Pictured: Ian Ferguson
New events startup Kitchit connects diners directly with top professional chefs who create everything from casual dinner parties to world-class gastronomic adventures. A hand-picked group of talented chefs who range from well-known Michelin-starred executive chefs, to celebrity chefs, as well as up-and-coming restaurant and private chefs, all create experiences that are "effortless, memorable, and customized."
"It brings the quality and ease of restaurant fine dining to private and in-home events," said Ian Ferguson, the out CPO and co-founder of Kitchit.
The company began in a much different form, primarily as an online source of recipes from top chefs, but as the founders spoke more and more with chefs, different themes emerged. Ferguson said they told him about the challenge of building their businesses and brands, the difficulties of making a living while working a restaurant line, and the intense satisfaction felt from connecting directly with diners. Soon, they began exploring the private dining world and quickly realized they had tapped a mostly uncharted business idea.
"Here was a sleepy, niche market that was ripe with opportunity for new technology and new audiences," said Ferguson. A year after the idea, Kitchit is now in four markets -- New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago -- with plans to expand.
Working with and having some of the most accomplished and best-known chefs in America didn't come easy. The company first had to prove to the highest-tier chefs that it wasn't another "here today, gone tomorrow" food startup. "It was important for us to learn the ins and outs of the chef world, which is very networked, fairly political, and totally driven by passion," said Ferguson, "and we had to prove ourselves quickly, and fortunately we found some outstanding advocates, like Chef Christopher Kostow of the Michelin 3-Star Restaurant at Meadowood, who really believe in what we're doing."
Then Kitchit had to overcome the perennial challenges of educating new consumers about the accessibility of its product. Potential customers were worried about costs, and they needed help on the differences between Kitchit's service and a catering service. Typically, a dinner ranges from $40 to $150 per person and Kitchit makes it extremely comfortable and convenient for groups to split the bill just like they might at a restaurant. In addition, dinners do not include alcohol and guests are encouraged to bring their own. "Catering sounds so impersonal and big batch," Ferguson said. "A Kitchit dinner party is just the opposite: intimate, candlelit, wine-fueled nights that bring friends together like few restaurant meals can."
Ferguson, who once worked as a consultant for Bain in New York, was always heavily involved in LGBT networks. He moved to the West Coast in 2009 for business school at Stanford, which made for both a geographic and career shift that left him feeling "network-less." He recently discovered StartOut by word of mouth and has since attended a few networking events.
"I've been so incredibly impressed by the size, engagement and diversity of the groups," he said. Kitchit is a business that grows through word of mouth networks, according to Ferguson. "It's a social product -- one that brings people together around a table, so we depend on networks of all kinds to spread the word." StartOut has served as one of those networks, and Ferguson says it has looped him into others that also amplify his message about making "the experience of hiring a chef as easy as booking a table at a restaurant."
Ferguson, 29, acknowledged that most startups morph and change and his advice for others is to be open, nimble and to expect change from the original idea. He also suggested having external validation, to help speed up the process. "I'm also a big fan of actually having a business model, so businesses start small and need to grow, others may need to build some traction before they start churning out cash," he said, adding, "but I'm personally wary of businesses that seem to lack any monetization strategy whatsoever, so don't forget that part of the equation."
Numbers released by Kitchit at the start of 2013 show that about 15,000 diners have experienced the service, and more than 200 chefs are on Kitchit, with more coming online every day. Of all of its events, 55% are below $1,000 and the majority of events are between $50 to $100 per person. The most popular chefs on Kitchit each made an average of more than $60,000 on the site in 2012, indicating Ferguson has taken his own advice on monetization.
This is a monthly series highlighting a successful business within the LGBT community that is involved with StartOut. The organization strives to educate, inspire and support entrepreneurs. It fosters LGBT leadership in the business community by including social programming opportunities, providing role models, connecting mentors, and promoting equality.