The news had been very positive for HUNGRY going into the spring season.
The catering platform, which connects office workers and other groups to talented chefs in their cities, just closed a Series B of just under $20 million at the beginning of March. Among the investors were famous names, from athletes like Atlanta Falcons running back Todd Gurley to comedian Kevin Hart and rapper Jay-Z, through his Marcy Venture Partners fund.
The billionaire artist and mogul was actually coming back for seconds, after pitching in on HUNGRY’s $8 million Series A in 2019, which also included celebrity chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio and R&B singer Usher. Even executives like Walter Robb (former CEO of Whole Foods) were investing.
What a difference a few weeks can make. Not many folks are looking for catering right now, since local and federal social distancing guidelines and widespread shelter-in-place mandates have become the order of the day.
But if that sounded like the end of HUNGRY, you may be forgetting a simple truism of life: Everybody’s gotta eat.
In just a few days, HUNGRY pivoted to a new business model — one co-founder and COO Eman Pahlavani says is likely to hang around when all of this pandemic stuff is over, hopefully in a few months.
For now, HUNGRY is now operating as HUNGRY@Home. Instead of having a catering “Captain” pickup, deliver, setup, serve and handle post-meal cleanup for your lunch or office event, customers can now subscribe to have meals prepared by the same high-caliber chefs, and delivered at their preferred frequency (1-3 times per week) to their homes.
There’s a $100 minimum order, which gets you eight servings of food, averaging out to $12 per person, with no delivery fee.
When Pahlavani started HUNGRY three years ago, it was because he knew providing lunch for his employees was a good thing to do.
He’d grown his first venture-backed business, a safety and security risk management platform called LiveSafe, into a team of around 90 employees, and regularly ordered food for his team of millennial workers.
Although he knew it was an added perk that would help team-building efforts, he also felt that there was room for improvement.
“I realized it creates camaraderie and culture, but no one was really doing office catering all that well,” Pahlavani says.
Rather than Panera, Chipotle, and other usual suspects, why not build a platform to let office workers try dishes prepared by exceptional local chef talent? Couldn’t that be helpful to local economies and a game-changer for chefs looking for access to new revenue, in a business-in-a-box format?
And these aren’t just any run-of-the-mill chefs that can flip an Impossible Burger or pressure-cook a batch of pulled pork an Instant Pot.
Pahlavani says all chefs on the platform have culinary degrees or have cooked for a certain amount of years in a restaurant. After applying, chefs provide tastings to local HUNGRY office teams, who rate the food and provide feedback. According to Pahlavani, more than 1,000 chefs applied to work in D.C., and less than 10 percent made the cut.
“Our team has to try it, and love it,” Pahlavani says.
HUNGRY operates in five U.S. cities right now — New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Atlanta. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the plan was to offer delivery in 24 U.S. markets by the end of 2021. The platform has around 30 chefs in Atlanta, and was adding more weekly before COVID-19 changed the situation.
Still, HUNGRY’s Atlanta chefs come with considerable credentials. Chef Bryan is a former chef for the Atlanta Falcons. Chef Tregaye, who Pahlavani says is very popular, is a Food Network Star winner. There are also chefs that come from the kitchen incubator started by Usher’s mother, Jonetta Patton.
“We haven’t shut down the catering side — we’re serving a lot of hospitals, medical labs, folks working on this thing around the clock. They still need food,” Pahlavani says. “But this is the priority because most of our clients are now in their home.”
Pahlavani says HUNGRY is also now being used to spread something that we could use more of: goodwill.
He says influencers and celebrities are looking to use HUNGRY to donate to people with food insecurity, and some prefer to send catered foods rather than canned goods, in an attempt to promote healthy eating while keeping chefs and caterers employed.
Kevin Hart even got in on the giving. He donated food through HUNGRY in Philadelphia, for first responders at a hospital, and in communities where vulnerable elderly citizens aren’t able to go out for food.
Pahlavani is optimistic. He says he’s thinking of ways to respond to how things will be once the coronavirus scare is behind us.
“I think companies are going to be cautious about how much catering they do, because people are going to be mindful of cleanliness and sanitation,” he says of the immediate ramp-up to the new normal. “We’re already designing improved catering options that are wrapped around taking safety and sanitation to the next level.” He says this will include Curel sanitizing stands in front of catering lines so customers can clean their hands before they grab food.
He wants to save as many jobs as he can, while being smart about the path forward. “The market is going to seek consolidation. We were incredibly blessed. We were funded about a month before it hits. Our costs are low. We don’t own the kitchens or the food. It’s basically 1099s. We’re leveraging them when we need them.”
In the meantime, Pahlavani has this advice for other companies and leaders: “Motivate your employees. Bring in food, have happy hours and celebrate getting over this thing. We’re going to be a little bit of a new world, but catering is not going to go away. We can come out of this much stronger.”
And after all, even when COVID-19 has come and gone, there will always be startups full of foodies.
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