ChefXChange Brings Foodies and Chefs Together at the Table

Nathalie Rosa Bucher, Oct 07 2015

Beirut boasts a number of fine dining destinations that are too tempting for diners to stay in and eat at home. But most patrons agree that dining out is not without its problems:

Traffic in the city is nightmarish; finding a parking space often takes longer than savoring a five-course meal; there still are restaurants that allow smoking; the choice of music may not always suit one’s mood or taste; and few restaurants have child-friendly meals or play areas.

What if you could bring the full experience of dining out into the comfort of your home, minus doing the dishes and, potentially, hiring a babysitter? How? With a private chef on demand!

This is exactly what ChefXChange proposes to do: giving customers – or “foodies” – the chance to enjoy a meal of their choice, cooked live by a chef of their choice in their own home.

Since its launch in February 2015, more than 300 chefs have signed up for ChefXChange, proposing a wide variety of cuisines. Around 80 of these chefs are “vetted and approved”, i.e. visible on the platform and ready to be booked.

The service kicked off its Lebanese chapter on October 1, 2015. Over 15 chefs in Beirut have signed up already, of which 8 are approved and operational.

Cooking Up the AirBnB of Dining

ChefXChange is the brainchild of former university mates and finance professionals, Karl Naïm and Marc Washington.

“We were inspired by the AirBnB concept,” explained Naïm, “We wanted to celebrate conviviality and put chefs in touch with their patrons but also with each other. Just as Uber has democratized the taxi industry, ChefXChange aims to democratize the kitchen and empower chefs.”

Washington and Naïm "bootstrapped" ChefXChange with approximately $40,000 each, and started the website’s beta version. Things really picked up when the duo were selected for DIG EAT ALL’s food-and-technology accelerator program hosted by the Basque Culinary Centre in San Sebastian, Spain – a veritable foodie mecca – last year.

“This is where we gained the confidence that we had a market for our idea,” said Washington. “We started fundraising for our Seed round after graduating from DIG EAT ALL in October 2014, approaching first degree connections, mostly former banking colleagues, and some angel investors,”  said Naïm. The startup closed its Seed round in December 2014 with a $500,000 investment from private and angel investors.

This paved the way for ChefXChange to officially launch in Dubai in February this year, with subsequent operations established in Washington DC and London.

More than Just a Catering Service

Featured chefs are divided into “professionals”, “apprentices”, and “amateurs”. Taking “apprentices” on board allows ChefXChange to give future professionals an opportunity to hone their cooking and people skills, while earning extra money.

After browsing the ChefXChange website and exploring the different cuisines (French, Italian, Thai, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, British, etc.) customers contact the chef of their choice, select a menu, and agree on additional details such as bringing in a waiter, accounting for dietary requirements and other preferences.

Each chef is responsible for sourcing his/her own ingredients, and supplying the necessary kitchenware. Although ChefXChange is not a cooking class, foodies are free to engage with the chef – a great opportunity to learn about their story and passion, pick up some tricks of the trade, or enrich their culinary knowledge.

Payments are made up-front but frozen until both the customer and the chef have submitted their feedback. If everyone is satisfied, the chef receives his payment minus a 15% commission for ChefXChange. The peer review mechanism ensures that standards are maintained, and that both customers and chefs are satisfied. It also guides future users when making their selection, very much like a traveler would use Tripadvisor.

The ChefXChange website also includes a blog with health and nutrition tips for food lovers.

Mapping Foodies in Lebanon and Abroad

To date, 700 meals were booked through the platform, with Dubai accounting for 80% of all bookings. Culinary preferences vary from city to city: Italian, Peruvian, and British cuisine are very popular in Dubai, whereas tastes are more mixed in multicultural London.

So far, foodies are mostly young, busy working professionals who earn a solid income and like to eat, according to Washington. There is a growing demand for chefs on special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, ban holidays, etc.) by hosts who don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all night long. “We are working on promoting this service also for more everyday usage,” he said.

Asked about the prospects for Lebanon, Washington pointed out that while income per capita is higher in the other three cities, the prices for eating out in Beirut are relatively steep. ChefXChange expects Beirut to have the lowest ticket booking, but the founders are banking on the fact that Lebanese diners are not likely to make cuts in their food budget, and could therefore opt for the service.

For example, a menu prepared by the professional Chef Sleiman (Sleiman Khawand) would cost between $50 and $75 per person. This is well within the price range of traditional caterers like Socrate or La Cigale, especially considering the added benefit of getting to meet your own personal chef.

Expanding the Menu

The concept has generated much interest among chefs who have signed up in a number of cities beyond the current core markets. “When a chef signs up in a city outside of our core markets, we ask them to spread the word about us and become Ambassadors to get more chefs on board so we can market them,” Naïm explained.

The startup has been growing steadily and recently had more business in September 2015 than in the previous two months combined.

ChefXChange seeks to raise around $2M in a Series A round, and hopes to secure part of it from Lebanese VCs under the Central Bank’s Circular 331. The founders are contemplating further expansion in the Far East or Latin America in cosmopolitan markets with a high income population, expat community, and foodie culture.

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