This week I’ll be running a series of Five Question interviews with small businesses which were facilitated by BondStreet, a SMB lending platform (we’re investors). LocalBiz stories are really fun for me since my first high school job was working in an independent bookstore. These people are true founders and entrepreneurs just like any venture backed company.
Hunter Walk: Can you share the founding story of Chaia? How did it all begin?
Bettina Stern: My business partner Suzanne Simon and I have been cooking together for many years. Chaia was the result of our matched style toward food and our wish to bring seasonal, vegetable cuisine to DC. Initially we tested our concept at farmers markets in the District to ascertain whether this unique and rather esoteric idea would be well received. It turns out, we were neither too early nor too late, but we were right on time. Plant-based cooking and eating more vegetables was a message that even policy makers, Michael Pollan and First Lady Michelle Obama were pushing on the American public. Within weeks of showing up at market for the first time in our white 10×10 foot tent, Chaia had been named “one of DC’s top nine tastemakers”.
Our style of cooking focuses on what’s freshest at the farm market and what’s in season. We believe eating like this is healthiest both for people and for our planet. Real foods have seasons and taste superior when eaten as such. Chaia is slow-cooked, fast casual food that is all about plants. We are not doing this because of a fad. This is about long-term shifts in the way people are eating – and how they will need to eat moving forward to save their bodies and the planet.
HW: All of the social platforms claim to help small businesses and brands amplify their voice, find their customers. Are you active on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, etc? How do you decide which products to dedicate time and attention? Do “likes” and “shares” turn into sales?
BS: We are active on all of the social media channels above, save for Tumblr. Our SM has definitely helped us to build up a stronger following. We refer to our tacos as “Insta-bait” because they are beautiful and so is our Georgetown shop. Intrinsically, our product consists of fresh, colorful, organic material that is perfectly suited to photography. I am not sure that our SM has had any influence on the actual food culture, but it makes for pretty pictures. We’ve also had some very generous artists contributing to our cache of usable imagery and promotional material – for which we are VERY grateful.
Our brick and mortar has only been open since November 2015. We opened our doors the week before Thanksgiving and then headed into the holiday season and the cold, winter months. In a new neighborhood during what is traditionally the hardest hit months for restaurateurs, we needed to test a myriad of ideas for getting customers into our shop. Social media played a role in reminding loyal Chaia fans that we had moved to a permanent location and to entice our new neighbors to come in and visit. However, old-fashioned soliciting was also needed to get folks in to our doors, so we put flyers on cars, posters up at our local universities and slipped notes under doors. We are currently reaching out to our Georgetown business and corporate owners, design firms, fitness groups and like-minded NGOs. We are offering promotions and larger-scale catering to continue to scale our business from not just a walk-in, counter service quick serve but to something even more accessible to all of the city’s neighborhoods. This will help us create a web of loyal customers all over the DMV as we begin to focus on our next locations.
HW: At Homebrew we see lots of startups wanting to serve the small/growing business segment with software tools ranging from ecommerce, to point of sale to employees back-office and so on. What software tools help power your business – besides Microsoft Excel – since everyone secretly just uses Excel 🙂
BS: We are using a number of different software programs to help facilitate and streamline our business. Here are a few:
- Orderly – a restaurant purchasing app for ordering, invoicing and inventory
- HotSchedules – a restaurant management platform for scheduling employees, plus more
- Asana – a project management tool to help our team track our work and current and past projects
- Revel – our iPad-based point of sale
- Bento Box – our mobile-friendly website was created by them to help drive revenue and customers
- UberEats – we recently partnered with this behemoth to get our food to more customers
HW: What’s a problem you wish a technology startup could solve for you?
BS: I would like an effective tool for creating easy-to-use costing tools (i.e: plated recipes, employee hours, fixed fees). A humanities major, I am not well-versed at Excel or things with numbers. Others on my team are, so we more than get by. However, I would like idiot-proof ways to watch all our costs in real time – and with little or no math skills!
HW: How have you financed your business to date? What lessons have you learned that you can share with other SMB’s?
BS: As co-founders, Suzanne and I are equal business partners 50/50. We had an initial valuation made on our existing farmers market business and we secured a small business loan from a local bank to help finance much of our build-out costs. She and I retain the majority of the business, but we brought on strategic investors to help finance our business and to help us grow our company to expansion.
I’ve been asked if our investors balked at the idea of a socially-responsible, triple-bottom line taco shop? Quite the opposite, it actually made several PE advisors more excited about our venture, as they realized the model is attractive to today’s consumers.
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