Create a Culture of Inclusion and Innovation with Jeff Grass
Lead with a “Do As I Do” Attitude
Jeff Grass, Chairman and CEO of HUNGRY is a purpose-driven entrepreneur who has dedicated his career to solving big problems through industry-disrupting technology and high-quality service. In today’s show, Jeff talks about the importance of a solid company culture to attract top talent who want to drive innovative solutions and give back to their community.
“It’s exciting to come to work every day if you’re having a positive impact.”
- If you want to be intentional around culture, experience and the environment, it helps to make sure everybody’s rowing in the same direction.
- Having a clear purpose creates clarity of direction, attracts people who have similar passions and interests and align everybody’s efforts.
- Be a “do as I do” not a “do as I say” leader.
Jeff Grass, Chairman and CEO of HUNGRY, has spearheaded new endeavors in technology, mobile apps, and venture capital for more than 20 years. A purpose-driven entrepreneur, Grass is responsible for co-founding four venture capital-backed startups and has dedicated his career to solving big problems through industry-disrupting technology and high-quality service. He serves on the boards of HUNGRY, BuySafe, James Madison University, and JMI Innovations and lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and two children.
“The more transparent and clear you can be with people, the more they want to be engaged and contribute.”
Hello, I’m Michael Kurland, CEO and Co-Founder of Branded Group, an award-winning California based facility maintenance and construction management company that services multi-site commercial properties such as retail, restaurants, healthcare facilities, and educational institutions.
Welcome to the BeBetter podcast! Each week, I interview thought leaders from a variety of industries who will share their stories and the lessons they learned as they strive to be better for their clients, partners, employees, and their community. Are you ready to Be Better?
Michael Kurland (00:02):
Hello, and welcome to another episode of the BeBetter podcast. I’m your host, Michael Kurland. Joining me today is Jeff Grass, CEO of Hungry. Jeff, welcome to the show. Tell everyone a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Jeff Grass (00:19):
Thank you, Michael. Excited to be here today. My background is very much a serial entrepreneur. Hungry is the fourth venture capital-backed startup that I’ve co-founded and led. We started Hungry about four and a half years ago.
Michael Kurland (00:37):
Very nice. You mentioned four-time venture capitalist and now you’ve started Hungry, like you said, four and a half years ago. Let’s talk about the journey to get to Hungry because I think what you’re doing at Hungry is great, and I want to talk really in-depth about it. But let’s get us up to speed and how you got there and why this is important to you.
Jeff Grass (01:01):
Sure! Sure! My career started a little bit more traditionally. I was a bond underwriter for the Travelers Group. I did some time at McKenzie. I went to Wharton Business School but, really for the last 20 years, I’ve been on this entrepreneurial journey. I was lucky enough back in the late 1990s to co-found a company called paymybills.com with a friend and classmate at business school. We grew the company up to a couple hundred people, had a nice exit, and it’s really been that kind of that experience just led to the next to the next to the next. I really have found tremendous enjoyment and personal satisfaction around helping build companies and trying to create new solutions to solve problems in the market. It’s really my passion, I’d say, as much as anything versus a career.
Michael Kurland (01:55):
I think you bring up a good point here. You’re trying to solve problems in the market. So, maybe that’s a good segue into Hungry. Let’s talk a little bit about that and what it exactly is because it is literally solving a problem in the market that probably people didn’t even know existed as a problem.
Jeff Grass (02:16):
We started Hungry really with this observation that companies were bringing food in more and more than ever before to feed their teams to provide special perks and incentives for people to be in the office. They were relying on restaurants and traditional caterers, neither of whom were ever designed around providing food for an office, and there’s just a lot of friction, a lot of challenges with the person who responsible for doing that, for organizing the team lunches and bringing in food, having to use a different supplier, different restaurant each time. How do you address the wide variety of dietary needs that Americans have today, much more picky diets, and there’s been an explosion of food allergies and other types of dietary restrictions?
It really kind of started with this observation of there’s this real issue with how do you feed teams effectively, reliably, consistently in a way that makes them happy and also solves these challenges for the buyers of office food. It really came out at my last company. My co-founders and I were experiencing it ourselves. We were trying to figure out how do you bring food into the office and what’s the right way to do that. It was just kind of frustrating, and so one of my co-founders had the inspired idea of what if we could create a marketplace that connects companies with top local chefs and really enable two groups that currently aren’t connected and can’t connect in a very efficient way and really solve two problems. We can help support great local chefs, help them provide them an alternative career path where they could be entrepreneurs and build their own businesses. At the same time, solve this office food problem simultaneously.
Michael Kurland (04:10):
I can tell you, like you said, you had that same issue at previous places. We did while we were in the office. Prior to COVID happening, we had that same problem. It was like, “We’re going to order lunch in for all 65 employees. Let’s get pizza.” “Well, I don’t eat dairy, and I’m gluten free. And I don’t eat meat.” So, it just became this whole thing of what do we do? It definitely fell on our administrative assistant, who is basically our office manager, and she’d have to walk around and take pretty much an hour out of her day and be like, “Here’s where we’ve chosen today. Here’s your selection of options. Pick it.” And then having someone go and pick it up. It was just, to your point, very much a nightmare.
Jeff Grass (04:58):
At Hungry, we’ve really created a platform that’s just designed to solve a lot of those challenges for companies and the business. The suite of solutions we provide has really expanded over time, so it’s not just office catering now. Obviously with COVID, we had to do a little bit of pivoting. We’ve leveraged our platform in some new and exciting ways, but the core of it is really about connecting organizations with top chefs and being really in the middle of enabling this marketplace.
Michael Kurland (05:28):
I wish I knew about this when we were in the office more.
Jeff Grass (05:33):
Hopefully you’re back soon.
Michael Kurland (05:36):
I don’t know if we’re ever going to go back full-time, but we will have a certain amount of people in the office at all times. We were actually just talking about this today. We’re trying to put together an appreciation day for our operational team from our sales team. We’re like, “What do we do because we’re not in the office.” I am getting off topic here, but this would have been a great solution to that problem. I see on the wall behind you your core values. In the pre-show conversation, you told me you’re a very purpose-driven company. Let’s talk about Hungry’s core values, why those are important to you specifically, and why purpose is important to you prior to opening Hungry. Maybe go in that order. First, why is purpose important? And then we can talk about the values.
Jeff Grass (06:30):
It’s really been over the course of these four companies that I founded that I have really grown to realize how important having a very clear purpose or mission is for the business. My last company LiveSafe is very mission-oriented around making our world a safer place and had a platform to enable that crowdsourcing safety platform versus my first company or two really didn’t fully grasp or appreciate that. I think I was really missing out. I think it helps create real clarity of direction. It helps to make sure you’re attracting people who have similar passions and interests to the team which makes them typically much more effective team members and just helps align everybody’s efforts. Our core purpose at Hungry is to improve the lives of everyone we touch but with a special focus on the chefs who are partners on the platform to the clients that we serve, the communities where we operate and our team.
From a team perspective, we do have nine core values. They really help establish clarity around the kind of environment we’re trying to foster and create. We’re trying to be very intentional around culture and experience and the environment. It just helps make sure everybody’s rowing in the same direction, that we’re all operating in the same way because when you’re starting a business from scratch, you have tremendous pressure. You’re trying to figure it out as you go, so not everything’s going to always work out the way you think. Having a culture that’s really supportive of nurturing of that type of an environment is really key versus one that can get negative. You get down on yourself. People get toxic, and it can really be incredibly destructive. That is a big focus in my job. It’s around really making sure we’re living our core values as an organization and that the people we bring on are very bought into them.
Michael Kurland (08:28):
We have a lot in common, at least through our companies. When we talked pre-show, you mentioned improving the lives of everyone: the chefs, the clients, the community, and the team. Similarly, we want to be better to our clients, our community, our employees, and our subcontractors. Our subcontractors are probably similar to what your chefs are to you. I think the one thing that really resonated with me when we talked pre-show is that you were like, “Look. This our culture. When you’re interviewing here, maybe you don’t fit this. If you don’t fit this, you may not want to work here. There’s nothing wrong if you don’t fit this culture. If you don’t like what we stand for, but you’re probably not going to like it here. I don’t know if you’ve had any conversations like that where you didn’t hire someone because they weren’t willing to get on board. I know on our end, we’ve definitely had a few people that did not fit our culture, and we did not hire them because of that very fact. They were capable enough to do the job, but the culture fit was not there.
Jeff Grass (09:36):
Fit is incredibly important. On a broad basis, there’s really kind of four key things we look at it. It’s skill, will, fit, and intellectual curiosity when we’re trying to add new members to the team. But fit is essential. We do try to screen on that and if we get it wrong, the core values really help highlight that. I actually think as a leader, it makes it easier to lead and manage. It creates very clear rules of the road for everybody, and so if you’re operating in conflict with one or more of our core values, it’s easy to sit them down and have a very direct conversation. Either you’re going to get aligned or this isn’t the right place, and no judgment on that. It’s just this is who we are and what’s important here. For us, it’s also a mutual commitment to the team, too. It’s not here’s our rules that we expect of you, but it’s also what you should expect from us in the organization. It’s a two-way promise, if you will, if you see us being out of alignment with one of those core values. I tell my team all the time, “Your job is to tell me, and my job is to then go fix that,” because this not ‘do as I say, but not as I do. It’s ‘were all going to be in this and living this together.’ And I think that that really means a lot.
Michael Kurland (10:53):
I totally agree. I recently interviewed JeVon McCormick from Scribe, and he said the same thing. It was as the CEO, as the leader, it just gives me my guidelines. This is our mission, right? For me as well, these words right here, these are our mission. This is what we’re focused on. And if you’re not walking this line or we’re not walking this line, then someone’s out of line. You either got to face it or you have to…
Jeff Grass (11:22):
That means something is broken. You would probably be much less successful. Exactly right. Just even at a strategic level, we really look at those four groups I mentioned around our purpose. Anything we do, any new business we launch has to make all four groups better off in the process. If it’s good for clients but crappy for chefs or it’s good for this but not for the community then we’re not going to do it. We always really try to figure out how do we create, as we do new things, it aligns with those four broad objectives. Usually, that helps us make sure we’re creating something that really has a good product market fit and really thrive in the market.
Michael Kurland (12:03):
I also think it creates transparency. I don’t know what your workforce is made up of, but I’m going to assume it’s probably a good majority of millennials, and ours is as well. I think on top of giving them purpose, which is a proven fact that they are more willing to take less money to work for a company that has a purpose over the higher salary, but also the transparency. I grew up in the business world where you didn’t ask higher-ups questions. You just did what you were told, and you figured, “Okay. It’s for the best of the company.” And maybe it was for whatever the reason was, but maybe I didn’t align with that reason because it was just to get more profit. It may have been hurting the community or may have been hurting other people along the way, or subcontractors. We have full transparency with what our mission is with our people, with our subcontractors, just like you guys do. So, I’m sure that probably helps get people on board as well.
Jeff Grass (12:59):
Absolutely. I think the more transparent and clear you can be with people, the more they want to be engaged and contribute. We have a very diverse company here. We’re a majority female company. Over 40% of our team is of a minority background. We have a diversity equity inclusion council that really helps provide very actionable recommendations on things we can do to improve, and we take all of that very, very seriously. I think the more you can be proactive around these things and create clarity around how you’re going to operate and then you follow through with that, I think the more people can really buy into it and become really engaged and really impactful.
I think when COVID hit, it’s a prime example of our team was performing superhuman feats left and right last year. We were a platform designed around office and event catering. In the span of two weeks, we had a business that was growing at exponential rates, and it just fell off a cliff. It was one of those ‘oh, crap’ moments. We really had a choice. It was fire and furlough, like everyone else in our industry is doing, or can we try to pull together as a team and innovate our way through it. Luckily, we chose to do that. But had the team not risen to the occasion, and people were working like crazy to make things happen. Our business ended up doubling sales last year despite the pandemic. I really think it’s a testament to the kind of environment and culture that we’ve tried to foster here, and the team kind of responded in kind and we’re better off for it.
Michael Kurland (14:49):
Talk to me about that. You guys won 2021 Fast Company’s Most Innovative. I’m assuming that’s from what you just referenced, how you pivoted during COVID. So, talk to me about, about that. We were the other company. We had to furlough. We didn’t lay anyone off. We furloughed, and we brought everyone back that we could. We couldn’t pivot, right? We have a pretty linear ‘this is what we do.’ There’s no way we can change our service offerings if there’s no brick and mortar open. Tell me how you pivoted and how this award came to be. Let’s talk about that.
Jeff Grass (15:30):
We really leveraged the power of the platform we created. We have a digital marketplace that we’ve built over the years. It has a tremendous amount of technology embedded. A lot of logistics and operational capabilities. It links into a chef network. Most of our chefs cook out of ghost kitchens, and so we’re working with lots of top talent. Lots of them are many celebrity chefs. We really tapped into those capabilities. One thing we created was a virtual experience business that leveraged a lot of our top chefs. We would pair that with an experience kit that would have all the items you’d need to be involved in a very engaging hands-on experience. So, it wasn’t just watching somebody do something online, it was participating with them and having a live experience with this super talented person. That’s a business that just kind of skyrocketed for us. We also parlayed a lot of our operational capabilities and the technology into last mile food delivery logistics services. It started initially pandemic- related. We were tapped in New York City to deliver a million and a half meals a month to low-income seniors across the five boroughs. We were figuring out how to do that at massive scale through COVID. If you remember, there were Black Lives Matter riots and other things were going on. It was a crazy, crazy time. That business has really now evolved into providing a similar type of service but more for prepared meal companies, meal kit companies, health plans, so less pandemic related work. I’d say those are the two businesses. There’s a variety of others, but those are the two that really took off last year and allowed us to survive without having to let go large amounts of the team.
Michael Kurland (17:21):
That’s great. Thank you for figuring that out in quick form and keeping them employed and now having other arms of your business that you probably wouldn’t have explored it if it wasn’t for necessity, right?
Jeff Grass (17:36):
Absolutely. Necessity is the mother of invention, right? The old adage is true. It was not part of the plan at the beginning of year. These were businesses that we hadn’t even thought of until March/April of last year. They went from zero to about a $30 million run rate at the end of last year. It was just incredible at the kind of the speed with which they grew and scaled.
Michael Kurland (17:58):
That’s amazing. Zero to $30 million in a year is amazing.
Jeff Grass (18:03):
About nine months. Yeah.
Michael Kurland (18:04):
So, I can see even more reason why you won this award. Great job. Let’s talk about your give back. You guys are values driven. We have our One-for-One program right now where we give one meal for every service call we complete to a local food pantry. If there’s not a local one, we go with Feeding America. But you have something somewhat similar. Why don’t you tell the audience about your give back portion?
Jeff Grass (18:35):
Our commitment community has two core pillars. One is around environmental sustainability where our caterings used materials that we can either recycle and reuse or are fully compostable biodegradable. The second is around our fighting hunger program. With us, for every two meals clients purchase, we provide a meal in the local community. We will typically do that in partnership with a local food bank, sometimes with Feeding America as well. Sometimes it’s with just leveraging our local chefs. Earlier this year, we did a 6,000-meal giveaway that was meals prepared by our chefs as a way to raise awareness around food insecurity and hunger with at risk families across the US and was able to get a lot of kind of awareness and publicity around that. But, yes, I think it’s similar shared values in terms of wanting to try to give back and help support those in need. It makes it more exciting to come to work every day if you’re having a positive impact as you’re building an exciting business.
Michael Kurland (19:38):
Sure. Do you know the stats on families with food insecurity and hunger in the country? I don’t, so it’s not a test. I’m just trying to get that information for the audience.
Jeff Grass (19:52):
The pandemic has caused it to just absolutely explode in this country. My sense is it’s probably a pretty evolving figure just because there’s been so much government support that has now come into the market. A lot more with kids going back to school. I think that’s helped as well with. Many families rely on school lunch programs to feed their kids, and so when everyone was homeschooling suddenly, the nutrition that young kids used to have is no longer available. It’s been a surprising problem for such a wealthy country to realize that we have so many friends and neighbors in our communities that are at risk of hunger and aren’t getting sufficient nutrition and meals.
They also have in disadvantaged areas, you have the more nuanced issue of they may have enough to eat, but it’s not really quality food. It’s all highly processed foods and things like that. Many times, they’re called food deserts. Good nutrition and a healthy body help create healthy minds and positive mental health as well. So, it all is very interrelated. We try to do our part as much as we can in terms of supporting the people.
Michael Kurland (21:12):
I know out here in California, they just approved for this coming school year that started a week or two ago free lunches for all the whole state, which I think is immensely important for exactly what you just said. That’s one of their meals of the day. I can’t remember the guy’s name; he was an English guy. He used to do this program where he’d go into schools and actually look. Jamie Oliver, is that his name? It was on Netflix or something, and he would go in and basically test the nutrition levels of the food they were serving at a lot of these places. They had contracts with these big food distributors that were just giving the kids crap.
Jeff Grass (21:57):
Unfortunately, it’s really surprisingly disappointing that the quality of food that we tend to feed our children in schools. Many jurisdictions are getting better at that, but it’s a high-cost thing to provide lots of meals, and so usually you end up into these situations where they’re just trying to find the lowest price possible rather than really looking at what’s important from a nutrition perspective and something that the kids will eat as well. That can be tricky, too.
Michael Kurland (22:24):
Absolutely. I always look at it as you’re going to pay for it now or later. You can buy organic now and not go to the doctor in 40 years, or you can go to the doctor in 30 years because you didn’t eat organic.
Jeff Grass (22:36):
There you go.
Michael Kurland (22:37):
So, you got the company open. You’ve been open almost five years. Everything’s growing exponentially. Give me stories. Give me some good stories about some of the chefs you got on staff there.
Jeff Grass (22:52):
We’ve got a bunch of amazing chefs. You see some of them on the wall here behind me. Chef Stacy is Will Smith’s former personal chef. Chef Chris is on the Real Housewives of Potomac. Chef Irene is one of our more popular chefs. She does $40,000 to $50,000 a month on our platform. She was the former executive chef of the Philippine Embassy. Chef Chris here, he’s got an incredible backstory. He learned to cook in the Navy. He was the head chef on the USS Harry Truman, which is a US aircraft carrier. After he left the service, he fell on hard times. He was actually homeless for a period of time. He then got on Food TV Network, became the cutthroat kitchen champion, joined the Hungry platform, and making $30,000 to $40,000 a month. He’s one of our more popular talents on our virtual experiences as well. Incredibly talented chef. Just a wide range. Some have really impressive pedigrees. Chef Marika is a James Beard nominee. Others are just local chefs with just really, really great talents. One of the inspiring aspects of the Hungry platform is we’re creating this alternative career path for chefs to go into business. You don’t need capital like you do to open a restaurant, the complexity. Essentially, we’re a business in a box for chefs where we do the sales, the marketing, the delivery, all the services. They cook great food, and we do the rest, and so it’s a really nice partnership.
Michael Kurland (24:19):
That’s great information. You mentioned it before, ghost kitchens. I didn’t even know that was a thing until about three years ago. Actually, that’s not correct. It was about a year ago. There was this YouTube Twitch guy named Mr. Beast. Do you know who this guy is?
Jeff Grass (24:37):
Michael Kurland (24:38):
I didn’t know who he was either. He’s like a guy that plays video games. I didn’t know that people watch other people play video games either.
Jeff Grass (24:46):
Yes. It’s big.
Michael Kurland (24:47):
This guy, he played video games, and he said, “Order my Mr. Beast burger,” blah, blah, blah, and “We’re delivering all over the country.” I’ve never even heard of this. I’ve never seen a Mr. Beast burger. I don’t even know who this guy is. So, I started digging into it, and I found out about ghost kitchens. Now, we actually service ghost kitchens at Branded Group as one of our biggest clients that we’ve got. I’ve got one of the salespeople, and I said, “Hey. Figure this out.” Now, it’s a whole new industry. It’s fascinating to me.
Jeff Grass (25:17):
Totally. The shared kitchen concept kind of started back in the food truck revolution where most food trucks don’t make all of their food in the truck. It needs to be made in a licensed commercial kitchen, and so tapping into sort of shared kitchens or commissary kitchens, ghost kitchens; there’s different terms. But that’s really where we started was focusing on chefs there because it gives them access to a low cost place to make food. They don’t have all the overhead that a typical retail establishment would have. It’s a much lower cost infrastructure and so it allows us to provide very high-quality food, but at a sub price point. Now, all the B to C food players are very much plugging into ghost kitchens as well because of those positive economics. Door Dash and Uber Eats are increasingly partnering with ghost kitchen or virtual kitchen centric companies.
Michael Kurland (26:10):
We were looking for dinner the other day and the wife was like, “Hey, did you know Guy Fieri opened a restaurant around here?” And I’m like, “That’s a ghost kitchen, babe. He definitely didn’t just open a restaurant.” [Both laugh] I still can’t get behind ordering a burger from a ghost kitchen, getting delivered. If I’m going to go get a burger, I got to eat it there.
Jeff Grass (26:29):
There you go.
Michael Kurland (26:29):
That’s me. Jeff, this has been a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate it. If the audience wants to get ahold of you or order from your platform, how do they do so?
Jeff Grass (26:43):
Sure! Sure! You can go to tryhungry.com. That’s our website. We’re available now in nine different cities, about to be nine- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, DC, Atlanta, Austin, and Dallas, Texas. We’re launching in Los Angeles next week just after Labor Day and then later this month in San Francisco. So, those would be kind of the nine core cities. You can also email us at email@example.com. If anybody has any interest in it, we’d be delighted to talk with you.
Michael Kurland (27:16):
Great. Jeff, thank you so much for coming on the show. Audience, until next time.
Thank you for tuning in! I hope that today’s episode inspired you to become a purpose-driven leader in your career or your community. There is no doubt that when we lead with purpose, we can change lives. If you enjoyed today’s show, I’d be grateful if you would take a moment to rate us on your preferred listening platform.
To learn more Branded Group’s “Be Better” experience and how we provide industry-leading on-demand National facility service, construction management, and special project implementation, visit us at www.branded-group.com. Be sure to follow us on social media and you can also reach out to me directly on LinkedIn. Until next time, Be Better.