If you're after a startup story with a good luck streak, then that of Rahul Parekh, co-founder of EatFirst, might be the one for you.
One evening, late last April, Parekh was holed up in a Mayfair hotel. He got chatting to some friends of a friend who, it transpired, worked for Rocket Internet – one of the world’s biggest e-commerce focused venture capital firms and startup incubators.
“I told them about my idea [for EatFirst] and they loved it. I hadn’t thought about leaving my job, but within a month I’d left and started on the business full time.”
EatFirst is a food delivery service that cooks fresh lunches (and soon dinners) in its Wapping kitchen, before delivering them to the City – within 15 minutes of your order being placed. Indeed, you might have seen one of its branded mopeds coursing through the streets.
“I wasn’t unique in working long hours in the City while also being health-conscious and knowing the impact of not being able to eat well. It’s so convenient to get unhealthy food. You’ve got no time to leave the desk; you just grab whatever is nearby.”
Having launched at the end of August 2014, the team plans to deliver 1,000 meals a day within the next five to six months. The London office has a twin in Berlin (which is where Rocket Internet is based), and Parekh has two co-founders, Humberto Ayres Pereira and Torben Schulz, who head up the German side of the business.
MAKING THE JUMP
The Mayfair hotel encounter was a lucky break for a man already doing well. For eight years, Parekh had been a trader at Goldman Sachs, and was very happy in his job. His role building a platform for trading securitised derivative products was keeping his entrepreneurial side well satisfied.
But he had been sitting with the idea for EatFirst for a while, and “the more I thought about it, the more I thought ‘it’s a viable business’. I intended to solve the problem for myself anyway, so thought, ‘why not solve it for everyone else too?’"
Leaving Goldman was “pretty scary and quite emotional,” but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The virgin entrepreneur had never given himself a timeline, or drawn up a business plan – and that’s where working with an incubator has proved so helpful.
He’d certainly recommend it – “if you’ve never started a business before on your own, it gives you the positive mindset you need. It can also take a very long time if you’re going alone – an incubator gives you a structured approach. It’s not a hand-holding exercise at all, but we can get in touch as and when we need to.”
Rocket’s food business experience and track record in building strong IT platforms have both been invaluable, he says. Parekh’s career experience has also stood him in good stead to run his own business.
Well versed in managing his own time, he says that the corporate world’s focus on team culture has given him something to emulate: “that side of things was very well-established at Goldman, and I’ve been able to bring it into my own business.”
Business partners and fellow foodies Pereira (founder of cosmetics firm Skinonline and formerly of McKinsey & Co) and entrepreneur Schulz are also assets Parekh wouldn’t go without. They were introduced by Rocket Internet – another way the incubator has helped the business take off.
“It’s not just about sharing the workload or the responsibilities, but more about the ability to bounce ideas off each other and constantly challenge each other to do better.” The threesome are persistently prodding each other to devise better ideas to grow the business – a testament to rivalry pushing up standards.
EatFirst offers just two options on its menu, which changes daily – one meat and one vegetarian. Some might be forgiven for thinking that this is quite limiting for a customer.
But the brand’s focus on quality aligns it with top restaurants where you’ll find only a couple of options, but patrons know what they’ll get will be good.
“We just want to keep it simple and quick for customers. It’s always going to be a good meal.”
Parekh likens being able to look at the menu in the morning to texting a spouse or housemate to ask what’s for dinner. You trust it’ll be great, and you just want to know in advance so you can anticipate it.
The five-strong kitchen team, led by Michelin-experienced Jane Tran, always uses free-range and, where possible, organic ingredients.
“‘Healthy’ for us means balanced,” says Parekh.
“It’s something you can eat without having to worry about your health. We’re also fully transparent with what’s going into each meal” – all ingredients and nutritional information are included every day on the website.
“Although our meals are very different, they always look quite similar nutritionally.” And EatFirst’s “guilt-free” experience extends further than what you put in your mouth. Along with compostable packaging, they’ve already donated thousands of meals to charity.
“We will never waste food. At the moment, we’re working with St Mungo’s, Veterans Aid, The Renaissance Foundation and Kids Company to ensure no meal goes to waste.” It might mean increased overheads, but it’s about priorities – “it’s not always easy, but for us, these things are important.”
Now, the name of the game is growing the business as quickly as possible.
“We’ve just done E1, E2 and others. In two to three months, we’ll be in West London, including Chelsea and Kensington.”
Plans to roll out across other cities – from Sydney to Stockholm, and across the UK – are in the ether, but the team is keen to get London right first, with EatFirst’s dinner service set to start next week.
A TOPIC OF NECESSITY
The astonishing thing about working with food, says Parekh, is the enthusiasm people have for it: “it’s incredible how willing people have been to feed back.”
All this customer input is being used to inform the dishes that are offered – “we want to make the most of it.” And other requests are being taken up as well: customer loyalty schemes, friend referrals and standing orders are all in the pipeline.
I ask Parekh what qualities he thinks make a good entrepreneur, and his answer is refreshingly straightforward: “you need to manage your time in the best way possible, because there’s only so much you can get done in a day. But the cornerstone is just hard work. Starting a business really feels very personal. I’m constantly thinking about the business – every decision you make has a big impact. After all, it’s your baby.”
CV: RAHUL PAREKH
Company name: EatFirst
Founded: August 2014
Job title: Co-founder
Number of staff: 30
Studied: Economics at Cambridge University
Drinking: Fresh fruit smoothies, especially orange and mango
Eating: I like a healthy take on familiar dishes like wholewheat pastas, brown rice curries and high-protein meals. It makes me feel good and perform well
Currently reading: The Hundred-Foot Journey, by Richard Morais
Favourite business book: The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz
Talents: Cooking up new ideas
First ambition: To build a successful business
Motto: Eat well and be well
Most likely to say: “Let’s try it”
Least likely to say: “Let’s get a McDonald’s”