Meet Ripe: The Freelance Revolution Is Reinventing The Company Cafeteria

Food & Drink

The freelancing revolution has impacted work culture in three big ways.  The first, of course, is a paradigm change in the history of labor: the flexible, blended workforce, combining full-time staff with (typically) project based independent professionals – freelancers – in fields ranging from high tech to medicine and education.  It is a powerful development, with millions of Millennials, Gen-Z’s and older professionals (like myself) participating “all in” as a career or part-time as passionistas.  Or, they are side hustling to make ends meet like so many young people struggling to pay the rent in expensive cities like NYC, London or Berlin.

Freelancing has also influenced and changed the mindset of a generation of employees.  Full-time employees are demanding greater flexibility in their work, more emphasis on development, and more choice about work location and opportunities to work remotely.  And, they are far more willing to leave a job and move on if expectations are unmet, or they believe they can enjoy or achieve more elsewhere.  As my colleague Paul Estes would say, a gig mindset is growing in the workforce as a whole.

And there is a third consequence of the freelance revolution. Because organizations are challenged to keep employees – particularly top performers – and avoid greater departures to freelance careers or other organizations offering better pay, benefits or opportunity, smart leaders are seeking ways to build loyalty.  Importantly, these leaders are focused on the performance of the total team, full-time staff and freelancers.  And, among the effort’s companies have made to increase engagement and team cohesion, an increasing number of both established and startup firms are relying on an old adage: “The family that eats together stays together.”

Meet Ripe.  It has served over 1,200,000 meals in the past few years to a combination of large established companies and startups.  The meals are from locally sourced ingredients, freshly-prepared, and healthy in Ripe’s own kitchens.  And, it was explained to me, the cost is far less expensive than the real estate, staff and equipment costs of setting up a company cafeteria in a city like NYC.  But, as the Ripe team explained to me, the point is larger than the food.  It’s creating a safe and comfortable space for teams and individuals to engage with one another and with the other colleagues they depend on.  And providing a good breakfast or lunch without cost to employees is seen as a major benefit.

Ripe has an interesting back story.  Co-founders Ben Huffman and CJ Richards were both recent transplants to NYC and aspiring models.  And interested in wellness, staying fit and eating healthy.   Wanting to build a community in their adopted city, they began offering free workouts in a Brooklyn part and get a meal or drink together afterwards.  Over time these “Thrive in the Park” workouts generated a large of committed group for post-workout meals.  Conversation between the founders frequently turned to: “Could this be a business?” One thing led to another, and Ripe was borne as a concept.

Fast forward.  With the help of a chef and nutritionist, and the creation of a kitchen in lower Manhattan, Ripe started serving.  It worked.  And as interest grew and demand increased, Ripe was serving up food and related wellness events to businesses all over the city.

Huffman and Richards bootstrapped their way to further expansion, investing in upgraded kitchen equipment and a larger staff.  In the first full year of business, Ripe served over 100,000 fresh, healthy meals.  And, shortly afterwards, Ripe invested in building out a, 8,000 square foot kitchen able to meet the startup’s big ambitions.

Ripe also took on a new Chief Product Officer.  Zoe Colivas, a Canadian who also had dreams of fashion modeling, had been an early participant in the “Thrive in the Park” group, and had impressed Huffman and Richards with her interest in the business, and her vision of what the business might become.  She began as a volunteer, then a freelancer, and over time took on more and more responsibility: creating menus together with the chef, finding local vendors that offered “farm to office” quality and were able to reduce costs, and hosting dinners and other events with potential clients.

Colivas’s friends in the modeling community also pitched in as early part-time Ripe employees, providing the startup with a surprise advantage: models bringing the food, setting up, and serving as brand ambassadors.  They shared information about the ingredients and sourcing. The vibe was light and fun.  The food was good.  It worked.

Ripe has grown quite a bit since those early days.  These days clients are helped by a wide mix of mostly freelance employees – some models still, but young creatives of many kinds – side hustling actors, graphic designers, artists, students and aspiring chefs  – who share a passion for healthy living and healthy eating.   Ripe’s client mix has also grown in size and diversity, including larger companies like Vimeo and Oscar, but also smaller operations like Bowery Farming who may have an “all hands” team of 30-100 employees (and freelancers).  The Ripe kitchen puts out several thousand meals a day.  Ripe is very much a tech play as well to ensure cost efficiency and customer connection.  A strong tech interface enables new clients to on board themselves and manage the day to day relationship.  Menus are changed daily, and the fresh ingredients continue to be sourced locally.  Most companies sign up for daily meals; some provide employees with both breakfast and lunch.  And, as I wrote earlier, Ripe has served over 1,200,000 meals.

I asked Huffman and Colivas to talk about the challenges facing the business.  They talked about three:

First, now that Ripe has established proof of concept, growth is the key challenge. Huffman’s vision, is to replace the company cafeteria with better, tastier, healthier food that respects our environment and protects the planet.  The team is looking at a range of cities to expand, and are likely to focus first on the west coast.  LA and SF are both in the running.  And, they see tech hubs like Austin and Boston as attractive future cities to plant the Ripe flag.

The second challenge is hiring.  As Colivas describes it, “It’s a challenge to find people who thrive in a startup, and willing to take on additional roles and responsibilities to get things done.  And, in our case, we’re really an operations business and need people who are passionate about our vision.”

Third, not every company is open to a new way of feeding its employees, as Giphy, a company that allows users to search for and share short looping videos that resemble animated GIF files.  Alex Chung, CEO of Giphy, one of Ripe’s mid-sized clients, describes their connection to Ripe this way: “Ripe not only delivers the most healthy, sustainable, local, and economical meals we’ve been had , they also allow us to keep one of our most important traditions of sharing a good meal together.”

Ripe appears to be a new paradigm, a new delivery system that may leave the old cafeteria concept in the dust.  Like so many innovators, the team at Ripe is growing the market largely through client word of mouth as more companies see the potential.  Competition hasn’t yet caught on: while there are a great many food service organizations offering prepared meals companies, they generally lack a focus on healthy food, rarely provide sourcing information, and don’t offer the team building experience that Ripe provides when it serves.  (note: Readers, I’m interested in learning about other startups in the space here in the U.S. or internationally).

Will Ripe replace the company cafeteria?  It’s an aspirational vision, but CEO Huffman has confidence that change is moving in the right direction, “It’s a journey.  We’ll get there, but it will take time until business recognizes that this is something that employees are asking for and value.  We hear more and more employers saying that healthier, better tasting food is something that makes them feel better, work better and increases their satisfaction at work.”

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