VentureOut – Highlighting LGBT leaders in business.
Powered by StartOut. Written by David Duran. The following article was originally published in The Advocate and on dot429.
New culinary events startup, Kitchit, connects diners directly with local professional chefs who create everything from world-class gastronomic adventures to causal dinner parties. “It brings the quality and ease of restaurant fine dining to private and in-home events,” said Ian Ferguson, CPO and co-founder of Kitchit. Their mission is to create experiences that are “effortless, memorable, and customized.” The handpicked roster of talented chefs ranges from well-known Michelin-starred executive chefs, to celebrity chefs as well as up-and-comers in local restaurants.
Kitchit began in a much different form, primarily as an online source of recipes from top chefs, but as the founders spoke more and more with chefs, different themes emerged; the challenge of building their businesses and brands, the difficulties of making a living working a restaurant line, and the intense satisfaction they felt from connecting directly with diners, according to Ferguson. Soon after, they began to explore the private dining world and quickly realized they had tapped a mostly uncharted business idea. “Here was a sleepy, niche market that was ripe with opportunity for new technology and new audiences,” said Ferguson. A year after the idea, Kitchit is now in four markets across the United States with plans to continue expanding.
Working with and having some of the most accomplished and best-known chefs in America didn’t come easy. The company was challenged to prove to the highest-tier chefs that they weren’t a “here today, gone tomorrow” food startup. “It was important for us to learn the ins and outs of the chef world, which is very networked, fairly political, and totally driven by passion,” said Ferguson, “and we had to prove ourselves quickly. Fortunately, we found some outstanding advocates, like Chef Christopher Kostow of the Michelin 3-Star Restaurant at Meadowood, who really believes in what we’re doing.”
Another obstacle Kitchit had to overcome was the perennial challenges of educating new consumers about the accessibility of their product. The legitimate concerns from potential consumers about costs and identifying the differences between their service and a catering service, was something they needed to overcome. Typically, a dinner ranges from $40-$150 per person, and they make it extremely comfortable and convenient for groups to split the bill just like they might at a restaurant. In addition, dinners do not include alcohol and guests are encouraged to bring their own. “Catering sounds so impersonal and big batch…a Kitchit dinner party is just the opposite: intimate, candlelit, wine-fueled nights that bring friends together like few restaurant meals can,” added Ferguson.
Ferguson, who once worked as a consultant for Bain in New York, was always heavily involved in LGBT networks. He moved to the West Coast in 2009 for business school at Stanford, which made for both a geographic and career shift that left him feeling “network-less.” He recently discovered StartOut by word of mouth and has since attended a few networking events. “I’ve been so incredibly impressed by the size, engagement and diversity of the groups,” he said. Kitchit is a business that grows through word of mouth networks, according to Ferguson. “It’s a social product-one that brings people together around a table, so we depend on networks of all kinds to spread the word.” StartOut has served as one of those networks for Ferguson, but he says that it has also connected him with others that amplify his message.
Kitchit operates in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and most recently opened in Chicago. They plan on focusing their efforts on gaining deep traction in the four markets for the immediate future. Boston, Washington D.C., and Dallas are the three contenders for their next grand opening. “In the meantime, we’ll be doing everything in our power to make the experience of hiring a chef as easy as booking a table at a restaurant,” said Ferguson.
Ferguson who is 29, has been with his partner for 8 years and attributes his sanity to his boyfriend’s distance of the “silicon valley world.” Ferguson acknowledged that most startups morph and change and his advice for others was to be open, nimble and to expect change from the original idea. He also suggested having as much external validation as one can, to help speed up the process. “I’m also a big fan of actually having a business model, so businesses start small and need to grow, while others may need to build some traction before they start churning out cash,” he said, and added, “but I’m personally wary of businesses that seem to lack any monetization strategy whatsoever, so don’t forget that part of the equation!”
Numbers released by Kitchit at the start of 2013 revealed that about 15,000 diners have experienced their service, and more than 200 chefs are on Kitchit, with more coming online every day. 55% of events are below $1,000 and the majority of events are between $50-$100 per person. The most popular chefs on Kitchit made an average of more than $60,000 each on the site in 2012, indic ating their growth and success in a short time. For more information on Kitchit, visit www.kitchit.com.