Platform promoting chef entrepreneurship is sizzling

HUNGRY - Jeff Grass

SUMMARY: Tech entrepreneur Jeff Grass' ('92) latest venture is an online marketplace that connects independent chefs with the burgeoning corporate catering market. Since launching in Arlington, Virginia, in late 2016, the company has expanded into Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta and Boston. Openings are planned in nine more cities in 2020.

By Jim Heffernan (’96, ‘17M)

As the office manager for a busy metro firm, you’re charged with ordering food for an upcoming event. You could hire a local catering company again, but they’re pricey and the menu is limited. You could try one of the new four-star restaurants in town, but the crowds outside make you wonder if they could be counted on to deliver your meal on time.

Where do you turn?

HUNGRY is an online marketplace that connects independent chefs with the burgeoning corporate catering market.

“Companies are investing in food more than ever before,” said HUNGRY Chairman and CEO Jeff Grass (’92). “Providing food for employees drives productivity, keeps your people in the office longer and enhances culture.”

At the same time, Grass said, there has been an explosion of food allergies and dietary restrictions as well as people just wanting to eat more healthfully. “Those trends are putting a tremendous amount of pressure on the office managers and executive assistants whose job it is to order food,” he said.

HUNGRY’s platform allows companies to tap into a network of talented, independent chefs in their area, each with their own cuisines. Customers can browse profiles, menus, prices, ratings and availability.

Jeff Grass HUNGRY Pahlevanis
Grass with team members Eman Pahlevani (right) and Shy Pahlevani ('07), with whom Grass co-founded HUNGRY as well as LiveSafe, a crowdsourcing safety app.  

“High-quality chefs specializing in a small number of their very best dishes allows for very high-quality food,” Grass said. HUNGRY’s stable of culinary masters includes James Beard Award winners, former White House chefs, Food Network stars and personal chefs to celebrities such as Will Smith and Pitbull as well as professional sports teams like the Atlanta Falcons.

For independent chefs who want to become entrepreneurs, HUNGRY’s marketplace allows for more flexible hours and higher earning potential than what standard restaurants and caterers offer. “It’s a model that puts a lot more money in a chef’s pocket,” Grass says. “We have chefs now making as much as $40,000 a month. We’re like a business-in-a-box for them. The chefs do the cooking and we take care of everything else—the sales, the marketing, the delivery, the payment collection.”

Grass is a tech entrepreneur who specializes in business-to-business and consumer technology-enabled services. He started his first company,, while still in graduate school. HUNGRY is his fourth venture and his second with fellow Duke Shy Pahlevani (’07). The two co-founded LiveSafe—a crowdsourcing safety app used by corporations and educational institutions, including JMU—along with a survivor of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

HUNGRY launched in Grass’ hometown of Arlington, Virginia, in late 2016. The first two years were spent perfecting the technology so that the platform could be rolled out in other markets. HUNGRY has since expanded into Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta and Boston. The company projects sales of more than $20 million by the end of 2019, and openings are slated in nine more cities in 2020.

“We’ve really been East Coast-centric thus far, but next year we go west,” he said.

James Madison Innovations, a startup investment organization at JMU, was an early investor in HUNGRY. The company has also secured financing from Sands Capital Ventures and Motley Fool Ventures as well as celebrity investors Jay Z, Usher, Chef Tom Colicchio (founder and chief judge of Top Chef), Seth Goldman (Beyond Meat) and Walter Robb (former co-CEO of Whole Foods).

HUNGRY is a purpose-driven company committed to improving the lives of everyone it touches —chefs, clients and the communities it serves. For every two meals purchased, the company donates one meal to local food banks to help those in need. And HUNGRY’s “WeRecycle” program promotes environmental sustainability by offering biodegradable plates and cutlery with all of its delivered meals. To date, the company has donated over 300,000 meals and eliminated more than 2 million plastic and non-recyclable trash items.

Madison Experience
Grass came to JMU as a freshman in Fall 1988. He credits his Madison Experience with helping him grow “as a person and as a leader.” He co-founded the Iota Sigma chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha and was president of the Financial Management Association.

After selling his first company, Grass returned to JMU in 2002 to teach a section of COB 300, the College of Business’ team-based course integrating management, finance, operations and marketing, as well as a Chartered Financial Analyst prep class.

A member of the university’s Board of Visitors, Grass believes JMU is developing a culture of entrepreneurship that is unique in higher education.

During a trip to campus in September, he attended a reception prior to the Student Showcase for the Leslie Flanary Gilliam ('82) Center for Entrepreneurship at the behest of JMU President Jonathan R. Alger.

“The quality of the presentations and just how articulate and well thought-out the business plans were was amazing,” he said. “And I love the fact that the center is so interdisciplinary.”

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Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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