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Lisa King of Eat My Lunch on dealing with rapid growth and making 1400 lunches EVERY DAY

Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt.

It’s a remarkable success story: create a enterprise that combines both business and philanthropy and before you blink, you’re knee deep in work. The idea is simple: order a lunch and the price pays for another free lunch to go to a hungry school kid. Such is the journey of Eat My Lunch, which started from a home kitchen and very quickly ended up supplying 40 schools and a similar number of businesses. The CEO Lisa King talked to Simon about how rapid the growth in the business was, how they managed it as well as the logistics of delivering 1400 lunches every day.

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One of the cool things – and it would be great to chat about your business model here which is so revolutionary – is that you’re getting people to volunteer because they believe in your cause, but it is still a business that is turning a profit so that it can keep growing.

One of the things that we did model really early on to make it into a profitable business is that we had to have volunteers come and help us make the lunches for the kids. There’s a real clear delineation between the ‘buy’ side of the business and the ‘giving’; the volunteers come in and they work on the ‘give’ side of the business.

Initially we didn’t know how we were going to get volunteers because we’re not a charity and we were like ‘do we advertise for these people?’ But that word of mouth just spread. We have a lot of corporates come in with their teams, it’s something that’s really physical and tangible that they can do, and they see where those lunches are going. It’s a really great way to get transparency in the business. There aren’t many businesses that invite the public in to see how it all works and actually to be a part of it.

We’ve had probably around 3000 people now come in and volunteer. Some come every single week, but what I love about the volunteers is that anyone can come and make a lunch. You don’t need a degree, you don’t need experience. We’ve had all types of people from your CEO’s to school students coming in to help out and it’s another way for particularly big corporates to engage their staff, to show them what they’re actually doing, and that it’s not just about writing out a cheque. And for our volunteers it’s a really satisfying experience.

How have you got on with the logistics? Because 1400 lunches to schools, a similar number going out to office towers and studios across Auckland, how does that work?

I always say we’re more of a supply chain and logistics company than we are a food company, because everything we do is fresh every day. That in itself is very complicated from a supply chain perspective. Then there’s the logistics of getting it out – all our lunches have to be made by 9.30, then we have all the couriers come and descend on Eat My Lunch, pick them up, and they have to be distributed and dropped off to everyone by 12.30 every day. That’s a very, very tight window, and we spend most of our time managing that. We’ve had a lot of really great partners to help us with it, and it’s funny thinking when we first started we thought we’d just drive around in our own car to deliver the lunches, and now we have about 14 cars that do that.

What surprised you along the way? The idea is so great and people responded so well, but what’s caught you off guard or been difficult along the way?

Definitely responding to the growth of it. You never know what these things are going to become when you start. We thought it was a really great idea when we started, but we had lots of people tell us it wasn’t, and so you never really know. It’s definitely surprised us how it’s caught people’s imagination.

There’s been a lot of unintended impact I guess particularly around the volunteering and the support that we get. Our intention was to run this as a purely commercial and sustainable business, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of people coming to support us, and big corporates too. We haven’t had to go out and canvas that, people have just come to us because they really believe in what we do and so it’s been really surprising, because I think you can get a little bit down on humankind and some of the stuff that goes on around the world. It’s just so nice that there are so many people out there who want to do something good.