It all started in grandma’s kitchen. It was there that company founder Emanuel Steiner, who has Swiss and Iranian roots, discovered his passion for cooking as a child. The company name Felfel – the Persian word for pepper – is therefore a homage to his grandma. The idea behind the business model is also based on the 36-year-old’s personal convictions. During his time working for the Boston Consulting Group in the center of Zurich, Emanuel Steiner found it difficult to eat healthy, good-quality meals during his lunch break.
His answer to the problem is Felfel: an “intelligent” refrigerator offering fresh and healthy meals directly at the workplace. The solution is suitable for SMEs with 25 or more employees without their own canteen. Employees pay with a badge that debits the – moderate – purchase price directly from their credit card. The dishes are prepared by partner chefs from small family businesses who prepare and deliver them on behalf of Felfel.
When two start-ups meet
While Emanuel Steiner was founding “Felfel” in 2014, his wife Daniela Steiner was setting up her own business with the brand “Heylife”. Her product was one-hundred-percent natural coconut water, that she had come to know and love during five years spent in New York. The drink was one of the first products that found its place in Felfel, as the refrigerators are logically called.
Emanuel and Daniela Steiner not only had the same background – a business degree, several years of experience abroad, founding a company and a passion for cuisine –, but also the same vision. “Every company is ultimately about making its customers happy,” stresses the 36-year-old HSG graduate.
Soon it became clear that they both wanted to concentrate all their energy on one company and reach more people with Felfel. When the young entrepreneur couple got married in 2016, Daniela Steiner decided to sell “Heylife” to a friendly restaurant chain.
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A lot has happened since then: Felfel has enjoyed significant growth and already makes 40,000 of its client’s employees happy every day. “The company is on track. Over 300 companies already offer meals with Felfel, and a new one joins them every day,” says Emanuel Steiner, who studied at Harvard, among other universities. The idea of intelligent refrigerators is not only new, but also practical and clever: every day the refrigerators in the companies are stocked with fresh menus – including over 20 different dishes –, as well as snacks and drinks.
The menu changes completely every week. Whether Asian, savory, vegan or with meat: there is something to suit every taste. Technology makes it possible to fill the refrigerators with the products that are most in demand at a particular location. Individually calculated algorithms keep the amount of food waste at a satisfyingly low level.
A lot of it is down to mathematics, estimating which menus are in demand when.
Felfel employees can follow in real time on large screens in the loft office in Zurich-Binz which product is currently among the bestsellers nationwide. The statistic changes from one minute to the next: the Strawberry & Blueberry Protein Yogurt was the most popular at eleven o’clock, but was replaced by the Chicken-Schnitzel Poke Bowl at half past eleven.
State-of-the-art technology and a nine-member IT team encounter homely kitchen romanticism and a touch of industrial chic at the company’s Zurich location: terracotta pots with thyme and basil, wooden drawer furniture, an industrial lamp, a test kitchen with Portuguese wall tiles and a long table at which the whole Felfel team eats lunch together every day. Anyone applying for a job at Felfel, be it as a mathematician or a software engineer, must cook for the entire team from a certain point in the application process.
Daniela and Emanuel Steiner, the founders of Felfel, on their start-up experience.
“Right from the beginning, we were able to count on family and friends to invest in our idea. We own the majority of Felfel. UBS also opened the doors to potential investors for us.”
“It’s a big deal for us, and it’s also about the employees and the end customers. That’s why it’s important for us to know that we have UBS as a partner by our side to point out risks and opportunities to us.”
“We particularly wanted to build ourselves a ‘home.’ Our private funds are in the company, and we only pay out the most necessary wages. UBS was very creative and put together a tailored mortgage package for a home for us because they saw potential for Felfel.”
Like any other start-up, Felfel had to contend with the typical initial concerns of young companies, for example with regard to financing. It achieved an important milestone in 2017 when it won the SEF Award thanks to the “SEF4KMU” growth initiative – an initiative of the Swiss Economic Forum and affiliated partners aimed at Swiss SMEs and up-and-coming young companies. The supporters of the program include UBS.
This resulted in consultations on the subject of financing and risk protection, which Emanuel and Daniela Steiner greatly appreciated. The entrepreneurial couple had previously only invested their own funds and taken family offices and friends on board as investors. The majority of the company is held by the Steiners.
“Above all, it’s reassuring to know that Felfel would have the option of borrowing from the bank if necessary,” says Emanuel Steiner. The consultation with the bank enabled the young couple to realize a private dream despite the small start-up wages: the financing of their own home. Daniela Steiner is delighted by the fact that UBS developed an individual financing solution based on its knowledge of the current living conditions of the two entrepreneurs. This allowed the entrepreneur couple to fulfill their dream right away. And not 20 years from now.
A growing family
In addition to Felfel, the family has grown further in recent years. The Steiners became the proud parents of a daughter last winter, and often took her to the office with them at first. She is now looked after during the day in the day care center next to their workplace. That means that every now and then over lunch, Mum or Dad can attend the baby swimming class.
The new family member represents a further reason for the company to focus on aspects that are as sustainable as possible, including family security and long-term asset accumulation to protect the next generation. The products processed by Felfel are free of artificial additives, the recycling fleet is currently being converted from biogas to electric vehicles, the packaging material is recycled in Switzerland, and non-consumed food goes to charity.
Sustainability is one of the aspects that makes a company attractive to young talents – Generation Y –, as is meaningfulness. Felfel needs a lot more of these talents: the company has grown so much that it is barely able to keep up with recruitment. The market in French-speaking Switzerland is served by a new location in Lausanne. Expansion into other European countries is also being discussed, but a decision is not on the cards yet.
Internal and external growth
If growth and expansion are implemented as planned, the founding couple can imagine once again relying on the help of the bank, be it for financing or passing on contacts with potential partners abroad.
As an SME country, Switzerland also has attractive growth potential for Felfel. Emanuel Steiner: “Our business model is spreading by word of mouth, we don’t approach new customers ourselves.”
As well as developing the business externally, the CEO couple also attaches great importance to internal development. For this reason, they are keen to strengthen the team of eight team leaders even more. Daniela Steiner: “We’ve put everything into our company, there’s no plan B. We’re responsible for the 70 employees and 40,000 customers who enjoy our products.”