“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”.
The quote by English author Virginia Woolf is the motivation behind HeyChef, a Dubai-based food technology start-up founded by Indian entrepreneurs Pranav Arora and Mugdha Kalvade.
The idea is simple, yet innovative: customers can hire the company’s chefs on hourly basis to get meals prepared from the comfort of their homes, with complete control over the menu, ingredients, portions and taste.
The concept of reimagining home cooking came up during a casual dinner table conversation between the husband-and-wife duo.
“After a particularly long day at work, we came home to a pot of biryani – our favourite meal – prepared by our weekly personal cook. As we sat down and had our meal, we talked about how great it was that we both could walk in late from work and not have to worry about dinner,” Mr Arora, 32, who is also a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dubai, tells The National.
“We had a freshly prepared meal waiting for us … not a basic meal plan option or last-minute unhealthy takeout … that’s when we thought, wouldn’t it be incredible if more people could enjoy this service? A very economical personal chef who comes home to cook your favourite meal,” Mr Arora says.
Launched in May last year with two chefs, HeyChef accepts bookings through its website, where customers can select a one-time service or a recurring weekly plan. Based on the package selected, they can choose a suitable day and time to have the chef come over to their place to prepare meals.
Mr Arora and Ms Kalvade are tapping into a booming food technology market, which is predicted to grow more than 55 per cent to reach $342 billion in 2027 from $220.3bn in 2019, according to the latest research by market and consumer data company Statista. Technological advancements within the global food industry as well as a growing demand for healthier, cheaper and safer food products are steering the market growth.
Discounts and cash-on-delivery options are further driving adoption, especially in emerging economies, which, industry experts say, has accelerated the growth of the food technology market.
With HeyChef, the personal chef experience is no longer reserved for the elite, says Ms Kalvade, 32, an investment banker in Dubai.
“Our aim is to bring hospitality at your doorstep … HeyChef makes it accessible for all. Be it your everyday meal, prepping for the week or a party, our chefs are there to serve all your home cooking needs. Our focus remains serving our customers,” she says.
HeyChef has a team of 11 full-time employees, including six chefs whose repertoire includes Thai, South Asian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Japanese and Chinese cuisine.
The self-funded start-up has grown in the past few months, but its founders say it was affected by the pandemic, which has upended businesses worldwide.
“We started HeyChef planning in around October-November 2019 and began undertaking the required steps to establish a business in Dubai. At that point, we had no idea or even expected that we all would experience a pandemic,” says Mr Arora.
He and Ms Kalvade had set out to launch the service in March last year.
“We had planned to launch with five chefs but we were forced to go ahead with only two,” he said.
But demand for HeyChef’s services picked up once movement restrictions were relaxed.
“In a way, the pandemic also assisted us … as many people were not going out for dining, they wouldn’t mind a chef coming to their house to provide a safe restaurant-style experience,” says Mr Arora.
“By November last year, we added two more chefs and currently we have six trained chefs, with plans to get more on board over the coming months.”
The personal chef business has thrived globally during the past nine months. Although there are fewer pandemic-related restrictions, many customers still prefer not to dine out at crowded places, and opt to invite chefs at homes to prepare meals of their choice.
With trimmed menus, social distancing rules, fewer tables and staff wearing masks and gloves, the dining-out experience is very different than in the pre-pandemic days. This has contributed towards people opting for the comfort of home, with guests and restaurant-quality food on special occasions.
“For customers looking to celebrate special days like anniversaries or birthdays at homes, a four-course or a five-course meal prepared by a trained personal chef can do the magic,” says Ms Kalvade.
HeyChef is now considering raising funds from investors to fuel its growth and expand into new markets.
The start-up, which currently caters only to the UAE market, is looking to expand its footprint into other Gulf countries and the wider Middle East region.
“It’s still very early stages to comment on this,” Mr Arora says of the timeline of a potential funding round. “If we do seek to raise capital, it would be focused on expanding our services to other market as well as towards enhancing the customer experience through technology advancements on the website.”
Since the launch, HeyChef has served more than 500 customers in Dubai and completed more than 3,000 bookings. It charges Dh130 per hour for parties and from Dh65 per hour for recurring services by its clients.
The start-up's founders have not yet focused on making a profit because they intend to grow the business further.
“Our main priority is to develop the business to ensure a sustainable future … profitability is not on our minds as we believe it will follow on its own if we have all the right things in place,” says Mr Arora.
“However, we have witnessed demand for this kind of service and it has the potential to grow significantly as more and more people become familiar with the service, which is a positive sign for us.”
There is no plan to exit the business either as the founders intend to establish a long-term business with a strong foundation.
“We are taking every step with a lot of caution. We want to establish HeyChef as a long-term player with a potential to positively disrupt the food technology industry in the region,” says Mr Arora.
Q&A: HeyChef’s co-founders Pranav Arora and Mugdha Kalvade
How do you define HeyChef?
Ms Kalvade: HeyChef makes everyday food a whole lot more exciting and less of a chore. It’s home food at your fingertips with complete control over the menu, ingredients, taste and portion. It gives you a chance to enjoy the best meal, prepared by professional chefs, while not leaving the comfort of your home or worrying about the safety of your surroundings.
What is your mantra for success?
Mr Arora: No guts, no glory. I always liked this saying and try to implement it in my daily life. You should never shy away from thinking big and out of the box. Especially when you are an entrepreneur, there is no harm in following your gut feeling, while not worrying about the result.
What is your vision for the start-up?
Mr Arora: We are here to stay for a long-term and enter new markets with a more diversified portfolio of offerings. Our vision since the inception of the start-up is to bring the best hospitality to everyone’s doorstep. At the same time, we are working to ensure that hiring a personal chef is within the limits of budget customers as well.
What are your hiring plans?
Mr Arora: We are currently a team of 11 full-time employees. As our business grows, we look to hire more chefs, as well as, operational support staff, along with drivers.
Where do you see HeyChef in 10 years ?
Mr Arora: I am a “go with the flow” kind of a guy, so I prefer to take things as they come and just give them my best shot. However, we hope HeyChef continues to gain traction and can evolve based on the changing needs of the market and consumers. We see our company emerging as one of the most disrupting start-ups in the food technology industry.
Are you a risk-taking entrepreneur?
Mr Arora: I am a moderate risk-taker … I always do my calculations beforehand to ensure there is a plan-B and things are always covered in case of any emergency.
If you could change one thing in your entrepreneurial journey, what would it be?
Ms Kalvade: Nothing yet. So far, our entrepreneurial journey is quite satisfying. Things have fallen in place as per our strategy and initial planning.
Company name: HeyChef
Started: May 2020
Founders: Pranav Arora and Mugdha Kalvade
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: Food technology