Imagine airbnb as a dining experience where your host is an acclaimed chef, your room a clandestine retreat amongst London’s folly, and you begin to get a sense of how Grub Club works. The food tech start-up operates as a digital platform connecting adventurous diners with talented chefs and underused spaces. With around 40 pop-up food events each week in the capital, Grub club offers a wholly unique experience allowing chefs and diners to experience creative ambitious food experiences outside of the familiar restaurant environment. A true chef’s table. The events vary from a Masterchef session with chef Nick Benett, to a Sierra Leonean Supper Club, or a seven course Latin American menu within St Pancras’ Clock Tower. In its third year of business, it is continuously growing its fan base, with around 500 chefs, 1,000 venues and 30,000 diners. We met with Co-Founder, Siddarth Vijayakumar, to get a sense of his entrepreneurial journey, and how he turned the restaurant business model on its head.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
At 18 years old I came to the UK from India for university. After I graduated in 2003 I worked in online advertising. Tech was taking off fast at the time and I knew that I wanted to be involved in some way.
Did you aspire to become an entrepreneur?
Not really, no. Even though my parents have their own businesses I didn’t necessarily want to start my own. My ideal situation would have been that someone approached me with a business idea and I became their first employee – it would mean I wouldn’t have to make all the tough decisions! Sadly, that is not how it went!
How did you get the idea for Grub Club?
In 2009 I went on holiday to Zanzibar as I had some friends out there, and in Kenya. Upon arriving, I was shocked and sad to find only American and Italian food chains there, nothing authentic! By chance, I came across this place called Two Tables and it was just that: two tables in someone’s home! The idea inspired me… I loved that it provided a creative and talented chef the opportunity to use their skills while offering travellers an authentic food experience. And I wanted to replicate that experience all over the world. And this was before Airbnb or even the concept of the sharing economy existed.
What was a critical moment for Grub Club?
When I came back to London I spoke to a few investors, but I was met with blank stares – no one believed in my idea, even my friends thought that it wouldn’t work. As a result, I kept it in the back on my mind and simply continued working for 9 years. Meeting my co-founder Liv who was equally inspired by the idea was the turning point.
We met in the middle of the Indian jungle, in Bandipur National Park, as we were both visiting a common friend who was setting up his own hotel there. She was in India implementing an HR branch for Goldman Sachs at the time, but had a background working as a chef. When I told her about my idea she instantly loved it!
Was timing essential to the success of your business?
I think that timing is really important when you set up a business, and setting up our business 9 years ago would have been much more difficult. The food space has really taken off in the last 2 or 3 years. I also believe that being able to adapt is crucial. Our idea evolved over time.
When we launched in January 2013 we initially wanted to have these experiences taking place in people’s homes. I personally love meeting new people like this, but for many it’s quite daunting. It was also hard to scale and organize.
Then one day, we saw a coffee shop closing at 3 in the afternoon. It seemed incredibly early and meant that the space wasn’t being used to its full potential. Through making that observation, we identified an opportunity for us to use the space and for the owner to maximize its potential – a win-win situation! On top of that we found that people really enjoyed unusual settings, which increased our search for exciting locations.
How do you find venues?
They usually come to us. There are loads of unused spaces in London and rent is incredibly expensive. More and more businesses are trying to become multi purpose – a coffee shop in the morning, a café at lunch or a bar in the evening… Our business is another way for them to monetise their venue. Sometimes though, Grub Clubs can take place in private places, such as chefs’ own homes, which makes for an incredibly unique experience.
The restaurant business model seems to have a lot of flaws. How does Grub Club influence that?
The restaurant business is very tough and includes a lot of overheads – rent, price of furniture, tax… We literally take away all these pain points for chefs, so that only the best things are left: the food and the people.
Where does your passion for food come from?
I think that I am actually more passionate about the social aspect of food itself than the technical aspect of food. That is something that Liv is more into. I prefer the social side of it.
How do you and Liv work together?
I tend to take care of the marketing side of the business, and Liv deals with the chefs.
What is your biggest challenge?
My challenge is managing the day-to-day aspects of the business and its operation side, whilst raising investment at the same time. It really is two different jobs and both take an incredible amount of time. Although this is not our first round of investment, it is not in any way easier, as it is always different.
What is your new round of investment for? An international expansion?
I wish but not yet! Our new investment round is to enable us to bring a new product offering for private dining. We identified that celebrating a birthday for example isn’t necessarily easy – finding a table for a large group in London can be tough, and usually you’re stuck with a set menu. Our idea is to enable people to have a more unique and tailored experience for their celebration, where they can even work with the chefs to create their own menu.
How do you make money?
We take a percentage of the amount that was paid by consumers and give the rest to the chefs. Whilst we bring together the venue and the chefs, the latter figure out the price of the food and the venue and will then pay the venue themselves. Ideally, we’d like to break even in the next 6 months and be able to stand on our own two feet and be independent.
What do you do in terms of marketing?
We have been doing social media, and in that sense Facebook ads have been really helpful for us. We also have a number of partnerships in place that drive sales. Word of mouth also makes a difference – with an average of twenty spots per event, inviting all your friends quickly adds up!
I also always keep an eye on the best examples in the market place. For example, I look regularly at what Deliveroo is doing, how their website is optimized… I don’t necessarily compare, but simply try to understand good practice and see if we can implement them ourselves.
What has been your biggest success so far?
The way we have been able to help chefs has been particularly rewarding. Being a chef tends to be a creative pursuit. However, at work their creativity gets tempered down, they work long hours and don’t get paid much. Through Grub Club they are really able to express their creativity, which is something they really enjoy. On top of that they can earn money. We have had Michelin trained chefs leaving their jobs to work full time with us because they can earn more money that way. We have even enabled some to get rid of their debts and that is a particularly rewarding aspect of the business.
Have actual restaurants been born out of Grub Club?
Yes so far there have been 9 restaurants that have been implemented by chefs through Grub Club. They include United Ramen, Smoke and Salt and Pidgin amongst others. It is a great way for them to test out the market first before launching their own venue.
What has been your favourite experiences with Grub Club?
For me what makes a great experience is the chef. I have many favourite chefs! It would be impossible for me to choose one. The great thing about Grub Club is that we can find a chef and an experience to suit the mood you are feeling.
Is there a mantra you live by?
I always strive to do better than I did yesterday. For example, when I was at University I was doing a lousy job of sorting and opening letters, so I challenged myself to do it more quickly and would time myself. This is something I still apply everyday to many aspects of my life – aim for improvement.
Who do you turn to for inspiration?
My friends. A few of them have started their own businesses and they have inspired me. I was still juggling lots of questions regarding the ways to start Grub Club – mainly about not having sufficient funds to start it, and one of my friends literally started his business with no money. His attitude inspired me to do the same and take the leap.
What is your definition of success?
When I will be able to walk out of a plane in Zanzibar and being able to go to a Grub Club…
REBEL WRAP UP
Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
It’s very important to be sales focused right from the start. We made a sale from day one. The first year is perhaps the easiest, as there is a lot of excitement and everything is new. You need to constantly find ways to keep up that level of enthusiasm. And I think that one way to do so is to stay curious. It is so important to have focus and a goal in mind. How many sales do you want to achieve everyday and how are you going to make it happen? If you have a business idea, tell your friends about it, but don’t tell them it’s your business! Say it’s one you are evaluating in case you wanted to invest or join. Why? Generally people are good and may be too supportive and won’t ask the really tough questions that need to be asked before you embark on a difficult but rewarding journey.