Q&A: Jeff Grass (Hungry)


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Chairman and CEO of HUNGRY Marketplace, Jeff Grass, joins us for an interview.

Why do you do what you do – fundamentally, what is it that really inspires you as an individual? How do you ensure and remind yourself of that impact?

At the core, I love building and making the world a better place. I delight in feeling what I’m doing is meaningful, makes a difference and I enjoy taking on big challenges. I schedule time each Tuesday morning to try to pull back from the day to day to see the big picture, reflect on progress and think more strategically. 

I do this by separating myself from email, my phone and usually the office. I pick a topic or two and then think deeply about it. I take lots of notes as I collect my thoughts – which tend to be scattered initially – and then I put structure around them.  It usually ends with a new To Do list or an action plan. I then plug back in and get back into “get it done” mode.

At HUNGRY, we also have a lot of internal reporting which helps us “keep score” on how we are doing. We have daily reports on sales, margins, client feedback and other measures of success by client, by market and overall, weekly client health scores – to better understand how happy our clients are – and monthly business reviews (MBRs) for each service line and market we operate in, to assess overall progress vs. goals and objectives. 

We also have twice weekly, full company stand-ups on Mondays and Thursdays and we do regular team surveys and other types of check-ins to ensure the team is aligned, informed and feeling supported and connected. My day-to-day focus then gravitates to those areas that need more help and support.

What are you learning about at the moment?

I believe life is a non-stop journey of discovery and learning. I’m always focused on learning how to be a better leader and a better manager. 

I do this by trying to learn from other leaders and managers – through YPO and other professional organisations I’m involved in. I seek input and feedback constantly from those around me by asking lots of questions and asking for their feedback. I try to objectively reflect on what has worked and not worked well at HUNGRY and change my approach when needed – and I try to soak up freely available knowledge in articles and books on the topic – for example, I’m currently I’m reading the book CEO Excellence.  

I’m also focused on learning more about good storytelling and ChatGPT/AI. At HUNGRY we have such a powerful and multi-faceted story to tell, but we don’t always communicate it in the most effective ways possible to the guests who enjoy food from HUNGRY. Specifically, I believe finding ways to more effectively share the story of our chef and restaurant partners, the story of the food and even HUNGRY’s story, can exponentially elevate the guest experience.

We’re looking at how to leverage ChatGPT/AI and other tools to help us with scaling our storytelling and AI as a tool for making our business more efficient and enhancing our interactions with and services for our clients.

Where are you pushing things forward to innovate and why are you doing it in that way?

Across all of HUNGRY, we are focused on a lot of efficiency and effectiveness improvements right now, but the big new areas of innovation are with Live Brand Activation Experiences and also innovative ways to engage, educate and delight the guests at our caterings, with chef/restaurant storytelling, recipes, etc. 

We have also built, over the last year, the world’s most advanced Group Order solution which enables the employees of our clients to individually order their own meal from a range of different menus.  This solution is ideal for companies that aren’t able to accurately estimate how many people will be in the office each day and for teams that really like individually prepared and packaged meals.  Prior to COVID, 95% of our catering business was buffet style but with Group Order, now close to 30% of our business is individually prepared meals, mostly via Group Order.  It’s such a cool solution for the post-COVID world where office attendance dynamics have changed so much.

The last big new area of focus is AI. We see a lot of cool ways to leverage AI to elevate to the next level how we serve clients. We hope to have a beta version of an AI-enabled Catering Concierge out before 2024.  I can’t share more about that yet, but it will be super cool.

Which brands or individuals do you look to for inspiration?

Apple for innovation and scale. Ritz Carlton for service and hospitality. Telsa for technological innovation and environmental sustainability. 

Each represents an element of what it takes to make HUNGRY a global phenomenon. We are innovating with technology in ways that enable our unique business model and to provide superior food service solutions to our clients, and we are increasingly doing this at scale across a large number of markets.  

For HUNGRY though, it’s not all about technology, the service side of our business is just as critically important as the food our chef and restaurant partners make needs to be delivered on-time and provided with VIP-level service.  We’re committed to doing all of this while having a positive impact in the communities we serve and on the environment. When all of these elements come together, it’s beautiful. In sum, HUNGRY is powered by elements of Apple, Ritz Carlton and Tesla, all rolled into one.

Who inspired you when you started out and why – and who inspires you now and why?

My parents have been great sources of inspiration and strength my entire life by teaching me the right values to live by and role modelling the right behaviours. 

My wife does a great job of both inspiring me and keeping me humble.  She’s a powerhouse senior executive at Hilton, an amazing mom and the CEO of our household.  Her superpower is multi-tasking.  I’m not sure how she does it, but she sure inspires me to be doing my best every single day. 

My first boss was an awesome mentor who took the time to teach me, encourage me and build confidence. 

Today, I focus more on learning a little from as many people as possible instead of trying to emulate just one person.  If I can learn one thing or emulate the best part of many different people, I believe that will lead to a better outcome that just trying to mimic an individual.  

What’s your greatest friction point at the moment and what are you learning from it?

Our biggest challenge is figuring out how to keep growing at exponential rates, while increasing margins and getting to full profitability. The funding market has shifted, and it now requires us to optimise for profitability sooner than what would be ideal for a company of our size in a dominating position that’s operating in a fast growing market. 

That said, we have an amazing team at HUNGRY and they are figuring it out how to do it all. It’s beautiful.

What does ‘success’ look like to you and how do you define it? What are you doing to achieve that?

For HUNGRY, success this year is accelerating top line growth, while expanding margins and getting to sustainable profitability. For me, success is building something meaningful that has a positive impact on the world and providing an environment that enables our team members to rapidly grow and develop, both personally and professionally.

If you were to do anything else, what would you be doing? 

If I wasn’t an entrepreneur or leading a business, I’d be leading a non-profit focused on a cause I’m passionate about – likely having to do with environmental sustainability. I’m a firm believer that technological innovation will save us from the damage we’ve done and are doing to our planet and it would be cool to play a role in helping the world transition from carbon-based energy to green solutions. 

My focus would be on how to enable the non-profit to grow and maximize its impact while weaning itself off of charitable donations. Long term impact would really come from creating a self-sustaining operating model.

Who would you like to see an interview with – and what would you ask them?

I’d love to see or interview any of the great business leaders of our time – Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Jamie Dimon, Elon Musk, etc. We really do have so many incredible business leaders these days. The focus of my questions would be on learning their secrets to success, leadership, and life in general. 

More specifically food-related, we are fortunate to already have, as part of team HUNGRY, some of the smartest and most successful food entrepreneurs of our time – Walter Robb (former Co-CEO of Whole Foods), Chef Tom Colicchio (founder of Top Chef and Crafted Hospitality) and Seth Goldman (Honest Tea founder and Beyond Meat chairman) – so I’m privileged to already have access to their great advice.

About Jeff Grass

For over 20 years, Jeff Grass has been an entrepreneur motivated by innovative ideas. He has a track record of building successful businesses: PayMyBills.com (an online bill management service), buySAFE, Inc. (an e-commerce shopping guarantee to build trust between online retailers and shoppers) and LiveSafe (a mobile app that uses crowd-sourced safety intelligence). In 2017, he partnered with Eman and Shy Pahlevani to launch HUNGRY, a food-tech marketplace connecting businesses with local chefs and restaurants.

Jeff holds an MBA from The Wharton School (1999) and a BBA in Finance and Economics from James Madison University (1992). He also serves on the Board of Visitors at JMU and resides in Arlington, Virginia, with his family. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, running marathons, and spending time with his family.