MayaEats is a startup pioneer in the virtual and ghost kitchen industry. Inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic effects on restaurants and founded by serial entrepreneurs Viggnesh Kandasamy and Vijayaraj Gopinath, MayaEats works by launching digital-first restaurant brands out of existing restaurants to capitalize on underutilized kitchen space and staff. The founders will be sharing more details with us in this interview with TechBullion.
Please tell us more about yourselves?
Viggnesh Kandasamy: I am the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of MayaEats, a Y Combinator-backed company, and OneStopKitchen. As a product-oriented CTO and a motivated entrepreneur, I have over 12 years of deep technical experience developing, implementing and supporting complex infrastructures for fast-growing startups. I hold a Masters degree in Computer Science from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. Prior to MayaEats and OneStopKitchen, I was a Senior Engineering Manager at UnitedHealth Group where I headed Engineering teams to build proprietary enterprise solutions. I also founded the TrackYoga app, and built an app allowing millions of users to practice yoga from the comfort of their homes.
Vijayaraj Gopinath: I am the co-founder and CEO of MayaEats, a Y Combinator-backed company, and OneStopKitchen. As a serial entrepreneur, I have helped hundreds of restaurants through my work in the emerging ghost kitchen industry. I hold a Masters degree in Information systems & Management from Carnegie Mellon University and am currently pursuing a graduate certification in Artificial Intelligence from Stanford University. Prior to MayaEats, I served as a lead engineer at Google for its child safety programs. While there, I helped develop the end-to-end tech stack to detect, report, and penalize child pornography offenders in the Google infrastructure, saving thousands of children and recognized as National Interest work in the U.S.
What is MayaEats and what solutions are you providing?
At MayaEats, we are building the world’s largest virtual restaurant platform to help restaurants better use their excess resources, or underutilized potential. Almost 100,000 restaurants go out of business each year in the US alone. The reason is very simple: running a restaurant is a capital-intensive business and involves complicated operations. Add changes in trends, consumer habits, and new technologies and we found that most mom-and-pop store owners are slow to react, and don’t have the right skill set to adapt to these new environments. Restaurants that adapt stay in business longer, so we decided to step in. Enter MayaEats. When a restaurant partners with MayaEats, we work closely with the restaurant and learn about its operations, resources, and missing potential. Then, we advise creating a new digital menu and recipes based on the available resources in the store, customers in their geographic location, trends, etc. MayaEats maintains the end-to-end logistics of launching these new virtual brands, and restaurant partners only have to do the one thing they are good at, making food. MayaEats takes care of the rest of the logistics.
Why is MayaEats unique from other food platforms and apps in the market, what makes you special?
MayaEats doesn’t want to be just another virtual brand creator. We see many virtual brands focus only on popular and traditional menu items such as wings, burgers, etc. This just floods the market with the same food. Restaurants that launch these types of restaurants are fighting with big chains and other popular brands in their locations. Additionally, customers aren’t getting anything new. MayaEats instead focuses on novelty items with unique menus not currently available.
Take, for example, someone who is vegan. There’s a growing demand for vegan food, and many customers are looking for authentic 100% vegan food, food without dairy and animal products. Our research found that the vegan community doesn’t have many options available to them, and the available ones are micro-targeted food items within a big menu that a restaurant already serves. Once again, this is nothing new. That’s where our vegan lasagna concept was born. Within a couple of months of launching The Vegan Lasagna Garden, we served thousands of customers and sold over 15,000 vegan lasagnas.
Another challenge is that many virtual brand creators don’t want to create Yelp or Google Business pages because they’re afraid of the quality and disappointing customers. But at MayaEats, we decided to give full transparency to our customers since we are confident in our product for the following reasons: this is a unique, one-of-a-kind product, the quality and taste are of the highest standard, and we want to draw awareness to virtual brands. Virtual restaurants are the future of the restaurant industry, and customers need to be aware of them and how they operate. Messaging is key, and MayaEats is leading this communication for the virtual restaurant industry.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic helped to shape your vision for MayaEats, and how did you work to help restaurants during the most difficult times of the pandemic?
Our journey started with our digital order aggregation software product OOMS (Online Order Management System). During March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, we were making door-to-door sales for OOMS. We have visited at least a thousand restaurants in the South Bay area. This allowed us to learn more about how the pandemic made running an already difficult business, such as restaurants, even more difficult. That’s where this idea of starting a virtual restaurant company started. When a distressed restaurant owner wanted to launch a new concept but was afraid of bringing it to life due to logistics, we knew we could step in. With full pride, I would say, MayaEats was founded by our restaurant partners, and run by us. We started helping this owner with his new menu, and recipes, and launched it on all delivery platforms, ran a digital marketing campaign, and saw huge sales. MayaEats’ biggest achievement came when we paid $100,000 to a few restaurant partners during the peak of the pandemic, which was a great motivation for our entire MayaEats team to work even harder.
What must we know about ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants, including how this will impact our delivery habits and how we buy food in the future?
Over the last decade, we have enjoyed the comfort of on-demand services from various industries, such as Netflix for on-demand movies, YouTube for on-demand video entertainment, and Uber for on-demand rides. However, on-demand food services have been available for a long time but haven’t fully caught up. Thanks to DoorDash and UberEats, along with others who have built a robust delivery infrastructure, customers’ adaptation rate for on-demand food has exponentially increased due to the closure of indoor dining during the pandemic. Different age groups varying from senior citizens to millennials were forced to order via apps or restaurant websites during the peak pandemic. But similar to how people still enjoy movies in theaters and Netflix at home, we believe that in the post-pandemic world, the habit of on-demand food ordering is here to stay and will coexist with on-premise sales.
Tell us more about the MayaEats’ new product, OneStopKitchen, what is it all about and how does it work?
Given our experience running MayaEats for several years now, we have received many inquiries from our restaurant partners. For example, we’ve had requests to help set up kiosks, restaurant websites, and some restaurants even wanted us to help them to expand to new locations. They gave so many ideas on how we can help them. That’s how OneStopKitchen came alive. I call OneStopKitchen a restaurant infrastructure as a service (RIAS), which is highly scalable at low cost. A true Airbnb for the restaurant model. We use this infrastructure to launch as many food concepts as possible. It can be our home brands or it can be any of the top brands who want to scale at zero cost. There are three parts to the OneStopKitchen platform.
1) Restaurants who have a physical location (this could be brick and mortar or a food truck) and want to be a OneStopKitchen fulfillment center. Once they partner, we invest in them by building the complete infrastructure which allows us to launch any brands in that center. Many of our current OneStopKitchen centers are in a downtown area which has high foot traffic and most are open very late, until 3 AM.
2) Top brands who want to scale up to multiple locations at zero cost. On average, it takes a minimum of $300,000 to start a decent sit-down restaurant. However, by partnering with OneStopKitchen, we can take their food to multiple locations at zero cost.
3) With the above-mentioned setup, OneStopKitchen lets you mix and match food from top local restaurants into a single order. Now, a family or friend who wants to order different cuisine at the same time is possible with OneStopKitchen. Someone can get Mexican, Thai, Mediterranean, or any other cuisine all in a single order. For consumers, OneStopKitchen functions as a virtual food hall.
How are ghost kitchens working to reshape the real estate and restaurant industries, and how is OneStopKitchen helping restaurants utilize empty spaces without overspending?
The food delivery market is exploding and the pandemic has further accelerated its growth. There are more new ghost kitchens being built by companies like Cloud Kitchens, REEF, etc. even while existing restaurants are going out of business and closing their doors. Most of these ghost kitchens are constructed in warehouse locations that are not close to residential or high-traffic areas. Restaurants closing down in this market is a serious problem and we believe it should be immediately addressed. With OneStopKitchen, we set out on a mission to build a turn-key solution to help existing restaurants generate additional revenue. We built a platform for micro fulfillment centers using existing under-utilized restaurants. We have seen that the shared economy model works perfectly with Airbnb and Uber so OneStopKitchen wants to use this same idea and share restaurant kitchens to build the world’s largest restaurant platform.
Do you have available opportunities for partners and investors, tell us more about these opportunities?
With the explosive growth of OneStopKitchen, we are looking at our Series A round in a couple of months to expand our services to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles and have already begun our prep work for it. Also, any restaurant brands who have great food and want to expand their presence using OneStopKitchen centers or restaurants or food trucks who want to better utilize their kitchen, staff, etc. can contact us to be considered for our next OneStopKitchen center.
Do you have any success stories or more information to share with our readers today?
Restaurant Brand Partner Success Story: A family-owned Ethiopian restaurant called Walia Ethiopian Cuisine founded in 2011 and based out of San Jose serves amazing authentic Ethiopian-style food. They are a Michelin Star restaurant. As with any other restaurant, the pandemic took a great toll on them and they no longer offer dining-in and instead focus solely on delivery. OneStopKitchen helped them to expand these amazing Ethiopian foods all over the Bay area. Within a month of this partnership, we scaled Walia from 1 location to 10 locations starting from South Bay to San Francisco at zero cost for them. OneStopKitchen received numerous calls from customers sharing their happiness that now they can eat Walia everyday. OneStopKitchen brought new life to the Walia brand and its founders are now considering making an automatic Injera machine just to keep up with the high demand. OneStopKitchen considers this its biggest success story. This was an incredibly proud moment.
OneStopKitchen Fulfillment Center Partner Success Story: We partnered with a small Deli shop in Redwood City and converted them into a OneStopKitchen fulfillment center. After our partnership, we completely transformed their look and feel into a next-generation type of restaurant. Since the store is located in a prime downtown location with significant walk-in traffic, we installed outdoor facing TVs with digital content to attract customers into the store. The strategy was a success and converted lots of walk-in traffic into OneStopKitchen customers. We also replaced their traditional menu board with digital TVs with a OneStopKitchen menu and broadway sandwich menu. Additionally, we installed a kiosk which allows customers to mix-and-match and order from the OneStopKitchen menu. Inside the kitchen, we also installed new advanced cooking equipment which helped them to increase their cooking efficiency and overall process.