As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Pat Vihtelic, CEO and founder of Home Chef, a leading meal kit company with more than 6 million meals delivered every month. Home Chef makes home cooking simple and approachable by providing weekly deliveries of fresh, pre-portioned ingredients and familiar, easy-to-follow recipes available online and in more than 2000 Kroger Co. Family of Stores. Pat founded Home Chef in 2013 out of a passion for cooking and frustration with grocery shopping. He has grown the company’s team to over 1800 employees, who enable the company to deliver nationwide.
Prior to Home Chef, Pat was a technology investment banker working with high growth Internet and software companies. Pat quit his finance career to learn to code and built the technology behind Home Chef as the company’s only engineer for the first six months of operations. Pat is passionate about leveraging technology and data to ensure Home Chef customers enjoy a delightful home cooking experience. Pat is a graduate of Indiana University and, when he is not busy with Home Chef, enjoys spending time with his wife and three daughters, cooking or being outdoors.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Growing and cooking my food has always been a passion of mine. One of my earliest memories is from my grandfather’s garden: I helped my dad harvest broccoli, and I accidentally cut myself. I was a small child, and even though it was a minor injury, I became disproportionately upset. Luckily, my parents caught the embarrassingly funny moment on home video. It did not deter me — I grew up cooking and gardening alongside my parents and grandparents. Being around fresh food has always been something we enjoyed as a family. My parents are some of my first and longest-standing customers.
I have always had an interest in starting businesses, too. Some of my earliest endeavors were operating a lemonade stand on a golf course near my home, mowing lawns, and even went door to door promoting a power-washing service — all before I became a teenager.
In my 20’s, I started my career as an investment banker in San Francisco. At that point, my wife and I were both working long hours, and even though we enjoy cooking together, we struggled to get dinner on the table after a long day. That is when I decided to make a change. After learning to code, I started Home Chef by partnering with a chef in Chicago, designing easy-to-follow recipes that anyone could make to help more people feel comfortable cooking at home.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In the early days of Home Chef, I wore a lot of hats. It is easy as a young founder in the early stages to want to take on everything — and I did, except for the chef duties. I did that juggling act for a while, but eventually, I had to bring in help and hire employees.
As Home Chef grew, one of the best pieces of advice I received was that I should be firing myself from day-to-day responsibilities and hiring the best people to fill those roles. For example, I ran our payroll for the first couple of years — there are more efficient ways for the CEO to spend their time.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
“The Lean Startup,” by Eric Ries, was a book I read while working in technology investment banking and part of the reason I decided to make the leap of faith from the professional services world to a startup. I was fortunate to work with high growth tech clients and saw the continuous innovation described in the book in action with successful companies doing things differently. I wanted to try it myself.
More recently, “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Advantage” are two books written by Patrick Lenconi from The Table Group that have led to a lot of organizational clarity for us.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Home Chef was built on hard work to deliver a simple, delicious, and convenient home cooking experience. I made the company’s first website and delivered our first meal kits in a rented U-Haul truck. Today Home Chef employs 1800 people across production, marketing, technology, product, design, and customer service in our three production facilities and Chicago-based headquarters.
In 2018, we merged with Kroger, the largest grocer in the country, which has allowed us to innovate faster and expand our product portfolio from one type of meal kit to various meal solutions with different cooking and preparation times. An example of this is the oven-ready kit delivered in an oven-safe tin, which means no dirty dishes to clean. A variety of heat-and-eat options can be warmed in as little as five minutes.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Our customer-first approach has guided us from day one and continues to be our highest priority, resulting in industry-leading customer satisfaction. We value the feedback we receive from our customers and incorporate it into everything we do. Our team is continuously reviewing the feedback and rating on every recipe, which informs future menu development and product innovation. If we cannot keep our customers happy, someone else will.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like so many other families, mine has been taking it one day at a time. Early in the pandemic, we decided to close our corporate office so that we could help to flatten the curve, and we are still encouraging employees to work from home whenever possible. Since then, I have been primarily working from home, and our daughters have transitioned to eLearning. As I am sure so many parents can relate, this year feels even busier than usual, if that is possible.
Because I have experienced firsthand the balancing act that it is when you’re working from home, I’ve encouraged my leadership team to be flexible with employees who face new challenges and allow for flexible work hours when possible. With this in mind, we instituted COVID Health & Wellness PTO days for our corporate team that they can take — no questions asked — whenever they need a break. We have also provided our employees with additional sick leave so that if they fall ill or need to take care of a loved one, they can do so without worrying about whether they will have a job when they return
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our focus all year has been to get food on the tables of families and individuals who need it now more than ever. By partnering with Kroger, we have scaled our operations to increase production, which has almost doubled since last year. We have seen a material increase in orders from existing, new, and returning customers since the pandemic’s onset as people avoided leaving their homes for food.
My team was agile and made fast adjustments to our menu to ensure that we could meet this increase in demand and get meals out to as many people as possible, including frontline workers and vulnerable populations unable to leave their homes. Early on in the pandemic, we also started a relief fund for hungry families, including a $100,000 donation to Feeding America®.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I have tried to comfort those close to me by hearing their concerns and encouraging them to keep their routines as best they can while also remaining safe. As a country and across the globe, we have had to rethink how we do everyday tasks, from working to eating.
I would encourage everyone to take the time to take care of themselves while not getting too caught up in speculating the unknown. Always remember to give yourself a break and do not let the overload of news media exhaust you. I enjoy getting outside, cooking and eating new things, and spending as much time as possible with my family, one of the silver linings for me personally throughout the pandemic.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
There is great opportunity at times of significant change. The way we live has shifted, which has quite possibly accelerated longer-term trends.
Cooking and eating at home has grown dramatically in 2020, and we have been honored to help our customers eat well during these hectic times. The food industry has been challenged at a scale unthinkable years earlier. Our team has done an amazing job pivoting our priorities more or less overnight in response to the challenges that the pandemic has handed us.
With more people eating at home, we hear even more from our customers. We are not done innovating yet! For example, we have begun to explore product offerings that would better position us to continue to help our customers if there were to be a stronger economic downturn. We also continue to provide more opportunities for chefs and other people in the food business to stay in the food business, even if it is not a traditional restaurant role.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way people buy groceries. We do not expect the way people shop for food to ever return to precisely the way it was before this year. Many households purchased their groceries online in 2020 for the first time, which is a big deal.
This acknowledgment of the permanence of some of these shifts in lifestyle behaviors is vital to keep in mind for many industries as we all look ahead. The travel, healthcare, and restaurant industries have transformed permanently to some extent. We will be watching and listening closely to our customers as we all return to some kind of normalcy after the pandemic.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Home Chef has seen tremendous growth year-over-year. Our current customers are ordering from us more frequently than this time last year in addition to more new customers coming on-board during the pandemic.
While the initial surge at the beginning of the pandemic was due in part to households stocking up on food and limiting grocery trips, we also saw that as the pandemic continued and food shortages refilled, customer numbers remained highly elevated. With the post-COVID economy in mind, we will continue to offer meal options at manageable prices and to innovate to be a solution for our customers no matter the environment.
While every entrepreneur wants to grow their business, what is most important to Home Chef right now and for the immediate future is to be there for our customers.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Generally, I encourage business owners to explore how they can support their employees, further solve their customers’ problems, and support their communities during this time. I believe that the answers to those problems lead to business success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Something I learned early in my career is that no one likes hearing excuses. While there is no shortage of quotes that speak to this in one way or another, one that comes to mind is from Benjamin Franklin, “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.”
It is easy to get distracted with excuses, but usually, it is better to spend that energy finding a solution. Not only has that mindset helped me professionally, but it is also weaved into our approach to keeping our customers happy. If we ever have an issue with a delivery or a recipe that does not meet our expectations, we use those moments to make it right with our customers and improve our offering going forward.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Follow us at www.homechef.com to see what we are doing and how we can help make dinner easier in your household.