E-commerce is the fastest growing retail market in Europe, and lately the hottest thing to sell online is food. Armed with a bachelors degree from the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (International Business, 2013), Pascal Maurice Ecker–along with SBE-alumni co-founders Shahin Golabi and Nils Kornder (both earned a bachelors in 2012 and a masters in 2013 )–is venturing into the online food delivery business with mealmates, in his native Cologne. Ecker spoke with TalkinBusiness about how he and his co-founders are building the business soup to nuts—pun intended.
You originally envisioned a career in international finance. When did online entrepreneurship become your plan? I left Maastricht as a BA graduate and was very eager to join the investment banking industry. I loved finance during my studies. I was also part of Sigma Investments, the investment club of Maastricht University. So I joined KPMG in Frankfurt for a longer internship in corporate finance, because I intended to do a gap year between my bachelors and masters studies. After KPMG, I joined Deutsche Bank’s M&A team for another internship, and that was fun, too. Afterward, I came back to Cologne to prepare for the GMAT and start applying to masters programs. But during the time I was studying for the GMAT, I thought to myself, hey—are you sure you really want to do this? Or do you want to start your own business right now, to give that a try?
How specifically did you decide that the online food business would be your focus?
The idea came quickly to me. I always thought the online food industry was very interesting. I followed the development of Lieferando and Lieferheld Group and it fascinated me to see that the very old-fashioned and established food delivery industry lags so much behind in digitalization. Although we live in 2015, only around 15% of pizza orders in Germany are made online—the majority of people still pick up the phone and ring the local delivery shop. What’s more, the players in the industry are mostly very old-fashioned, small shops that deliver low-quality food (pizzas, mostly).
On the one hand, ordering food is in fact a very convenient thing to do; everyone in modern society is very busy and constantly looking out for quick eats. On the other hand, we have become more and more conscious about what we eat, and demand higher food quality and premium ingredients.
What really caught my attention were online startups in San Francisco and London that deliver chef-cooked meals with fresh ingredients within only a couple of minutes. And we developed our own concept from scratch with a focus on high-quality, unique and exciting food creations. I am amazed by the potential of online food and am so even more with every day that I serve customers telling me how great they think our service is.
You had the initial idea fairly recently, in November 2014. How have you progressed your idea from concept to testing site?
When I had the idea I joined forces with my co-founders Shahin Golabi and Nils Kornder, both of whom whom I met during our studies in Maastricht. We started working on the idea on the side (I was still studying for the GMAT), but were very eager to jump in. In January we said, okay—full commitment. We committed our own resources, and the plan was to experiment and test a lot. We worked very hard and were pretty quick in launching a most viable product.
We made our first tests serving customers in February and had our “soft launch” in mid-March. Over the last two months, we have continued testing a lot and have been able to improve our service based on the feedback of our customers. We were doing all the work ourselves and we are still doing so today. Not only on the typical business stuff, but we also handle the orders and serve our customers. Helping in the kitchen and everything. Until recently—we just hired a chef—we were even doing a lot of the cooking.
I find it remarkable you were actually preparing the meals yourself. Are you personally as passionate about food as you are about business?
I am a bit of a food guy, you can say. I like cooking. But I wouldn’t say that I always thought that I would form a company in the food industry. I do really enjoy the fact that it’s a food business, but I enjoy the startup aspect behind it even more. I wouldn’t be the right guy to start a typical restaurant.
Tell us more about what you provide your customers.
At mealmates we make high-quality food easily accessible, and deliver in less time than typical fast food. During our business hours, users can order online from our daily menu and we will deliver their order between 3 and 20 minutes to anywhere within our delivery map. (I’d guess the average time it takes is 10 minutes). Dishes cost no more than most Pizzas (€8-€10). There is no delivery fee and no minimum order requirement.
The menu itself is very reduced. We focus all our energy for the day on one vegetarian or vegan and one meat dish of exceptional taste. The recipes are provided by a top local chef and contain spices and ingredients most of us wouldn’t use in their normal household kitchen. Ever eaten ox cheeks? Vegan Aloo Ti Tikkis? We also love to upscale local classics, like our premium currywurst.
What have been the results of your market testing, have they matched your expectations?
It has really matched our expectations. Our user base is not huge—but we have a very satisfied customer base within our environment. We sell about 25 meals a day, and it’s pretty much the same customers every day. They are extremely satisfied.
Now that you’ve completed this test cycle, what’s next?
We need to grow a lot, obviously. That’s the next step. We are seeking investors to really scale the idea. That’s my biggest responsibility now. But from noon until 2pm I’m still going over to the kitchen, grab my iPad and scooter helmet and deliver food.
Visit the mealmates website to learn more.