Richard Bennett the co-founder and CEO of Epicured, a gourmet kitchen and food delivery service designed to make healthy eating simple and joyful. Epicured is the first 100% low FODMAP and gluten-free food company offering healthy, unique, and digestion-friendly menus.
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Epicured and How Healthy Eating Hits The Home Delivery Market
My guest is Richard Bennett. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Epicured. Epicured is a gourmet kitchen and food delivery service designed to make healthy eating simple and joyful. They are the first 100% low FODMAP and gluten-free food company offering healthy, unique and digestion‑friendly menus. Richard, welcome to the program.
Karen, thanks for having me. It’s great to be with you.
It’s my pleasure. It’s great to be with you. You are the Co-Founder of Epicured. Why don’t you start by telling people exactly what that is?
Epicured is a healthcare company that designs gourmet food solutions for people with chronic disease. It was why we founded the company. What has also happened is the food is so darn good that we have about 50% of our client base that doesn’t “need to eat the food,” but loves the fact that we’re clean, healthy, portion-controlled, and precooked. Everything comes fresh, not frozen, to your door, cooked by Michelin-starred chefs that we have in our kitchen and recruited from around the city to develop tasty meals for you to reheat at home or at the office.
You’re New York-based, correct?
I call it commuter New York for now. Our kitchen is on Long Island. Our headquarters are in Manhattan. We deliver to Long Island, the five boroughs, Westchester up into Fairfield County, Connecticut, and seven counties in Northern Jersey. Hopefully by the summertime, we’ll be going up and down the eastern seaboard, probably between Boston and Baltimore.
Is it breakfast, lunch, and dinner? What is the offering?
We’ve got a great expanded menu. We start with a lunch and dinner, a mix of soups and salads and bowls and entrees. We’ve since expanded to breakfast and beverages including our smoothie line. We’re going to launch our own cold brew in a couple of months. We have snacks and sides, including energy bites, trail mix granola, and a variety of other things. We’re about to launch a dessert line in a month or so as well.
I’m curious because we live in New York, you live in New York, and you can get anything delivered any time. You can go on Seamless and get any food you want. I’m curious as to how Epicured is different from something like Seamless where you can get any food delivered that you want, and is there a market? Where did you find a market for something like this, given that we live in an area where food delivery is commonplace?
First of all, I totally get what you mean that you can get anything you want, but in a lot of ways you can’t, so all of our food first off is non-GMO, hormone, preservative, and antibiotic-free. That’s pretty hard to find via Seamless. We’re organic where we think it matters. We’re not 100% organic, but we moderate the price point that way, so we take a lot of care in our supply chain and sourcing good clean ingredients. Second, and mostly why we founded the company was that everything we do aligns with clinical research about how to mitigate the symptoms of certain diseases. Where we started was with digestive disorders, specifically IBS, Crohn’s, colitis, celiac disease, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which needs to be gluten-free, which everyone knows about. Then there’s this other diet which only folks who tend to be afflicted with these conditions have heard about, which is called low FODMAP. Our entire menu is 100% gluten-free and 100% low FODMAP and 100% delicious and clean. We’re the only folks in the country, in fact in the world, that design and bring to life fully cooked, prepared low-FODMAP meals.
That makes sense to me because getting the combination of all of those would be a little harder to do on Seamless or any place else. How did you get the idea and the inspiration for the company? Are you in any of those categories? Did you need to eat like that?
I personally do not, and 25% of the US population is afflicted by one of those disorders. It certainly affects friends and family members of mine and my Co-Founder, Renee Cherkezian, is a nurse by background prior to creating Epicured with me. She and I used to work in healthcare in North Shore-LIJ and created their health and wellness arm. We know the power of food and the role it plays in people’s health outcomes, which is health industry jargon, but basically meaning the role food plays in determining how well you live. We’ve seen a lot of what I consider to be “fake healthy solutions” and nothing that truly went as deep and as rigorous to we’ve attempted to do at Epicured to align with science and clinicians and to align with great cooking methods and tastes. We always say that Epicured sits at the intersection of the clinical and culinary worlds and we try to bring the best of both to create great-tasting and delicious experiences at home or at the office with you and your colleagues or your family and that also can mitigate or solve a health problem, whether that’s something that you have or something that you’re trying to avoid.
How did you get into this? Had you done other health companies before? What was your path as an entrepreneur to getting to co-founding Epicured?
I’ve had great mentors all my life and a lot of mentors have led me into the healthcare space. I love healthcare because I always call it a Gordian knot of an industry. It pulls on economics and morals and science and research and it’s an unbelievably complex industry. I got to work at North Shore-LIJ for about seven or eight years. One of the roles I enjoyed the most was that I created what we called at the time Enterprise Division, which has since evolved into their venture arm. Where we were most successful back in 2006 time period was creating health and wellness businesses where we could engage our community in trying to have a healthier lifestyle. It was the first time large healthcare companies tried to engage in behavior change and to say, “We don’t want to see you when you’re sick. We want to take care of you all along the way and try to coach and help and support you have a healthy life.”
What did that mean for us from a business perspective? We started up a gym network. We started up a pharmacy chain to promote the pharmacist’s role in consultation and make sure your meds were taken the right way. We started up a digital signage network that focused on patient education. We were one of the leaders in employee wellness before it was such a hot topic where we took care of our own 75,000 employees and all of their family members with a variety of programs. That’s where I started. My biggest failure at that point in time was to bring a consumer‑friendly consumer experience to the hospital lobbies and to meal delivery at the home with what was a clinically evidence-based healthy solution that also tasted great.
There are a lot of unhealthy food solutions that we had in our hospital lobbies and I was tasked to go out and find replacements for that. I came back with some great options that were cool and hip, but none of them aligned with medicine or research. They were marketing healthy or fake healthy, whatever the phrase you want to use. Our medical advisory board rightfully so in a lot of ways said, “If they’re making a health claim that they can’t back up, therefore we don’t want to associate with them.” We basically left even more unhealthy options in the lobby because they weren’t making a health claim.
When Renee and I got together, we both come from healthcare, hers as a nurse, and me as a healthcare executive and entrepreneur. We said that we need to solve this problem. This was now after the Affordable Care Act had been passed and the timing and the market and consumer desires and awareness were more mature than they were back in 2006. We said, “Let’s bring our passions together, our experiences together to try to influence, in healthcare jargon, population health, meaning, let’s see if we can help the United States eat better food and where necessary, should you have a chronic disease or condition, use food as medicine to mitigate those symptoms and live a better life.”
Epicure is still a startup?
Yes, absolutely. Some people call it uberstartup.
Are you Series A, Series B, Series C? What path in the startup are you right now? How long have you been around what and where are you?
We closed our seed round and launched the bridge round. We’ll be raising Series A capital later this year or the beginning of next. We’ve been producing food for about eighteen months. We raised our first dollar in February of 2016, so two years ago. The company has only existed on paper and with a bank account for two years producing food for eighteen months. We have great growth metrics, great customer satisfaction, and retention. We’ve more than proved what you called the minimal viable product and are now working with great investors, advisors, and partners to mature Epicured and scale the brand regionally. There’re a bunch of ways we can grow, regionally meaning geographically, we could launch additional therapeutic menus.
For instance, 25% of our menu is already diabetic-friendly, but we would love to create additional and a full suite of offerings for diabetics. We’re talking with folks around a bariatric menu for people who have that procedure pre and post. We’re very excited to be a part of the healthcare community here in New York. We’re also very excited that Mount Sinai Health System and Mount Sinai Ventures made a large equity investment in Epicured. In doing so, they’re obviously strategic money and working with us on research, on patient education, on outcomes in their GI Department and in their Department of Internal Medicine. We’ve also been working with their Chief Human Resource Officer around employee wellness initiatives on their campuses.
What do you think is going to be the future of targeted food delivery for those groups?
At the moment, I always say we’re not a meal delivery company. The reason we’re here is not to deliver food in the traditional take-out way only. That’s the initial channel that we bring our product to our patients and customers, but our food has many conduits to reach that market. We’re talking about going in-house and onsite at Mount Sinai. We’re talking with large corporations in Manhattan and elsewhere about being on site for their employees. You can distribute through other retail partners. We’re in a gym in Soho for instance, Drive 495. Don Saladino is our fitness and wellness expert down there and we sell our food to his clients as a part of their lifestyle campaign to improve and to suit up and live a better life.
We do obviously deliver food and we’ve become very competent in delivering food the “traditional way,” but that is only one piece of the larger Epicured story. The future of food and the role it plays is around consumer awareness. Everyone realizes now that food is the primary driver other than genetics of a healthy lifestyle. I always say that the fitness industry has been 20 or 30 years ahead of the food industry relative to healthcare that everyone wants to work out, everyone is joining gyms and that’s all wonderful. If you talk to Don Saladino, you talk to other trainers and lifestyle coaches, 80% of results in the gym is what you’re putting in your body with food and making thoughtful and good decisions that way. Everyone is beginning to understand that.
Epicured is trying to lead the movement in transparent and rigorous food decisions where we design the food in our kitchen aligned with dietitians and others, but then that food comes to you and it doesn’t taste like cardboard or it doesn’t feel like a compromise. Our chefs are talented in bringing great flavors and tastes into this food. That’s why we have 50% of our client-base doesn’t “need our product,” but how we execute and prepare the food and how we select our ingredients is a world-class experience. With that combination, you can truly influence health outcomes because using the word compliance, people want to eat your food again because it tastes good and the experience is a positive one. Therefore, you can have continuity and people can eat and make these better decisions day after day as opposed to in a spurt where they feel like they’re in pain mentally because they’re not enjoying what they’re eating and/or they’re ostracized because they can’t have the joy of being together and dining with family and friends.
One of the things that I’ve heard you talk about is the social aspects of sharing meals with others. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
I remember I went on a cleanse a long time ago when I was testing things out back in 2006. There were some headaches and things like that from the cleanse and I was trying to drink less caffeine. The biggest pain and the thing that I missed out on the most was that I couldn’t go to lunch or to dinner with my colleagues or family. You were trying to follow such rigorous narrow approach to what you were eating that you lost the fact that food is social and emotional and cultural. If you steal that experience away from humans, it’s a big compromise to make and therefore they’re not going to be able to stick with it or they’re going to have a lot of other mental problems and concerns.
We hear a lot of stories from our clients that we’ve brought the family back together at the dinner table because if one child or one spouse has celiac disease and has to be gluten-free and everybody else is eating gluten rich food, they’re all dining differently. The experience and the interactions change. We know for millennia that food has been central to civilization and how we interact together, so we try to pay respect to that and make the food a unifying part of your day as opposed to an isolating part of your day.
You still might have the child who’s got celiac eating one of your meals and the rest of the family might be eating something else, correct?
It could be their choice, but our food is so good. What we find is that they’re buying food for four then, so everyone is having or chicken tikka masala that is gluten-free and low FODMAP, but no one knows. The other three people at the table in this scenario, it’s so good, our carrot ginger soup and our truffle mac and cheese and our wild caught salmon. That’s why we lead with tastes and when people need to dig in, when you have a condition, they can go check us out and realize that we are the Epicured solution for them. If you don’t taste good, you can’t eat with us and dine with us very long, so we’re very focused on tastes and bringing the family together.
What are your favorites personally?
I mentioned the chicken tikka masala first for a reason. That’s definitely one of my favorites. We launched this pulled barbecue chicken with southern dirty rice that is awesome. It’s got a little bit of heat to it and I like heat. Our turkey meatballs that were launched are to die for and that pomodoro sauce that Chef Renee and Chef Chris created is mind-blowing. Those are some. Our energy bites that we’re launching are incredible. We’re happy with the product and we’re having a lot of fun innovating and bringing what we call pan global cuisines. We do everything from chicken teriyaki to chicken tikka masala to a lemon rosemary chicken, and we have great soups and salads. We’re having a lot of fun. We’re proud of the product, the customer response and loyalty thus far have exceeded my expectations and we’re having a good old time.
Your partner in this is Renee Cherkezian. She’s a registered nurse. How did you two find each other and how did you get together and who brought up the idea first of doing the company?
Renee definitely brought the idea first and it was Renee who named the company. I love the name, Epicured. That was her brainchild. Renee and I met back when we were freshmen at Georgetown University. I’ve known Renee for multiple decades and never did we think that we would work together. She was a nurse and she made the bold move of leaving Columbia Presbyterian and moving to France to learn how to cook and to become a chef. She came back. When she came back to New York, she went back to nursing in the day and leave it to Renee, at night, she went intern in David Burke’s Kitchen. She basically didn’t sleep for a couple of years. She was doing a lot of good work with friends and people in her network who were suffering from cancer or other health challenges and she would feed them. She knew my background when she came back from France. She and my wife and I had dinner, and she was telling us about her dreams and our experiences. Because I had done all this work at North Shore-LIJ around healthy eating, we got to talking and one thing led to another and we now are business partners and we brought Epicured to life into what it is today.
You’re not new to new adventures in healthcare. You co-founded the health system’s first incubator, correct?
We did. Charles Trunz, who’s a long-time mentor of mine, was a Co-Chief Operating Officer at North Shore-LIJ. He recruited me and he and I founded a company called North Shore Health Enterprises, which then spun off another company called Vivo Health, which, since we’ve left, has evolved into Northwell Ventures because the health system changed their name. Now, Northwell Ventures invests in startup companies similar to Mount Sinai Ventures, which has chosen to make a sizable investment in Epicured.
I have a good experience in healthcare. I worked in supply chain management and revenue cycle management, and physician practice acquisition. I got to be a hospital administrator. I got to be hanging out in operating rooms and looking at how things flowed and patient experiences all before I started North Shore Health Enterprises. It’s been a wild ride. I’ve had a lot of great vantage points within healthcare to know the industry. I’m excited to be able to create a healthcare company that’s also a consumer company in which we use food as medicine, so I’m having a good time.
What do you think is going to be challenging as we move forward? As with all these things, it’s a great idea and then the competitor start happening. We live in a world, especially in this part of the world in New York, on the East Coast, where things like this pop up all the time and you get lots of competition. What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge that Epicured particularly faces as it grows as a company?
There are always the typical challenges with scale around quality and culture to which I’m ultrasensitive. We have some tricks up our sleeve that we won’t talk about. We’re prepared for those things and we continue to recruit first class talent. What is Epicured other than its people? We try to find the best and breed in their given technical needs and where we can deploy their talents, but mostly other than their technical contributions, their character, their ethics, or way of doing business brings a wide network of similar minded people with passion who know how to execute things in a first class way. That’s what we come in everyday and we stay focused on our client and our product and we try to be transparent. Let’s say we’re not hoping for the best, but that’s our approach to it. It’s pretty simple and fundamental.
What’s your goal for the company? Would you like to be US-wide?
Yes, we certainly have national aspirations and the way in which we achieve that is still very much up for grabs. There are many ways to get that done. We’re getting a four to seven typed-out emails to the company every day for people who are outside of our current delivery range asking us to ship to them. There’s clearly a need in the marketplace, and one that is so large. Whether there’s someone else who comes into the market, God bless, I believe in competition, but we’re happy to go out there and take care of the patients who are under our care and to continue to build solutions for them and to offer our product and service at the right time, in the right way, to as many people as we can.
How many employees do you have? How many meals are you delivering? How many people are you feeding in your area?
We’re very happy with the growth. We’re delivering thousands of meals a week at the moment and we have about twenty people on staff, the largest number of which is in our kitchen and factory on Long Island. Then we have a small team of folks who bring this to life and we have a lot of great advisors and investors and third-party partners, from designers to our website technicians and technologists and coders, to our clinical representatives who go out and build relationships for us. We’re very blessed, so the twenty people are “on payroll,” but the Epicured community is well over a hundred.
You’re delivering several thousand meals a week or to several thousand people?
Meals a week, so we’re still quite small from one metric, but what we care about is that the people who are with us stay with us for a very long time.
There’re three things I like to ask people and I ask it of every guest regardless if they’re a professor at a business school or if they’re an entrepreneur such as yourself or if they’re a singer, it doesn’t matter. One of it is something I talk about, which is the joy of missing out. We have a big fear of missing out going on in the culture and I always tell people there’s the joy of missing out, so what is it that you should be missing out on? What do you think people have a fear of missing out on in regards to their food and their eating and their health that in your opinion, they shouldn’t? In other words, what should we be having a joy of missing out in regards to the larger nutrition conversation?
Everyone likes things that you need to compromise on taste and variety to achieve certain lifestyle or health goals. We are trying to prove every day that you don’t need to miss out on that to have a joyful eating experience and that’s central to what Epicured is and to what we try to achieve every day. You have a lot of folks who always think that starting up a business and “working for yourself” is a very glamorous thing to do and I feel very blessed to be able to do it and to have had experiences that have enabled me to do it, but it is certainly not something that is easy and people should always question whether they want to do it very carefully and talk to other entrepreneurs. Certainly, when you raise capital and you have patients and you have employees, you aren’t “working for yourself.” You’re working for your clients, you’re working for your employees, and for your investors. There’s a new pressure and dynamic in your life when you make that choice and make that commitment that doesn’t exist in other work setting. When people always have a fear of missing out that they want to do their own thing, I always encourage them to reflect on that as well.
You bring up another point I’d like to ask you about. You’ve done several startups, you’ve lived the life of an entrepreneur, you’ve been doing that for a while. What do you find challenging in this company, in Epicured, that’s different than perhaps other startups you’ve done?
What I love about the challenge of Epicured and why I wanted to take this on with Renee was it was a physical product. There’s so much talk these days about technology and speculation and whether you need another texting app or something else for Millennials to use. I looked at that, we’ve done that, I worked at a tech company earlier on, and I love that stuff, but for me, what I wanted at this point in my life was to build a physical product. For me, that was food. We cook food and it is a fresh product with a shelf life and we have a kitchen and a factory and an assembly line and we’re bringing the vision to life physically. I always love the physicality of what we’re doing, but clearly that presents challenges. With my board and with our investors, there are a lot easier ways to make money than what we’re doing at Epicured, but to me this is a meaningful way to spend our time and our capital. We will certainly drive returns for our folks involved, but to do purpose-driven work, and I call it mission and margin work, so things where there’s a mission that can drive a margin is a very fulfilling way to go about it.
Is there anybody in your life, past or current, who has had these kinds of issues with food and you’ve seen them personally struggle with trying to find things to eat? I’ve had that experience. I’ve had several friends who are gluten-free or were gluten-intolerant or had a certain medical condition. It’s better now than it’s ever been, but it has been at times challenging for them to find good food that they like to eat.
It’s a burden on their life. With 25% of the population somehow afflicted with a digestive condition that triggers mental problems, social problems, physical pain, and a lot of other problems downstream, everyone knows somebody who is challenged with this. There are people literally in my family, there are people in my work family, several folks in my life has celiac, have colitis, and one of my investors got diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity and he has struggled with his diet. These are all things that we see day in and day out and that we’re pleased to get up in the morning and try to deliver a first class product that can do so much for so many.
I’m curious if you’ve found that you’re getting any inquiries from people who have more serious diseases, cancer, heart disease, etc. Not the diabetes isn’t a serious disease, it’s an extremely serious disease, but more advanced diseases such as cancer, heart disease, where you’re finding that you’re having an audience who’s interested in the food from those worlds.
All across the board, everything you mentioned, there are opportunities for us to support those patients and the folks who are in need, whether they’re going through chemotherapy or whether they are diabetic and struggling to eat or they have hypertension. There’s a variety of ways we can do that and we hope to do that and we will earn our way into doing that by focusing on what we do and taking care of the patients we have well, and we’ll find the right time to expand and to expand in the right way therapeutically to support that and those communities.
The other question I always like to ask people on this is something that I call living beyond the script. What do you think is the prevailing script as it relates to healthy eating these days? How should we go be going beyond it?
Everybody needs to find things that they enjoy every day and things that they look forward to everyday. If you’re not looking forward to what you’re eating, that is something people should solve and you shouldn’t be disappointed with. That’s where Epicured can solve that problem. Even when we talked with Don Saladino, who’s a world class trainer, takes care of everybody around the world, and he’s changed my life as well, for him, you have to have the right level of indulgences. It’s not about abstaining; it’s not about going so extreme that you compromise your mental or social health to maintain or get to one singular goal. You need to be well rounded. You need to find a balanced approach and we know that sounds almost like generic advice, but mindfulness, balance, and satisfaction is key to daily living. All of that is found in the details and in the little things and the little decisions you get to do, whether that’s who you smile at in the morning or the cup of coffee that you like from the corner store or whether that’s our turkey chili at lunch or whether that’s some indulgence at a fancy restaurant or a dessert at night. Who knows, but I encourage everybody to find that balance.
The last thing is I always talk about is what I call the everyday artist. There’s always a part of everything that we do that’s art versus science. In what way do you consider yourself an artist in the work that you do?
I love bringing the brand to life. We’ve got great designers and great creative officers who have worked with us. The idea of how to communicate and how to build a brand is something I know enough to be dangerous about, but I love sitting in those meetings talking about user experience and bringing the narrative and the look and feel of Epicured to life and to keep evolving that, so that people understand us more readily and that we can communicate with the community in a more effective way because our food is beautiful. We got great artists on staff. I’m a photographer personally as a hobby, and so I love working. Ben Fink is our food photographer and he’s a fantastic artist, as is Lori Powell, who’s our food stylist. Some of my favorite days at Epicured are with Ben and Lori out on set where we’re beginning to photograph some of Chef Renee and Chef Chris’s new creations. You can see those photos on Epicured.com, and at our Instagram handle @GetEpicured. That’s some of the fun stuff that I like to be a part of as the producer.
Richard, thanks so much for joining me. Where can people find out more about Epicured?
Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
My guest has been Richard Bennett. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Epicured. Epicured brings the culinary world together with the clinical world. Epicured is a gourmet kitchen and food delivery service designed to make healthy eating simple and joyful.
- Renee Cherkezian
- Don Saladino
- Northwell Ventures
- Ben Fink
- Lori Powell
- Epicured Instagram @GetEpicured
- Epicured’s Facebook
- Epicured’s Twitter
About Richard Bennett
Richard Bennett is the co-founder and CEO of Epicured – the first 100% low FODMAP and gluten-free food company offering healthy, unique, and digestion-friendly menus.