Street Culture: Seattle Food Startup Delivers Culture to Chef Partners

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Lish, a two-year-old meal delivery startup in Seattle, is customer-focused, of course. But there’s one word that keeps coming up for the company’s nine employees: Chefs.

Chefs are the secret winners of this startup concept, an idea that was driven by the frustrating moment when a busy commuter leaves work, realizes he has no food at home and can’t stomach the thought of another night of heavy fast food. Lish co-founder and CEO Aakhil Fardeen wanted to solve a problem for that person (himself), and the company’s trajectory is sending it into a new realm of the restaurant industry.

Lish currently partners with 40 local chefs in the Seattle area  including James Beard nominated chef Ethan Stowell and top-rated restaurant owner Ericka Burke  to deliver healthy meals to local customers. But the platform is also a way for an otherwise unknown chef to get a foot in the door and start building an independent business.

“It’s a great opportunity for chefs that doesn’t exist today,” Fardeen said. “The only thing they are spending money on is the food costs and their time. There isn’t a sign up cost and they’re not even paying for packaging.”

For a motivated up-and-coming chef, the alternatives are to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to start a new restaurant, or open a food truck that can also cost around $100,000 up front. With Lish, there’s no need for any of those up-front costs. All you need, Fardeen said, is a brilliant chef.

For customers, the Lish team curates the menu, offering “greatest hits” from each chef and at the same time doubling down the focus on meal quality.  The office is located on a floor above a commissary kitchen, one where some of the company’s chef partners work out of. Fardeen said he talks to at least one of the chefs every day, but he knows that that could change as the company grows.

“As we scale, we want to be involved in some way or another so we understand how chefs think about this,” he said. “The business has to work for the chefs as well as the paying customers.”

The company has been growing about 15 percent month over month for the last year, Fardeen said, and it wasn’t that long ago when they didn’t have dedicated delivery drivers and he was delivering meals himself. In the coming year or two, he does have some policies he knows will need to be maintained, including one strategy he adapted from his time working at Amazon.

“Every employee was required to spend one day in the customer service center,” he said. “Amazon used to do that when they were 5,000 people. I’m not sure if they still do, but the one day that I spent there was incredibly valuable for me, to understand how Amazon dealt with customer service. I was shocked at how they would give away coupons and promo codes to people who had issues, or even if they didn’t have issues. What that did was it built that trust and loyalty.”

When building trust and loyalty with both customers and employees, the company mission is a backbone often referred back to for consistency and clarity. Lish’s three company values are the focus on the customer, quality, and variety, Fardeen said.

“And chefs,” he said. “Those are the four words that will come up if you talk to anybody [at Lish]. And they’ll also talk about the culture being very data driven. Mark [Piper, Lish co-founder] and I come from a highly analytical backgrounds, very numbers-driven, and the restaurant culture is not like that. Our culture marries both of those, the food creativity aspect and the data.”

The data gathered from customers on what they like and don’t like helped drive that variety value, which Fardeen said was immensely important  that customers are not left out due to food allergies or certain preferences.

That’s another place where the founding values of the company are helpful – it would be harder to understand how to manage that need for variety without chef-specific knowledge. Aaron Strauss, Lish’s operations manager, is a professionally trained chef who knows the challenges that can come with working in the kitchen.

“When you’re building a team, you need to hire people who know specific areas better than you do,” Fardeen said. “Aaron is excellent at operations because he understands those pain points that chefs can have better than anyone.”

Bringing the Lish team together happens automatically because of the food – every week the team meets to try out new meals that might end up on the official menu.

“It’s exciting for the team to do it together and it’s also important for the business,” Fardeen said. “We had a team event in the last month, we had a butchery session. Aaron taught everyone how to butcher an entire goat. Maybe that’s not the most exciting thing for a tech company, but as a company that manages both food and tech it was really fun.”

April Nowicki is a Street Fight contributor.