes don’t need to be washed before they’re repacked and returned, and the box includes a return shipping label. Curtis also follows up each box with an email explaining the return process to make sure everything is as clear as possible.
A fully-packed Table + Teaspoon box measures 11 inches by 26 inches and weighs 25 pounds. It’s designed to impress, and — if necessary — to take a fall. “We did a bunch of drop testing, so we know how many feet it takes to break each piece.” Each box can ship back and forth 50 times before it needs to be replaced.
Curtis tested six different shipping companies before committing to FedEx. Part of the reason she chose FedEx was because of its accessibility: “Everyone knows where a FedEx Office location is.” (If you don’t, or can’t access one easily, you can also schedule an in-person pickup for a reasonable rate.)
The other reason is because FedEx, unlike some of the other options, didn’t damage her carefully designed boxes by adding extra packing tape or by write on them with permanent marker. “No writing, no tape, great pickup scheduling. We’re happy with that decision.”
Table + Teaspoon officially launched in August 2016; they’re now shipping 25 boxes per week and have enough stock to send out 90 boxes a week as the business continues to grow. “It’s a tiny team, and some days it is just me, and some days it feels overwhelming because there are fourteen people trying to get out boxes as quickly as possible for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Although Curtis has help, including a publicist and a web designer, she does much of the hands-on work herself, including washing, packing, and checking to make sure nothing slips through any metaphorical — or literal — cracks.
“If you have a dinner party for eight, it’s someone’s 30th birthday, and you end up with everything except one person has no place card or menu card, this whole table’s not going to be Instagram-worthy anymore. That’s why people are renting my product.”
One of the most amazing aspects of Curtis’s success story is how she launched Table + Teaspoon with no previous startup experience:
“The only thing I walked in with was the idea that I could disrupt two different industries: the events industry, which is a five billion dollar industry annually, and the on-demand food industry, which is a four billion dollar industry. There’s no innovation in the events industry, and there’s nothing to put all of this food on in the on-demand food industry. I knew that, so I did market research based on that, I knew that my designs had been very popular via my blog and my clients, and that was my foundation.”
“It’s sort of the opposite of being a lawyer.”
Her next goal is to seek investor funding so she can hire additional staff to handle the marketing and sales components. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that I can’t learn fast enough to scale fast enough. I have to hire people who know more than I do, and that’s where I am now.”
What advice does Curtis have for other entrepreneurs?
“Figure out how passionate you are about your idea, because the day-to-day self-doubt, from yourself and from other people, will be overwhelming. Figure out how much this passion is worth to you, write it down, put it in your purse, put it in your wallet, and pull it out when you need a reminder that this is what you want to be doing more than anything.”
Once you put your piece of paper back into your wallet, remember that logistics and operations are just skills that can be learned — and quickly — and that even complicated shipping problems can be solved, one design iteration at a time.
“The thing that seemed the most impossible at the beginning was the packaging, and I had a friend that said ‘You know, if NASA can get rockets with people on them to the moon, you can figure out how to ship dishes.’ I think that was one of my favorite pieces of advice, because it’s true. No problem is insurmountable.”