During the COVID-19 pandemic, many restaurants across the country encountered a situation that they never imagined. But thanks to the CookUnity, chefs were able to turn to a new platform to get their recipes and food onto kitchen tables across the country. And for many of them, they have found a new source of revenue that allows them to reach more people than they ever thought possible. I sat down with Mateo Marietti, CEO & Founder of CookUnity, to learn more about what inspired him to launch CookUnity, how they attracted chefs to the platform, and why they decided to rebrand recently.
Dave Knox: What is the founding story of CookUnity?
Mateo Marietti: The idea to build CookUnity started not necessarily connected to the mechanics of how we do it today, but the longer term and the bigger vision of building a platform that in our view does not exist today. A platform that does exist in other categories like music or videos, but does not exist for food where all consumers can find the best creators, the best chefs, the makers of the food that we all admire and appreciate and enjoy in a way that has much more accessibility.
Restaurants are an amazing way to do that, but are very restrictive to your neighborhood. And for the creator, for the chef, they can only cook for 100 – 200 people a day. So we’re thinking, “What will it look like a more modern experience where all the chefs have a much more robust infrastructure where they can just focus on what they love to do, which is cooking amazing food, building teams that are proud of that food, and the relationship with their fans?” And that was idea behind CookUnity. Food is one of the most exciting cultural experiences that we have as humans. It’s also very important for nutrition. And because of that, we believe that the future food is highly personalized and very experiential. That was the original inspiration for CookUnity. And it also how we viewed our opportunity to differentiate vs other meal delivery services on the market
Knox: How have the chefs become partners for what you’re doing, and how are you enabling their own entrepreneurial journeys through CookUnity?
Marietti: Our intention is to build a more horizontal model that provides everything chefs desire. Cooking is a unique craftsmanship that requires creativity and artisanal production. However, many chefs do not enjoy or know how to manage other aspects of running a restaurant, such as accounting, permitting, or dealing with construction. Our goal is to create a rich ecosystem that provides everything chefs need to become successful entrepreneurs. For those already on their entrepreneurial journey, we will help accelerate their growth.
We started with one facility in New York City where young chefs have the opportunity to bring their teams and cook their dishes on a larger scale while we provide everything they need. However, in the past year and a half, we have built six additional kitchens around the country. New York chefs are expanding to different cities, and chefs from cities like L.A., Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, and Seattle are expanding to New York and vice versa. Our ecosystem allows any talented and passionate chef to become an entrepreneur and have access to everything they need to succeed.
Knox: How does the process work when a consumer purchases a meal? Is the chef overseeing a team just like in their own restaurant?
Marietti: We want to be true to the spirit of the original insight and the original idea. We want to empower the best chefs. We want to massively increase their access and their scale. So that means that we’ll never attempt to change their preferred process or the way they do things. At the center of that is food, and I will say very adjacent to that, building their teams. These are real businesses; these are real teams. You go to restaurant you love and you go often there, there’s a lot of work and thought and passion behind that. They don’t just hire random cooks, they hire cooks that they love, that they know about cuisine, and they train them. They make a great culture out of that, and that’s very important. So probably a great visualization exercise is imagine a large kitchen divided in smaller kitchens. For example, our New York kitchen is more than 60, 000 square feet and there are 45 chef teams working there. So it’s like they’re all neighbors to each other. Each one of them has their own individual kitchen, but they share resources. We provide ingredients there and we can consolidate all the different recipes. So in New York we have 45 chefs on the platform at the moment. The number is always growing as we onboard more subscribers to the platform. And those 45 chef teams are offering collectively more than 400 different recipes on any given week. So it’s like a giant neighborhood of amazing restaurants but delivered to your door.
Knox: Related to that, you have some really big names in the culinary world on your roster. How’d that happen? Did you approach them? Did they approach you? What was the relationship there?
Marietti: We like to be very realistic with how it happened and honor that because it was a special moment for everyone that was during the pandemic. Imagine CookUnity first quarter, 2020. We were in our second year. We just raised our first round of funding at the end of 2019, so it was pretty significant for us, but still relatively low capital. We had one kitchen in New York, just getting started. And we were approaching some of the best chefs in the city and telling them about this model. They were reacting favorably like, “Oh, that’s very interesting. I thought about that for X, Y, and Z, and it could be good for my brand and exposure and this and that.” But when the pandemic hit, the main effect that we saw in our business wasn’t on the customer side as we were a very small company and we didn’t have a lot of advertising dollars at play back then. But the big impact was on those conversations with some of the best chefs in the city, the chefs that customers love and that we admire, that they went from, “Oh, maybe let’s consider this next year,” to, “I’m ready to try it now.”
And then we had ten of the most renowned chefs in the city join the platform and they did well, and customers love getting their meals delivered, not only to the city but the suburbs, or other cities in the region. Chefs were being more open and they had more time to try new things. And even more importantly, CookUnity resonated with them because most chefs that I met in my career have expressed a version of, “I would love to cook for more people but I don’t know how.” It’s really hard to do that through the restaurant. The restaurant is not designed for that. It’s designed for eating out, from the delightful in-person experience. So that resonated with chefs on top of what is a really meaningful and in some cases unprecedented income source being on CookUnity. We have more than 20% of our chefs in the platform that make more than a $1,000,000 in profit per year today. And restaurants are not always easy. Margins are not always easy to get, and get consistently. So it’s great that they can compliment the restaurants with us.
Knox: That sort of earning potential is amazing in any industry. How does that compare to what a chef would earn on their own?
Marietti: A restaurant that does fairly well feeds around 200 people per day. We have chefs in the platform that are feeding thousands per day and in different regions. So that already is a difference there. Let’s say a restaurant that does well may do $3 – $5 million in revenue per year and margins can be anywhere between slightly negative to 5 – 10%. There’s obviously a different level of complexity. You have front of the house, back of the house, it’s a full business you need to run. We try to help with everything that is not cooking and the relationship with our team. So we help with technology, with logistics, with marketing, with packaging and things like that. The good news is that these things are not exclusive. The use case of the restaurant is a use case that has existed for centuries and most people not only agree that it will exist for more centuries, but we will do our very best to be a friend and an ally of the restaurant industry. I think society needs restaurants. We need a place to stop in the middle of the day to go disconnect, connect, recharge, enjoy. We have many values, but our core brand value is connection. And we think that food is one of the best way to connect people and to connect different parts of our industry and we just want to be an ally. We think that CookUnity and the specific use case of people cooking less at home, that is a problem that CookUnity is trying to solve today. We are more of a replacement for groceries and a perfect complement to running a restaurant.
Knox: And so right now CookUnity is about to go through a rebrand of the business. What inspired that change, and what are you hoping to accomplish coming out of that?
Marietti: The rebranding process started as an internal exercise for CookUnity. Over the last two years, we have experienced significant growth, expanding our team from 40-50 members to over 200, and increasing our chef partners from 20-something to 100-plus. As a result, there were many key people within our internal ecosystem who understood what CookUnity was about but may not have had the opportunity to engage with the founding members and participate in conversations and dinners together. Scaling and expanding to different geographies made it difficult to replicate the same playbook for building culture and onboarding chefs as we did in the beginning.
Therefore, the rebranding process began as a way to fully express our vision and uniqueness in all touchpoints and relationships. We did an end-to-end redesign and review of all touchpoints to ensure we were communicating our vision, mission, purpose, positioning, brand, and values effectively. While our foundational definitions remained the same, we made minor adjustments to how we express and communicate them to internal stakeholders and the world outside.
Our goal is to tell our story to millions of people, especially busy individuals who are competing for attention. We want to resonate with them, touch their nerves, and deliver an interesting, crisp message. Our dream is to become the primary or one of the main platforms for food. We are now finalizing this exercise, ensuring that we tell our story in a way that reflects our vision and resonates with our audience.
Knox: So beyond the rebrand, what else do you have in store for 2023?
Marietti: In 2021 and part of 2022, our focus was on expanding geographically. We went from serving the Northeast to nationwide coverage, which allowed existing chefs to expand their reach and new chefs to join our platform. This expansion also allowed customers who move to continue being part of the CookUnity family and enabled new customers to join us and explore our food solutions. Our subscription model has been working well, and we will continue to expand to other cities in the US and abroad. However, our main priority for the next year is to start expanding into new types of sellers and food products.
Currently, we’ve been working on building CookUnity 1.0, which is a meal subscription service of proper meals. We offer hundreds of options with a growing assortment, providing high-quality meals at a reasonable price. Our meals are restaurant quality, but delivered to your doorstep, prepared by real chefs. By choosing CookUnity, you’ll be supporting these creators that you admire. We plan to start launching other types of food products, including sauces, family-sized portions, breakfast, desserts, and cooking classes, and all sorts of physical and digital culinary experiences. We will use the same kitchen infrastructure and technology that we have already built to expand our offerings. Our goal is to provide our customers with a diverse range of food products and experiences that cater to their unique tastes and preferences.