First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Austin Yancey: It has been a bit rough for us, but like countless others, we are resilient and doing our best. I personally lost my father and my grandmother due to health complications other than COVID-19, but the pandemic made it quite difficult to plan or host final arrangements for my friends and family. My wife—also in the hospitality industry as a director of a prominent restaurant company in Chicago—is our family’s main breadwinner, and it has been rough on our finances for her salary to be significantly reduced. Even worse than that is the emotional stress of losing hundreds of team members and the sense of responsibility she feels to help bring them back to work as quickly as possible. Through it all, our two-year-old son remains my shining light, hanging out with me on Zoom meetings and taking on the strenuous role of Snacking Director for EPC. He reminds me every day that the things we are building and the work we are doing is meant for him and for future generations.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Elite Personal Chefs.
Austin Yancey: I have spent my entire career in the hospitality industry, working at restaurants, hotels, catering companies, sports stadiums, country clubs, and teaching. Some highlights include: competing in the Bocuse d’Or USA selection process, earning a gold medal at the Dubai World Hospitality Championship with Culinary Team USA, and working at the Michelin starred Alinea here in Chicago. As a culinary instructor at Le Cordon Bleu, I fell in love with teaching and gravitated towards the students who, like me, wanted to excel to their fullest potential. After starting and growing Elite Personal Chefs as a catering company, I left teaching to focus on the business full time. When my wife and I found out that we were pregnant two years ago, we decided that I would stay home with the baby and that she would return to work. I now had the opportunity and privilege to try to scale my business while keeping its core philosophy and purpose top of mind. I wanted to combine my love of teaching and mentorship with my culinary expertise and business development experience to help hospitality professionals realize their dreams.
How does Elite Personal Chefs innovate?
Austin Yancey: Elite Personal Chefs enables Chefs’ financial and professional independence in an era where the gig economy is challenging the traditional industry landscape. As an alternative to restaurant dining, our Chefs create unique experiences for clients in the privacy of their own homes. With the ability to create menus, set pricing, and sell tickets to events, a Chef’s earning potential is limited only by their individual drive and creativity. We are on a mission to change the way our industry treats its hard-working men and women. Even after working late nights, weekends, and holidays, the average restaurant salary is a mere $40,000. At every culinary level, people are stuck in jobs they can’t stand but lack better, more rewarding options. Adding insult to injury, COVID-19 hit their checkbooks hard. This is, by far, the worst job loss in the foodservice industry I have ever experienced. The good news is that people across this country still want great food…and that’s where we come in.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Austin Yancey: Our business has been affected in various ways, both negatively and positively, by COVID-19. Hospitality professionals are being displaced faster than ever, and we are onboarding Chefs in cities across the US to help them start businesses doing what they love. We have also seen an increase in weekly meal preparation clients—helping the newly situated “work from home” parents who do not have time to cook or appealing to the self-proclaimed “foodies” who are not spending their food budgets out at restaurants. Right as COVID hit, we spun up a platform for virtual cooking sessions with our Chefs and are offering virtual dinner parties to bring friends and families together for fun and entertaining experiences online. Several companies have hired us to help with entertainment for their company holiday parties gone virtual, which is great fun for us. Small, intimate, private events and gatherings—where guests can feel safe and still enjoy each other’s company—are now the bulk of our bookings, helping us realize our company’s philosophy of bringing the restaurant experience into guests’ homes safely and conveniently.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Austin Yancey: The difficult choices consistently involve our team and their finances. We have painstakingly adjusted by furloughing core team members and decreasing salaries, all while they remain working at maximum capacity. Even as one of the company’s revenue-driving Chefs, I have been funding the company through my personal bookings to keep our team alive and pushing forward towards our goals. Keeping morale up and positivity has been a difficult task that I am proud to say our team excels at. We make it a top priority to celebrate every victory, no matter how small or insignificant that victory may seem. COVID has helped us understand that nothing is impossible, nor is anything guaranteed. There will always be an issue to resolve or a problem to solve. Thankfully, our team is resilient and experienced in dealing with stress, pressure, and adversity.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Elite Personal Chefs in the future?
Austin Yancey: Stress and anxiety are controllable emotions for me. I look at myself introspectively and understand that stress is a negative that inevitably comes along with all of the positives. You can’t have one without the other. The trick is to not allow the stress to affect our team, my friends, or family negatively. I sometimes fail at this. As CEO, every outcome ultimately sits squarely on my shoulders, good, bad, or ugly. To make important decisions, I have to be able to train my brain to handle analytical, non-emotional outcomes while remaining empathetic to the situation and the people that decision ultimately affects.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Austin Yancey: There are various Chef booking platforms out there on the market, but they all share similar business models. We are unique as we have an original core business model that is novel and first out of the gate in our industry. Our company is designed, founded, run, and most importantly, owned by all of the Chefs that we work with. Our executive team are all Chefs, and our Chefs are all owners, participating in an options pool as part of our employee stock option program. We could not be more proud of this aspect of our company. Each chef has the opportunity to become a partner and owner of our business, something that is not common in most two-sided marketplaces. We focus on the Chefs as much as we focus on customers, linking the two with a user-friendly platform that incentivizes our Chefs to grow far into our company’s future. We accommodate all levels of customer preferences, food styles, menus, cuisines, event styles, and budgets. Our Chefs have limitless growth and earning potential and an unlimited, global addressable market. Food is essential to life, and we do it well.
Your final thoughts?
Austin Yancey: As our industry continues to change through this pandemic, we hope to be a positive beacon of light for those individuals who have been negatively affected. To our Hospitality Pros: If you have been displaced from your job, sick of the rigamarole, or have always wanted to start your own company, come join us. We are Elite Personal Chefs. You, your family, and friends deserve high-quality meals cooked safely in the comfort of your own home. Providing intimate, customized events is the future of dining for the hospitality industry. Restaurants come and go, but our Chefs are available to bring the experience to you. Follow us on social media and check out who is cooking in your area right now. Bon appetit!
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