SNVC Alum KitcheNet Talks Pivoting Business Models

Trista Li, MPP ’16, MBA ’18, co-founded KitcheNet as a policy student at the Harris School participating in the 2016 John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC). Today, the company sells locally sourced produce to offices.  

Using a dual impact model, one third of proceeds from office deliveries funds the free delivery of healthy produce to Chicago food deserts. This allows local businesses to make a profit off of the food, which in turn reinvigorates the local economy. The company also hopes to reshape peoples’ relationships to fruits by showing available options, introducing novel varieties, and teaching subtle differences between types. 

However, what would eventually become a four-year journey almost didn’t happen. “It was quite serendipitous,” Li says about joining the KitcheNet team. The day before the 2016 SNVC applications were due, she overheard two friends discussing their idea. They wanted to sell healthy meals in food deserts to reduce childhood obesity issues and reinvest in the community. This immediately intrigued her. Before pursuing a master’s in public policy, Li was a field microfinance fellow, working with entrepreneurs on the South Side to stimulate local economies. She offered to help her friends finish the application, and the three pulled an all-nighter.  

However, KitcheNet went go through many iterations before arriving at its current model. During the SNVC, the business was a cross-sharing kitchen service based in underserved communities. The idea was for stay-at-home parents to sell healthy cooked meals to working families. The team tested out their model at local church kitchens with spare produce, selling meals after services. Eventually, KitcheNet placed third in the 2016 SNVC, winning $5,000.  

Soon after, her two co-founders left the Chicago area and Li was left with the decision to continue with KitcheNet, or scrap it. Starting at Booth in the fall of 2016, Li applied to and participated in the 2017 Polsky Accelerator, before going on to the 2018-2019 Incubator 

Li used the Accelerator and Incubator processes to pivot. At the beginning of the Accelerator, the business operated as a subscription grocery service for those living in a food desert, distributing the goods at a community college during lunch time. It became clear, based on customer feedback, that what was most enjoyed were the fruits. So, Li switched to just delivering fruit boxes to individuals. It was a better move for the company, Li said, as the grocery service could only be done twice a week, but fruit boxes allowed a more frequent delivery.  

Money was difficult, though. Li needed to keep packaging cheap but appealing, while still making money. To save, Li packed the food in the back of her car and stored the produce in the Polsky Center fridge. Sometimes, after lunch at Chipotle, Li would ask for extra takeaway bags, fold them inside out, and use those for KitcheNet produce. “It looks beautiful, it’s presentable, it looks like a farmer’s market,” Li says of the early day packaging.  

Though the fruit boxes were more successful than grocery delivery, the company still wasn’t breaking even. Li decided to try a new customer base. She called all 50 coworking spaces in Chicago to book free demos in the hopes of drumming up individual subscriptions. The demos were a hit; people loved seeing the fruit cut and getting to sample it. Instead of purchasing individual subscriptions, however, many asked if she delivered to offices. This led to KitcheNet’s current dual impact model, which allows Li to continue providing healthy options in Chicago food deserts.  

Li says the Incubator showed her the reality of running a business. She found being surrounded by the other entrepreneurs in her cohort incredibly useful. She also spent time with the companies in the I-Corps program. In this environment, she learned things she could bring to KitcheNet, such as the software as a service (SaaS) model, the importance of internet protocol, and the framework of conversion. “[It was] almost like working at a VC firm,” Li says. “You’re able to see so many different things. That enriches an entrepreneur’s understanding of business because everything is in some way relevant to you.”  

KitcheNet now has 70 corporate clients in Chicagoland with roughly 5000 weekly users. Among its users is Michael Polsky’s Invenergy, where, pre-pandemic, it hosted a weekly fruit party for its employees. KitcheNet’s produce has also been on the set of the TV shows Chicago MedChicago PD, and Chicago Fire. Most recently, the company was selected as the top 5% of semifinalist submissions for the Rockefeller Foundation Food System Vision Prize, and the American Heart Association (AHA) has featured Li during Women’s History Month and on its Power Moment During COVID-19 Response series.  

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