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For Ian Christopher, CEO and co-founder of San Diego's Galley Solutions, food service is a bit of a family business. For one thing, Christoper's own immediate family was in the catering business, and he's spent time working in both the hospitality and agriculture sphere. For another, his co-founder, Benji Koltai, is also his brother-in-law.
Galley, which will turn three years old in January 2021, is "a hybrid of the combined domain expertise of myself" and Koltai, said Christopher. He recently spoke with Back of House about the direct-to-consumer food service business, the challenges Galley faces as it grows, and why one massive spreadsheet with like 500 tabs maybe isn't the best way for enterprise-scale corporate caterers to manage their operations in 2020—let alone beyond that.
"If you're not a technology-enabled agile food business, you won't you won't exist in the future," Christopher proclaimed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Back of House: Hi Ian, thanks for joining us. Let's start at the beginning—what's Galley's basic history? When did this thing come into being?
Prior to January 2018, we were two guys in a garage. You know, very typical startup story. And then we really went full full-force at it in January 2018.
Give us the quick pitch. What is Galley, to the lay-person?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean we are a recipe-based [enterprise resource planning] system, but to take it down a level for even someone who's outside of industry and software-speak: we are a productivity platform that has the goal of trying to allow our users to action their already existing food data to make data-driven decisions around purchasing, procurement, inventory management, and production.
We're a full suite of tools, a modular system that helps with everything from recipe R&D through production, so that entails everything from creating a recipe and engineering your menu, to purchasing inventory against that menu, then moving that menu into production. So we're full suite of tools that takes you across the whole value chain and back of house.
How did you come to this yourself? What's your get-in for Galley?
Yeah, it's a hybrid, sort of the combined domain expertise of myself and my co-founder. I represent kind of the hospitality, food service, and agricultural side of our business, having worked in all three of those fields. Growing up, the family business was catering. Then Benji [Koltai] my brother-in-law and co-founder, he comes from technology innovation, he's a software engineer by training.
So really this genesis comes from his career path where he had the opportunity to actually build this system as a V1 at a notable food tech startup in San Francisco called Sprig. So he built [Galley] internally there. Now we're taking that product to market with all of the learnings and best practices from that experience and then adding to it from [feedback from] our customer base as well.
So what are the key markets that Galley works in right now? Or wants to work in?
We're kind of looked at as the Day Zero ghost kitchen management software solution. So anyone who's building for multi channel or off-premise, or they're building for delivery-only immediately, those folks tend to gravitate towards us, because we are kind of the latest and greatest technology for back-of-house. It's easier then [for them] to go after linking our data with delivery platforms and POS systems all these other technology providers, when you start with us. So ghost and virtual—what we call like direct-to-consumer food. Folks that are focused on off-premise or delivering food directly to a consumer so that incorporates ghost and virtual. It also includes the infrastructure that supports that movement—so like cloud kitchens, Kitchen United, all those like multi- [and] shared kitchen plays. Plus meal prep and meal kits, as well, and vending.
60% of our user base is direct-to-consumer food businesses. We also sell to the opposite end of the spectrum, which is non-commercial contract food service providers: folks that are doing catering at scale for some of the largest entities on earth that don't want to have internal food programs. So universities, stadiums, prisons, hospitals, et cetera.
[Galley supports] quantity food production. It's everything is outside of that traditional restaurant space—not to say that we don't provide a ton of value to restaurants, we're just, from a marketing perspective, we're not going after restaurants today. Just because there's a lot of stuff that [restaurants] have access to [already.] So we're building on this emerging segment, and this historically really stable segment, and then longtail will go after restaurants through channel partnerships and strategies, things like that.
So with your business focused partially around virtual/ghost kitchens, the coronavirus pandemic must be a busy time for you.
Absolutely. So we see on the [small and midsize business] side of established food businesses, hospitality organizations that are trying to put one bet into ghost and virtual. They're gonna start with one concept. But then we also have these behemoths that are now branching into ghosts in virtual and wanting to start up large networks overnight. So we've seen it happened across the spectrum.
For a lot of [tech platforms, supporting that effort] may not be their core competency. But it's definitely ours. It's not the only segment we're selling into—we could provide almost any [type of food-service business] who's looking at Galley some value, but to differentiate ourselves within this offering, we definitely do [focus on] the more built for ghost in virtual and off off-premise angle.
So what was the idea that sparked this? Was there an a-ha moment?
I mean it's the kind of quintessential start-up story. While this technology was built at Sprig, it was Benji who identified that it needed to be built at Sprig. So the the kitschy genesis story is that—and this is all true—Sprig converted a Chevy's Mexican restaurant in downtown San Francisco into a massive commissary kitchen, and they built their corporate offices above. So the story goes that one day Benji's you know traversing the commissary kitchen to get upstairs to join the rest of the engineers. He has to walk through the main production kitchen, he sees a sous chef literally abusing a laptop just getting super-frustrated.
Benji is trying to pull one of these like "oh gosh, don't look don't look" moves because he knows as an engineer [the chef] is gonna assume he's like an Apple Genius and he's gonna ask them to come over and troubleshoot something. He really doesn't want to deal with this first thing in the morning, but his conscience gets the best of him. So he walks over to this sous chef, and on the laptop, he's got multiple spreadsheets pulled up with like, 500 tabs apiece, just breaking in front of his very eyes.
Benji asked "What are you trying to accomplish here?" The sous chef explains "This is how we manage our whole culinary operation, this is how I do recipe R&D, this is how I purchase, this is how I inventory. This is how I deal with labor, all of that. And Benji is like, We're a $50 million venture-backed technology organization, why are we running on spreadsheets?
So he got permission from the C-suite to develop a recipe management tool, and just started pulling on this thread. For the next two years he spent every single morning putting on a hairnet and sitting in the, in the commissary kitchen with every stakeholder in the food production value chain and quizzing [them to learn] what technology, what software [he could] build in order to enable a more productive and efficient workflow.
That was just the most unique opportunity to take like engineering problem-solving approach and marry it with culinary best practices, which didn't just happen from the stakeholders, you know, that were involved in the culinary area, it was also the advisors and all the other notable culinarians that were there, like the executive chef at Google, head of foods for Emirates Airlines... all these folks looking over Benji's shoulder guiding culinary best practice and helping him build out the view on the software. So when Sprig shut down, it was all those same folks that reached back out to Benji and said "Hey what happened to this software that you built that Sprig?" After like 10 to 15 of those calls, that's when he reached out to me. It was a no-brainer.
How important is usability to the Galley product, being able to have users pop in and intuitively understand how to use this thing?
It's one of our core differentiators, and an area we focus on, because ultimately it will lead to our success in the sense that we're building one of the most powerful platforms in the entire industry that is also one of the most usable. So it's critical to what we're doing today and tomorrow.
Hw do you make sure you keep up with the evolution of these workflows in food service? Obviously the business is in extreme flux right now, but it's always evolving. How do you keep Galley on-point?
We probably have one of like the tightest like product customer feedback loops in the industry. All of our mid-market and enterprise customers have live chat bot access to our engineering and product teams, so we are capturing feedback in real time from our customers. Also, our product is more stable than others because what we've done is we've built a framework for making food at scale.
We identify the core activities that happen across almost any food business, first and foremost, and then we optimize those with tweaks based on the contextual nature of [the particular] food business. So you know the way someone does purchasing within a catering organization could look a little bit differently than a traditional restaurant, but the idea of purchasing is an abstraction. So we've essentially created this higher-level abstraction for purchasing, and then we can dial it in a little bit more to the contextual use case.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in building to this point? Anything that felt like an existential threat to the product or something that you just didn't know how you were going to get around?
I mean, adoption and usability. For a product like ours to provide value, you have to enjoy using an app, to actually trust it, and you have to actually be motivated to put your data into it and get some sort of reward. So that's where we focus first and foremost. [The challenge was] can you slow down the food industry, long enough to evaluate your technology, and then do you have the technology that's the best in breed in order to entice usage over time. Can you get the operator to slow down and show them the value of actually using your tool?
Talk a little bit about DTC food businesses. Obviously something that's been a huge focus for you guys, something that the industry is very excited about... how big is that opportunity for you? Is that where we're headed categorically?
[Nodding vigorously] Yes. Yes.
So talk a little bit about why.
Well, there was already a historical trend here. So anyone who has been playing in this space has known [the shift to DTC] has been happening for more than four or five years now. [The coronavirus pandemic] has just been the catalyst to push it across the finish line and make it a mainstay. It has staying power in the sense that we've moved beyond convenience—it's now a necessity. If you're not a technology-enabled, agile food business you won't you won't exist in the future.
Every single food business that we're speaking to now, from [small and midsize business] up to enterprise, they're all trying to figure out how do they get their finished product one step closer to the consumer. Across every vertical, you name it, they're messing with production models, with business models, with distribution models, experimenting with all of these different combinations in order to get closer to the end consumer.
Considering all that—and everything we've talked about to this point—what is the one thing that that takes your business to the next level right now?
Our stake in the sand, the thing that we're driving to, is we're automating purchasing the service industry. Hands down, we are going to be the first company that fully automates purchasing for the food service industry. Everything we're doing as far as data collection is in service of that. It's the hardest question in food service to answer: how much of what do I need to purchase by when. Then you throw in the organic nature of food and boom, you've got a clusterf***. That's the first real real high-level value-add that we're going to bring to the industry.