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The Yuppiechef cult: how a startup sparked a religion

The Yuppiechef success story has been well documented, but until now, no one has been able to explain exactly how the kitchen utensils e-tailer has managed to evoke the type of fervent support that has catapulted the Cape Town company well into cult territory. Yes, cult. Exhibit A: a Pinterest page dedicated to customers who have submitted photos of their pets in Yuppiechef packaging.

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The running theory is that Yuppiechef has mastered the art of customer service. It’s a strong hypothesis. Yuppiechef boasts 99% positive feedback — read worship — on customer service watchdog Hellopeter, as well as a consistent stream of accolades awarded on the basis of irreproachable customer service. Consider then that 60% of Yuppiechef purchases are from repeat customers and it seems an open and shut case — Yuppiechef is indeed a “customer service business who happens to sell kitchen tools”.

Yes, perhaps being extra courteous and efficiently dealing with customer queries can explain the 300% year on year revenue Yuppiechef recorded in 2011. In 2012, Yuppiechef added to its staff of 16, reaching 54 by the start of 2013 — perhaps free delivery of its select product range, strong social media engagement and the handwritten thank you cards that accompany every purchase grew Yuppiechef’s revenue enough to sustain 38 new employees. Perhaps.

A reliable source revealed to Ventureburn that Yuppiechef is currently recording gross annual revenue of R80-million with a 20-30% profit margin. When we approached the stealthy kitchen utensils e-tailer for comment, Yuppiechef marketing director and part owner, Paul Galatis, opted to keep the company’s figures private. Yuppiechef is not at liberty to discuss its financials, but then again, the company’s culture doesn’t particularly lend itself to that kind of thing anyway.

“We don’t celebrate or measure our financial results. Instead we celebrate the constant stream of positive customer feedback that customers send to us and post online and we share it on a daily basis within our team,” Galatis told Ventureburn.

We remain intrigued to have not received a flat out denial of the rumour, however.

In 2011 Galatis revealed that Yuppiechef was “verging on profitability.” Given this knowledge, Yuppiechef’s confirmed 100% year on year growth in 2012 and the reliability of our source, we started exploring an alternative theory for the company’s apparent surge.

Yuppiechef is a quiet overnight success, six years in the making. Today, the company boasts social numbers such as 24 762 Facebook fans and 7 661 Twitter followers, but it took the company a year to garner its first 200 customers — if you visit the company’s offices today, you will see the names of every single one frosted on a window in the customer service area. When the company started in 2006, it stocked one brand and about 30 products. Fast forward six years and Yuppiechef now hosts more than 100 brands and over 5 000 products.

In an age where the hype machine is readily stoked to attract investor attention, vacuous valuations and buzzword-laden pitches without substance, a small company in an unassuming corner of Cape Town has been hard at work building up the culinary lifestyle. A lifestyle which plays host to a community congregated in the name of food and food preparation. The interdependence of the lifestyle, the cooking utensils that enable it and the community that took root as a consequence, is the true secret sauce behind the company’s success.

Yuppiechef has done for bachelors and the culinary inept, what Instagram has done for photographers. It, without discrimination, welcomed everyone into a community of bootstrap chefs and aspiring foodies and equipped them with the tools — the utensils, recipes and network — to become great at making and talking about food.

We put the theory to Galatis. Here’s what he said:

In today’s connected world the market is a community. Being trusted and favoured by, and engaged with this community is as important as it was in 19th century physical market places where everyone knew everyone. In these markets people bought goods from people they liked, trusted and believed were experts in their respective fields. So we choose to engage our community by creating content and activities that inspire them, connect them, educate them and humour them about all things food and all things kitchen. If we can do that successfully, then we have the good fortune that they are likely to purchase kitchen tools as a by-product of this inspiration… And we know just the store where they can get these kitchen tools!

Yuppiechef takes crafting this cooking milieu very seriously. The company has a test kitchen filled with hundreds of kitchen tools for its team to play with. It also doubles up as the company’s lunch time area where staff can make food and sample many of the meals prepared by visiting chefs and food stylists.

“It’s in this kitchen that our dedicated content team produces recipes, how-to’s and a buffet of food-related inspiration to get everyone from the first time fryer to the expert cook into the kitchen and cooking. We’ve also recently broadened our offering to include world class ingredients and speciality food products – a category that has got many of our foodie fans very excited,” says Galatis.

The kitchen workspace was one of the reasons Yuppiechef exchanged a minority stake for an undisclosed investment amount from Tiger Global Management LLC. Subsequent acquisition rumours turned out to be unfounded but Yuppiechef continues to be an attractive investment.

“We’ve had a number of conversations with people who have contacted us with a view of investing in our business — and we’re happy to have these chats and are flattered by the approaches — but for now we have no immediate agenda to raise further funds,” Galatis told Ventureburn.

Looking ahead, South Africa’s most beloved kitchen culture company is cutting some fat. Galatis tells us that Yuppiechef recently rewrote its warehouse management system. Through a combination of Clojure, Android and BlueTooth technology, the company claims to have drastically improved the efficiency of its warehouse.

More importantly, “it helped its warehouse team look more like Trekkies than ever before,” says Galatis.

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