Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Uri Attia, and I started Portable Chef.
Portable Chef makes meals, using the best ingredients from small family farms, customized to suit our clients’ food preferences and dietary requirements.
Our customers include: busy professionals who like meals the way they like them; people trying to lose weight, lower blood pressure, or manage an illness through diet; and people pressed for time who want to have healthy meals they will like available to them at all times.
We make 25,000 custom meals a year, and our average monthly revenue is $60,000.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was broke and desperate! I’ve always been a serious amateur cook, but my career was in banking. When the financial crisis of 2008 left me highly leveraged and jobless in an environment in which nobody was hiring, I didn’t know where the rent was going to come from. So I built a very poor website myself and got to cooking.
I felt I understood the demands of busy New Yorkers, and how a customizable food service could provide value not just with good food, but by taking one to-do item off people’s (metaphorical) plates.
I had never been satisfied with my career. I spent years - decades, really - imagining that I would have some sort of “aha!” moment in which I discovered that perfect thing that I had always wanted to do but couldn’t name, and in service of that nebulous goal I always had one foot out the door of the job I held. But after circumstances required that I put my all into Portable Chef just to survive, I realized that this was that thing I’d been looking for.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
This was the easy part. In starting Portable Chef, all I was really doing, especially at first, was creating the meals that I was already making at home, only at scale. So I knew how I wanted plated meals to look and what components I wanted them to contain: generally a main dish plus either two vegetables or one vegetable and one grain.
There were some additional circumstances - these meals were to be fully cooked, then refrigerated and delivered cold, to be warmed up at the customer’s home or office. So we tested meals in exactly that way - rather than make dinner for my family the night, I’d warm up the food I had cooked the day before, then I would make dinner for my family for the *next* night and stick it in the fridge.
Our basic idea - that we would be a personal chef service that could accommodate our clients’ particular needs in terms of ingredients, portion and plan sizes, and delivery schedules - has remained pretty much intact from the outset. Having lived in the city for my entire life, one thing we had going for us is that I felt I understood the demands of busy New Yorkers, and how a customizable food service could provide value not just with good food, but by taking one to-do item off people’s (metaphorical) plates.
We have clients that order two meals a week from us, and others that get three meals a day every day. So we cater to several different use cases.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Prior to starting a business, I always imagined the launch would be complex, with lots of moving parts, a big marketing-y launch party, advertising… the real launch turned out to be much simpler. “Fortunately,” we had zero money to do anything - so there weren’t a lot of decisions to be made in how to spend! No point in wondering “how much money and effort should we devote to internet advertising?” or “what wine should we serve at the opening party?” when there’s no budget for that.
We basically set up a website using some free online tools and ran with it. It was as bootstrapping as could be at first: we cooked food in my apartment kitchen with a wine fridge repurposed to hold produce. I made all our deliveries myself at first.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Our approach to retain existing customers and to gain new ones has been based on a single-minded focus to please the customers we already have. A satisfied customer will stay with you; a *thrilled* customer will refer others to you, and those people will be better prospects than someone you attract through advertising.
We’ve never done incentive programs to get people to sign up, we don’t advertise, and we don’t use complicated pricing or discount schemes to keep people in the fold - we’ve always believed that if we do our jobs well, customers will respond to that.
A satisfied customer will stay with you; a *thrilled* customer will refer others to you, and those people will be better prospects than someone you attract through advertising.
Our first clients came in at a trickle, but from the same two sources that we rely on today: word of mouth and internet searches. Friends were tolerant at a time when we needed that, offered feedback that was very helpful on our way to figuring out how to do this job well.
We got lucky with internet searches when a blog I wrote, about which of the two famous pasta sauce-making scenes in Goodfellas and The Godfather would yield the tastier result, got picked up by a few news outlets and it was enough to give us great search placement.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our business is good! We feel optimistic. Every year, we have done our jobs a little better than the prior-year - that often leads to revenue growth, but even in down years, we’ve always been able to improve how we operate the business.
While bad news can strike any time, being able to survive through Covid has made us feel like we can handle what comes our way. Our business changed a bit - we have fewer customers than we did in 2019, but they are ordering more on average.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Attract good people, and when you do, retain them. In a startup environment specifically, employee turnover can have brutal effects on management time. Early on I hired cooks on a per-day basis - when they would quit, or not show up for a shift, the knowledge specific to the business was gone with them. That meant it was up to me at least to educate the new person and get them up to speed, and often more than that - there were many, many times that I woke up believing I could dedicate the day to business strategy but actually ended up spending it washing dishes because someone didn’t show up.
One day, a Craigslist ad led to an absolutely brilliant chef walking in to work for the day; I knew we needed to get him on board permanently. We paid generously to keep him; while my accountant thought we were giving above-market compensation, it was and continues to be an easy call for us. There’s little doubt in my mind that the stability we’ve had in the kitchen - both he and his #2 have been with Portable Chef for eight years now - has been essential to allow us to improve and grow as a business.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
For the site, we slowly ramped up in cost and sophistication as the business grew - I built our first website myself with Apple’s old iWeb platform. It was woefully inadequate for taking orders, so each new customer inquiry resulted in lots of emails going back and forth to work out their order - but it allowed us to quickly have a web presence at literally zero cost.
When it started to become clear that this business had legs, we paid a web developer and upgraded to a site that uses WordPress for content and Shopify for ordering, a vast improvement both on the customer-facing side and on the labor is required on our end to accept and fulfill an order. Still, we realized over the years that the specifics of ordering our product made it a less-than-perfect fit for off-the-shelf-eCommerce platforms like Shopify, so the v3.0 of our site that’s currently in development includes a custom-built ordering section.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Friends who have started their own businesses have been far and away from my best resources. A huge part of this is emotional support - when you’re starting a business, it’s a pretty lonely pursuit. Small pieces of bad news can feel like seismic events, and all sorts of negative existential thoughts can creep in (“Why in the world did I decide to do this for a living?!?!?”), and when they do it’s always helpful to remember that you’re not alone in this.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Just do the thing. Don’t wait for the right time, or the money to come in to start in that perfect way. This is even true if you know your business will eventually require a big capital infusion - maybe even especially in those situations. Just figure out what you can do now and do it. You’ll learn so much, and when the time comes to make a big investment your experience running the business on a shoestring will help you make good decisions about what investment is truly necessary and what isn’t.
For example in our business: a commercial kitchen is a huge expense, even when you’re refitting an existing kitchen. And I was completely broke but determined to start this business. So we didn’t build one out at first.
For a couple of years, I operated out of my apartment; after that, we rented kitchen space by the shift from an existing catering company that was often in the space when we were there. Once we outgrew that situation, we rented a commercial kitchen space that was dedicated to Portable Chef.
When that lease expired, we had already been in business for nine years, had saved a bit of money, and knew exactly what we needed - so when we bought warehouse space and spent a fortune to convert it into a kitchen, we had the confidence that the space we were building would serve our needs for years, even decades, to come. Had I been sitting on a pile of cash when starting the business, I would have certainly tried to build the perfect kitchen from the outset - and absent the experience of running the business would have made tons of mistakes in building the kitchen.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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