The pandemic has made it easier to sit on the couch and order in without any guilt. But sometimes you want an elevated dining experience not found on Seamless or Uber Eats without having to go out to eat. CookUnity, founded in Brooklyn in 2018, brings gourmet meals from top and rising chefs in the culinary world to your home. Structured as a weekly subscription delivery service, the company offers over 300 meal options that start at a very reasonable $10.49 per meal. With the restaurant industry severely disrupted with lockdowns and fighting for survival, the service has been able to provide chefs much-needed income, expand their followings, and avoid onerous and debilitating fees of the traditional food delivery apps.
AlleyWatch caught up with Founder and CEO Mateo Marietti to learn more about the company’s progress during the pandemic (the company grew 5x YOY), expansion plans outside of its Brooklyn base to serve new markets, his restaurant picks, and the company’s recent funding, which brings the total funding raised to $23M.
Who were your investors and how much did you raise?
CookUnity raised $15.5M Series A. Fuel Venture Capital led the round with participation from IDC Ventures who also led the seed round. We had participation from other new and existing investors including Gaingels, Marcos Galperin, Martin Varsavsky, and David Kamenetzky.
CookUnity is a new, first of its kind, chef-to-consumer platform. We are creating an entirely new option for chefs and a daily, dynamic meal solution for consumers. The most talented and renowned chefs are now crafting amazing fully-prepared meals, offering consumers an elevated at-home meal experience delivered to their doors. Chefs include independent rising stars and established restaurateurs like Jean Georges, Marc Forgione, Esther Choi, JJ Johnson, to name a few, creating a diverse menu with broad appeal.
With CookUnity, chefs generate a new, more predictable revenue stream with lower risk and higher margins and are able to reach consumers beyond the geographic constraints of a restaurant or delivery zone. The best seller chefs are making up to $500k a year on the platform.
Through a weekly subscription, consumers choose from over 300 meals handcrafted by talented chefs, tailored to satisfy different palates and dietary preferences. Since our inception, we have instituted an ingredient-led philosophy that prioritizes sustainably-sourced proteins, seasonal produce, dynamic flavors, and balanced nutrition from real food. Starting at $10.49/meal, CookUnity provides an effortless way for consumers to experience fully prepared restaurant-quality meals from the comfort and convenience of their homes, every day.
What inspired the start of CookUnity?
CookUnity was founded on two ideas; to bring consumers an elevated, chef-prepared experience in their home and give independent chefs an opportunity to share their passion for cooking beyond the confines of a restaurant kitchen and lifestyle – enabling them to scale and grow beyond those four walls.
There was also nothing out there that solved the historical need for compromise between great quality food, nutrition, and convenience, all at a price that allows the average customer to utilize the service every day. Customers needed a more modern solution for daily meals.
We wanted to create something that brought people together and connected communities through food, and I wanted to work with diverse chef talent and farmers to offer a variety of cuisines that represent each community uniquely. From that came CookUnity.
How is CookUnity different?
CookUnity is revolutionizing the food delivery category and how consumers experience elevated meals at home, and at the same time, is an ally and partner to chefs.
Consumers can have some of the best-known chefs in the country or talented rising stars cook their food. For chefs, CookUnity’s model enables them to deliver restaurant-quality food to customers in a way that’s operationally manageable and aligns with business goals. Restaurants are often very costly to operate, so CookUnity gives chefs an alternative option to share their recipes with customers. Any talented and passionate chef can start their own business without any risk. The growth opportunities are exponential.
Additionally, unlike any other service, CookUnity chefs and their teams create and prepare each dish so that with every meal, consumers experience quality ingredients hand-selected by each chef, and curated recipes that feature the chefs’ unique culinary approach.
What market does CookUnity target and how big is it?
CookUnity is intended for food lovers and people looking for elevated, prepared meals with the same quality and taste you receive in restaurants. Our ready-to-eat meals are ideal for really anyone, anywhere — at home, the office, or on the road. Given our wide variety of cuisines and meal types, we find that our menu appeals to everyone from single professionals to young families and even empty nesters.
What’s your business model?
CookUnity is a revenue-sharing model with chefs. The unique marketplace model offers up and coming chefs, alongside established restaurateurs and food innovators, the tools and resources to diversify and create a digital-first business. Unlike any prepared meal subscription service, we are building a marketplace that supports both creator (chef) and consumer, equally. The key insight for us is that food is not a one size fits all experience and customers seek variety and personalized food options. Traditional food models have always struggled with this since it is hard to excel at different types of cuisines and diets, therefore the historical focus has been on one food and limited menu. With an always growing community of real chefs, we increase the selection of options all the time as we grow. We had 150 meals a week at the beginning of the year and more than 300 now. That means that every person in the household can truly choose what they love and never get bored.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business?
We have seen rapid growth and are currently growing 5X YoY. Not only did our demand (weekly subscribers) increase, but we also saw tremendous growth in supply (our chef talent pool.)
With people working from home, and children virtually learning from home, CookUnity allows for the ultimate convenience — chef-quality dishes, at home, with no cooking or defrosting.
CookUnity is the solution to anyone looking for help with at-home eating where they don’t have to compromise between time, cost, taste, nutrition, and everyday access to a variety of different cuisines and chefs.
What was the funding process like?
We were lucky and got a lot of support from existing investors, which made this round a natural progression as the company was growing successfully and proving the strength of the network effects from our chef marketplace. IDC Ventures led our seed round in December 2019 and they co-led this round and brought Fuel Venture Capital on board. We are very happy with our current investors, as they both share our vision of the world we want to create.
What are the biggest challenges that you faced while raising capital?
In general, investors are intrigued by a new contrarian model in food but are still somewhat skeptical about long term retention and margins of the industry. Other big food companies that raised a lot of money weren’t sustainable because either their retention was weak, or margins were too low, or both. We had to prove we could fundamentally solve those two issues and we are performing nicely in both.
What are the milestones you plan to achieve in the next six months?
Opening our second CookUnity kitchen in Los Angeles, onboarding several new well-known and up-and-coming chefs from the west coast, and bringing CookUnity meals to more people in more markets.
What advice can you offer companies in New York that do not have a fresh injection of capital in the bank?
It really depends on the stage, vertical, and type of business. I built a bootstrapped and profitable company before CookUnity and I think for gaining capital, that’s the right way to do it. Early in the journey, I think the only real goal is to find a genuine product-market fit, first and foremost. Once that is looking good, I would suggest to intentionally spend time on strategy and culture because it’s easy to assume it will develop on its own but that’s almost never the case.
Where do you see the company going now over the near term?
Our focus this year is to onboard as many talented and passionate chefs as possible, develop their brand, and generate a multitude of sales with them. As a consequence of that, the offering for our customers will be constantly evolving.
What’s your favorite outdoor dining restaurant in NYC?
All the restaurants from our restaurateur CookUnity chefs are my genuine favorites; Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Jean-Georges and ABC Kitchen, Marc Forgione’s Restaurant Marc Forgione, Dan Kluger’s Loring Place, Esther Choi’s Mŏkbar, Pierre Thiam’s Teranga, JJ Johnson’s FIELDTRIP, Akhtar Nawab’s Alta Calidad and Einat Admony’s Taïm.