BEIRUT: ChefXChange is an online marketplace that connects foodies and event planners to chefs for on-demand culinary experiences; the result of an inspiration of ex-banker and foodie Karl Naim and his former London Business School classmate Marc Washington.
“Private chef service has always existed but through word of mouth or referral, we wanted to make it simple for people by creating a marketplace for such services, it’s basically the Airbnb of the culinary world,” Naim a Lebanon native, told Annahar.
ChefXChange allows you to browse for chefs based on the culinary experience they provide, location, and availability while noting that the platform’s services have expanded to almost 18 countries, with a whopping 1100 chefs under its belt spread out over all markets with Dubai being the largest. The service opened its Lebanon branch in 2016. "Our mission is to democratize access to chefs, no matter what our foodies are looking for," Naim added.
The exchange offers a variety of culinary experiences, from booking a private chef for a certain occasion, cooking classes, or catering needs to restaurant consultancy as well as corporate events. “If you want to host a buffet, a seated party, take a quick cooking class and going as far as menu creation for restaurants, we cover almost every aspect of the culinary experience,” Naim told Annahar.
He signs off all email notes with "Culinary Yours."
After filling in your requirements, a series of chef offerings appear on the screen, each with their distinct profile containing their cuisine expertise, ratings, and the rate the chef charges per head-count. While hovering over each profile, a short bio will appear for the cook along with their set experience levels.
After entering a chef’s profile on the platform, it shows a summary of the person behind the apron, along with their list of favorite ingredients, reviews from other foodies and the ability to message said chef if their menus strike a note for a food lover.
Naim considers that ChefXChange has revolutionized the act of dining out by bringing a new option - getting the whole culinary experience in the comfort of your own home. “It’s basically bringing the restaurant to your house and even more so since, when dining out, you don’t get to meet the person behind the food,” he added.
When a customer messages the chef who triggered their fancy and agrees on all the logistical aspects of the planned evening, the chef will then show up to the customer’s doorstep, groceries and equipment in-hand to start preparing. Following the end of the event, the chef will clean up after himself prior to leaving.
Payment is done online, however, in Lebanon ChefXChange accepts cheque payments since “we have to adapt, even Uber adapted to cash on delivery in Lebanon, but we have a booking fee that everyone needs to pay as assurance for the chef,” Naim said.
The website also offers a concierge system, where customers would enter all the details of their specific event, and the ChefXChange team will handle the rest; the platform even contains a special food blog that features a number of tips and tricks one could use to advance their home cooking skills.
The co-founders are working on a mobile application but it doesn't constitute a priority. “We don’t really need an app since our website is mobile friendly, the only reason why we wanted one was because it’s more convenient for our chefs due to the advantage of push notifications,” Naim said.
The idea for platform stemmed from Naim’s love of cooking, starting off during his university life where he used to invite his peers over for dinner at his Warwick university dorm room; this hobby kept growing later down the road while accompanying his corporate life.
“I was one of the earliest users of Airbnb in the region, which meant that I always had someone over if not my friends, as well as cooking up meals and entertaining my Airbnb guests,” Naim told Annahar.
The Eureka moment behind ChefXChange sparked during Naim’s stint in Abu Dhabi while working at the UAE-based investment company Mubadala, which both co-founders joined following their acquisition of their MBA from the London Business School.
The pair’s initial approach was to invest in a startup that implemented the same vision they were conjuring, however, the only company resembling what they hoped for was already U.S.-based and had started expanding.
“We were a bit late to the party, I then left Mubadala and headed to Geneva to work at UBS Bank, while Marc moved back to the US since his wife received a general manager position at Uber in Washington D.C.,” he said.
The story, however, did not end there.
Over a Christmas phone call with between the friends, the pair decided to take matters into their own hands and launch ChefXChange with no prior background in marketing or in tech. “We played to our strengths by writing the business plan and model while outsourcing the platform’s development and the tech part of the startup,” Naim told Annahar.
The co-founders were later accepted into Dig Eat All, a food and tech incubator program based in San Sebastian, Spain. “We raised $500,000 in our first seed round following our graduation of the five-week program, and became operational and generating revenue by 2015 by initially launching in Dubai, then London and Washington D.C.,” he added.
The dynamic duo decided to set up shop in Lebanon teaming up with UK Lebanon Tech Hub, since “talent is cheaper and better in the country in comparison to others especially that we were looking to hire fresh graduates.”
Naim highlighted that the Lebanese market is rather small for this kind of business, thus the core reason behind their launch in Lebanon is for cost efficiency. “It was a reason to bring me back to the country, seeing that the SMEs are bettering the economy and moving around money, so why not try to contribute my part to it,” Naim told Annahar.
The foodie entrepreneur noted that creating jobs and employing university students is something of great interest to him, especially into startups because “millennials are all about experiences, they are not looking for job security as their predecessors but experiences is all that matters,” he said, adding that it gives SMEs more eager, energetic and risk-taking people.
The ex-banker considers Lebanon to be a good base for ChefXChange to increasingly spread into the entire region. “Lebanon is not a strategic market for us but for me it’s more emotional than anything else, and being able to actually try to make a difference here and hopefully, strategically, outside of Lebanon,” he added.
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