What lies at the intersection between food and tech? Well, a burgeoning space of opportunity for the food industry, where you can find innovative companies like Eat Club forging a new path. Eat Club is helping to transform food as a benefit, as well as customize and streamline the eater experience through technology. Here are the inspiring perspectives of three leaders within their company: Ann Eisenberg (Chief Customer Officer), Virginia Barton (Head of Partnerships), and Tracy Hsu (Head of Culinary Development).
Tell us about the role women play in your company, and how the women in senior positions are positively impacting Eat Club’s vision and culture?
Tracy Hsu: On a very basic level, seeing so many senior leaders that are women makes me smile. It just brings me joy to see so many women in senior positions. It’s a great feeling.
Ann Eisenberg: Up until recently, I was the only female on the executive team. I definitely didn’t take that lightly. I’m thrilled to have Christine Maxwell [Chief People Officer] as part of it. On our Eater Experience team, two of the three leaders are female, Virginia being one of them. I don’t come from a background of food. For most of my career it’s been merchandising, which overall tends to be pretty female dominated. But culinary and food doesn’t necessarily, so it’s great to see that represented here at Eat Club.
Virginia Barton: I would agree. I think the most meaningful way we can see how diverse leadership is having an impact on Eat Club is by having a more diverse representation of backgrounds, circumstances and opinions that help cultivate our approach. It means generally that we are more inclusive and anticipatory of what our diverse clientele might want. That makes us better equipped to meet their demands and to grow with market changes in the future.
Can you describe your journey to where you are today?
Tracy: My journey has pretty much entirely been in the industry. It started out with college, then going more of the back-end route vs. in the kitchen… I was swayed against cooking because, “Women don’t do that, females don’t work in the kitchen. It is too hard physically.” Clearly, I didn’t listen! I worked for a few years out of college, and then I was like, “I have to do this, this is what I’m passionate about,” and went to culinary school instead of grad school. That was my route and I never looked back. I took risks and opportunities came up, and I always said yes to them.
Virginia: I pursued a more traditional career out of college doing sales operations and sales strategy, and didn’t really like the industry as much as the strategy and framework to evaluate those problems. I decided to transition and bridge the gap between my passion for food and the experience that I had. I started doing restaurant partner sales, and when the opportunity came to join Eat Club, it was a fantastic way to have a bigger scope of impact, both with the restaurants and co-packers that we partner with, and also the ability to impact the customers more directly through the experience they have every day with the food. It was an interesting blend of my passion and my career experiences that led me here.
Along the way, did you run into any gender-based challenges in the industry, and how did you handle that?
Tracy: I experienced a lot of gender-bias just cooking in kitchens. Back when I was cooking, there definitely were not as many women in kitchens as there are today. Kitchens were male-dominated. I never went into pastries, but that’s where most of the female cooks were, and I avoided it like the plague. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision, but I didn’t want to get lumped into – “Oh, you’re a cook—you do pastries?” I was asked that almost every time I met somebody. I’m on the savory side, and that was pretty shocking to most people when they found out, because it is tough. I was told I had to work twice as hard. It was a different time back then, now it’s much more diverse from what I hear, but that was my experience. Good or bad, it hardened me quite a bit. You just have to, in order to “keep up” as the men thought. You just get harder and grow a super thick skin.
Ann: I’ve experienced this myself, and heard it from other women, that there’s this double-standard where if you have a strong opinion or POV, are direct and say-it-like-it-is, it can be seen as overbearing or difficult to work with. But if it was a male, these would be seen more as positive traits. I was really frustrated about that earlier in my career. Then I decided that I was going to lead and be the person I want to be, and hopefully overcome that by being consistent, transparent, trying to make the best decisions I can, and leading by example.
How easily did you find mentorship within the industry? And how may that have impacted how you are mentoring others (either within Eat Club, or with others who are trying to break through in the industry).
Virginia: I’ve got a diverse network of mentors, both within the industry and external to the industry. Their perspective and their ability to provide context and coaching helped me approach different problems, think creatively or come at a solution in a different way. I appreciate mentorship and think it is something that whenever you have the ability to foster that, even if it’s outside of the industry, it’s definitely worthwhile. The hardest part is just evaluating that network and building that up for young female professionals in any industry. It’s not something that’s easy, but it just takes cultivation, awareness and candor.
Tracy: Now that I think about it, my mentors are mostly not in the industry, because I value a diverse background of knowledge and creative solutions from different viewpoints. If I sought mentorship within the food industry, I just think it’s too narrow for my growth. I truly value my network that I reach out to when situations come up, or I just need to talk something out to get a different perspective on things.
Ann: I do try to take the time if someone earlier in their career asks to meet or have coffee to bounce ideas off of where they’re going in their career. As Virginia said, it takes being intentional and the ability to separate yourself from everything else going on. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of people to go to other than close family and friends, but from a traditional mentorship sense, I would have appreciated that.
Can you explain more about how Eat Club is transforming food as a benefit, and what you see as the larger impact you think that will have on the foodservice industry overall?
Virginia: Where Eat Club is really transformative is the ability to capitalize on the trend around personalization and unique preferences that are abundant in our society, because Eat Club’s model is to allow the end user to select the dish or the meal for their lunch that they want vs. having to take lunch or have whatever is provided that day by the family style meal. The personalization and the choice are so important and necessary. It is what people expect, and what people crave since they have that with almost every other facet of their life right now.
Ann: Lunch as a benefit is pretty commonplace in the Bay Area, but in LA it’s been more of an education for a lot of clients to understand why it’s important in the overall health and wellness of their employees. Not only does it drive increased productivity, it builds collaboration.
Tracy: Food as a benefit for companies really does add to the culture of the company and it fosters community. I’ve seen many times in companies that don’t offer this as a benefit that folks leave the building separately, or pairs just go eat lunch. So, when it’s brought in-house, you can feel the difference—folks collaborate more, they eat together during lunch—it’s more of a social activity. I’ve seen a lot of benefits from that aspect.
What makes you excited about the intersection of food & tech and where that’s heading? Also, do you have any advice for women looking to break into this particular area of the industry?
Virginia: What gets me really excited about the intersection of food and tech, is making things more efficient and more automated to make sure we’re operating in a way that is focusing on preventing food waste, or energy waste. I think that’s the direction the restaurant culture needs to move in, in order to stay competitive as real estate, labor, and food cost increases.
Tracy: It’s exciting to see what technology can do in the food industry and building tools that make delivering food much faster than what we’re traditionally used to. For advice for women coming into this food tech industry, I would love to see more female engineers. That’s one of the biggest things that I know we were trying to recruit. I would definitely advocate for that.
Ann: We’re providing companies with access to insights and data around employees’ eating patterns and behaviors, and using that to tweak and cultivate the best experience. For women just starting out in their careers, don’t take no for an answer. There are many things along the way in your career that may shift and change, but as Tracy said, seeing opportunities and saying yes to them is really important.
What is the one piece of advice you wish you had known when starting out in this industry?
Ann: I tend to be a planner and try to have things mapped out in terms of what’s coming next in my career or my life, and the advice that I’d give to my younger self is don’t worry about that so much. Things happen, and your career is not a straight, solid line.
Tracy: Think about the long game and take the risks necessary to get you there.
Virginia: Lean in, be curious, be vocal and take advantage of opportunities that come your way.
EAT Club was created to disrupt the “one-size fits all” corporate catering industry through an individualized lunch experience that supports the diverse tastes of the modern office.
Our founders, Rodrigo Santibanez and Kevin Yang, were inspired by India’s Dabbawala lunch delivery system, which brings individual hot lunches to workers in Mumbai, when they created EAT Club in 2010. They knew that delicious, personalized meals could and should be made available to the U.S. office in a similarly efficient way utilizing tech-driven logistics.
Today, as an innovator in the food-tech space, we are the leading provider of office lunch programs. We combine technology, data insights, and culinary expertise to offer personal choice from a large, curated menu that satisfies all tastes and dietary preferences.
Learn more and connect with Eat Club!
Company Website: https://www.eatclub.com/about/