Cooking up a winning business plan: eCelery founder says city is starving for culinary variety

Ottawa startup eCelery is bringing the flavours of your favourite home-cooked meals to, well, your home.

The web-based delivery service puts hungry customers in contact with local chefs, representing a variety of ethnic backgrounds, who prepare meals in their own kitchens. Clients simply place their orders online and a driver will be at their door within an hour with a home-cooked meal.

The founders of eCelery say they’re providing variety that’s currently lacking in the Ottawa takeout food scene.

“Canada is a multicultural country. There’s a lot of people here who do miss their home cooking,” said CEO and co-founder Cyril Moukarzel. “By bringing cooks from these countries … we are bringing diversity and more authenticity to the table.”

The service launched in mid-June with four chefs serving customers in Nepean and Ottawa South. Thanks to huge initial demand, however, eCelery is now aiming to expand to about 20 chefs within the first two weeks of July to serve the rest of Ottawa.

The most common feedback has been about access to more chefs, said Mr. Moukarzel.

“That’s why we decided, ‘OK, we want to go ahead and launch the entire city of Ottawa as fast as we can.’ And we’ve gotten enough applicants to do that, for sure.”

Some chefs have formal training; others were merely raised with the flavours of their home countries. They’re found through advertising and word of mouth, and go through rigorous testing to make sure their concoctions are up to snuff, Mr. Moukarzel said.

While eCelery determines whether chefs are up to the service’s standards of quality, these cooks are not employees of the company. They set their own menu, working hours and prices for their food, purchase their own ingredients and packaging and receive 80 per cent of the total cost of each meal. The rest goes towards paying drivers and eCelery’s commission.

The business got its start through uOttawa’s Startup Garage, with friends and family providing the funding.

Being entirely web-based, the four-employee operation has relatively low overhead costs. Since eCelery profits solely from commissions, advertising for new chefs has become a significant expense. But Mr. Moukarzel said he expects the additional revenue generated by more chefs will mitigate the impact of those costs.

Another roadblock eCelery still faces is the city’s health and safety regulations.

Each chef is required to take the Food Handler Certification program, a one-day course on hygiene and preventing foodborne illness offered by Ottawa Public Health. While eCelery meals are prepared in private residences, which are normally exempt from inspection, the city has indicated that all operators retailing food to the public must meet the mandatory sanitation conditions outlined in the Ontario Health Promotion and Protection Act.

“OPH is working with eCelery to ensure food premises regulations are met,” Ottawa Public Health spokesperson Donna Casey said in an e-mail to OBJ.

Requirements for operating a food business in Ottawa include official inspections, and Mr. Moukarzel said he is still in discussions with the city over whether eCelery’s chefs will be subject to such reviews.

Drivers also must overcome the logistical hurdle of adapting to new orders on the fly. With the expectation that meals will be delivered within 45 minutes, the volume of trips between chefs and customers can quickly become overwhelming.

“It’s kind of like we’re opening, say, 25 restaurants in the entire city, and we’re managing it all ourselves,” Mr. Moukarzel explained.

A preorder function and a delivery algorithm are both in the works to help limit any issues for drivers.

The most encouraging part about the business so far has been the calibre of the food itself, Mr. Moukarzel said.

“Every single person that has ordered from our chefs have loved our food,” he said. “They’ve put feedback directly up onto the site.”