Three years ago, four friends teamed up to launch a food tech business in the ultra-competitive Food & Beverage (F&B) industry. Now, they are proud co-owners of Grain, a thriving startup that has attracted millions of dollars in funding from industry leaders like Thai Express founder Ivan Teng.
This is despite the fact that only one of the four founders was a chef. So, how does Grain stand out in a crowded field to make the industry sit up and take note? Here are four lessons from founder Yi Sung Yong.
Other food tech startups like foodpanda and Deliveroo partner restaurants to deliver cooked meals to customers. Grain's founders went for a different approach, opting for a full-stack service that handles all aspects of the supply chain from sourcing ingredients to preparation to delivery.
Such a model comes with challenges. Initially hamstrung by small staff and operating from a home kitchen, Grain had to adapt its processes last August when it upgraded to a sprawling new office fitted with an industrial kitchen.
The move helped scale production but Yi Sung realised that size brings its own issues. “We're still learning how to efficiently manage a space this big,” said Yi Sung.
But Grain has had a good start. He added: “We learned that we need to get the space design, flow, equipment, and teams in order.”
So, it is not surprising that the new kitchen is a neat array of hues and labels, inspired by the Japanese “5S” organisation system: Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardise, and Sustain.
This means equipment are clearly marked, cutting boards colour-coded, and racks meticulously classified so chefs can keep cool and work smoothly even as orders stream in during lunch and dinner.
Yi Sung is sharply focused on customer experience and he says that is key for other F&B businesses too.
“When you have a good brand, good product and good service, customers will come to you naturally,” Yi Sung stresses. “We go the extra mile for them.”
Grain's delivery service is distinctly personalised. Cards are handwritten and special requests are always welcomed. This attention to customer experience is why Grain counts big names like Facebook, Microsoft, and Netflix among its list of clients.
The “customer first” mantra applied even in crisis. In May 2017, 20 people fell ill after eating Grain's Thai chicken curry dish. Yi Sung wasted no time in penning an explanation and apology for followers, while staff members met affected customers in person to gather their concerns. Grain's approach is refreshing to say the least, considering that other local eateries have not exactly embraced customer feedback.
Adapted from former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, "dead snakes" are projects that are going nowhere which brands must quickly eliminate to avoid wasting money and resources.
Grain clearly subscribes to this philosophy. Unpopular meals that receive poor reception are swiftly booted from the menu.
“We meet bigger customers in-person weekly to solicit feedback on how we can improve,” Yi Sung says. “We're also implementing a feedback feature for our app in the next few weeks.”
All meals must also hit a 90% positive rating. This “gold standard” is why the startup has a high customer retention rate. In 2016, 89% were repeat customers.
Paying attention to customers lets you accurately profile what customers love and hate. In Singapore, where eaters are notoriously picky, there is no time to lose on under-par offerings. Listen to customers, drop unpopular dishes, and keep refining your menu so eaters' taste buds are satisfied.
In any business, finding the best talent is crucial for innovation and growth. For a sector like F&B where labour is hard to find, Yi Sung has a golden piece of advice: focus on brand positioning to attract talent.
Grain modelled themselves as a tech startup with a robust digital presence, which boasts a community of talents from the likes of Bain and Dell. Grain co-founder and CFO, Rifeng Gao, previously worked as an associate consultant at Bain.
Grain clearly believes in employee welfare. “We care for and help each other through small daily actions like notes of encouragement and random hugs,” said Yi Sung.
After hiring talent, the next step is to retain talent and inspire contribution to the company. Promoting employee well-being is key to this as Virgin Pulse, a leading global provider of employee wellbeing software, reported that caring for your staff impacts workplace culture and increases productivity.
Enhanced workplace productivity can translate into great customer satisfaction. Currently, the startup's Net Promoter Score (NPS) - a feedback for understanding customer happiness - averages more than 50, which is an exceptionally high figure.
Writer's note: A NPS score of 60 is considered a world-class standard.
Grain's emphasis on technology and data-driven insights has propelled the small startup into an appealing proposition for customers and investors.
But the company's focus on people is arguably more important. By listening to customers and nurturing employees, Grain can keep serving up sumptuous and creative dishes that spur customers to return time and again.
Which of these strategies will you be using to stay ahead of the F&B game?
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