Sunday 21 October 2018

Chef calls 'thyme' on cooking for the wealthy to deliver meal kits venture

Ben Dineen has swapped life on luxury yachts to co-found startup Thyme at Home, writes Gabrielle Monaghan

Chef Ben Dineen, who has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and for rich yacht owners says he needs the stress of a kitchen. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Chef Ben Dineen, who has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and for rich yacht owners says he needs the stress of a kitchen. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Gabrielle Monaghan

It's mid-September and Ben Dineen is on a superyacht moored in Porto Cervo, the billionaires' playground in Sardinia, having already spent the summer sailing from Monaco, St Tropez and Portofino.

The vessel doesn't belong to the 32-year-old Irishman: he's the head chef on board. He has just spent the morning shopping for ingredients in the local markets for a simple spaghetti alle vongole for his boss.

But while Dineen's head is focused on cooking with the freshly-bought clams, shallots, garlic and white wine, his heart is at home, where he has just set up a new food business with two foodie friends.

Dineen has spent the guts of a decade working on luxury yachts and his summer sojourn was in aid of financing Thyme at Home, the startup he created earlier this year with fellow chef Phil Moran and Renata Venckunaite.

The fledgling business hand-delivers carefully measured and prepared ingredients sourced from local farmers and suppliers, along with chef-devised recipes and step-by-step video instructions, to the homes and offices of time-starved customers who want a quickly-assembled healthy meal rather going out to dinner or getting a takeaway.

The chefs try and test the recipes to ensure customers can achieve the same results in their own kitchens and the company then collects the empty boxes and packaging when they do their next delivery.

As Thyme at Home is still in its infancy, it has so far concentrated on deliveries to Dublin and Wicklow, but will go further afield if necessary. "We have had emails from men saying, 'my wife's away for a week and I really need some help here!' People really seem to like it," says Dineen.

The concept was inspired by similar companies Dineen came across in the Europe and the US, where there has been an explosion of meal-kit delivery firms. In America, the largest is Blue Apron, which has almost one million customers and debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in June, while the biggest player in Europe is HelloFresh. Grocery chains are also getting in on the act, with Albertsons, the operator of the Safeway chain, last month agreeing to buy the New York-based meal-kit service Plated. Indeed, there are roughly 100 meal-kit companies with €2.2bn in sales in the US, including two owned by Amazon.

"I met someone who has worked for one of these companies and they told me about the business and how it works," Dineen says. "We saw an opportunity for a similar business in Ireland because Irish people really care about quality of their food and traceability is becoming much more important.

"People here want to cook better and they can easily replicate dishes using our videos and learn a new recipe."

Thyme at Home also offers additional services, such as wine to pair with the meal, as well as low GI and gluten-free options. There are new menus every week, such as sesame and ginger chicken with turmeric rice. And with prices starting at €9 a meal, Dineen argues that the dishes can be cheaper and more efficient than eating out or cooking at home.

"The price works out the same as fish and chips in a regular café, but saves time spent in a supermarket and in traffic after a long day at work and reduces food waste," he says.

Dineen, who was raised in the Co Wicklow village of Newcastle and went to secondary school in Glasthule, showed a flair for cooking from an early age. He won a cookery competition while still at primary school, wrote menus and cooked for family events, and, as a teenager, worked at Dublin restaurants after school. The latter experience proved to be a baptism of fire.

"When I was 16, my father was friendly with owners of Dali's restaurant in Blackrock and I got a job there," Dineen says. "The first day, I rocked up to the kitchen in my school uniform and white shirt. It looked like hell, with fires everywhere - it was absolute chaos."

But Dineen had caught the cooking bug. He studied professional cookery at DIT Cathal Brugha Street, between 2004 and 2007, where he met fellow Thyme at Home co-founder Moran.

While at college, he did an apprenticeship at L'Ecrivain, the Michelin-starred Dublin restaurant led by celebrity chef Derry Clarke, where he became friends with Venckunaite, a Lithuanian who has worked front-of-house, as a waitress and as a restaurant manager at a slew of the capital's restaurants. As a chef de partie and an assistant to Clarke, Dineen learned how to apply French and Irish culinary techniques to Irish produce. A friend of Clarke's needed a chef for a 33m-motoryacht that was being chartered out of the port of Antibes, so Dineen grabbed the chance to work aboard for six months. He then spent a year as one of 22 chefs at Gordon Ramsay's Michelin-starred restaurant at the Conrad hotel in Tokyo.

"Gordon would come over once in a while and he was really cool," Dineen says. "His style is very simple, relying on good-quality ingredients."

Dineen ended up spending most of the recession abroad, working as a chef on yachts in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, where he discovered new ingredients and dishes.

Then, in 2013, he bought and began to manage the Exuma Palms Hotel, a boutique hotel and restaurant on Great Exuma, a 60km-long island in the Bahamas. The Exumas are popular with the yachting fraternity, and celebrities from Eddie Murphy and Eddie Irvine to Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp have all owned private islands there.

By the end of 2016, after yet another stint as an executive chef to the super-rich aboard a yacht in the Caribbean, Dineen returned to Ireland, keen to put his knowledge of global cuisine and business experience into practice at Thyme at Home, a concept he had long discussed with his two friends.

Moran had forged a similar career trajectory to Dineen, having also started out in the food business at 16, studied at Cathal Brugha Street, worked at Dali's, and catered to wealthy clients abroad, including as a private chef in Long Island. As a chef at Naomi's Kitchen, the Glenageary-based gourmet catering business, he had also built up relationships with suppliers and farmers that he could tap into at Thyme at Home.

"We all have our own skill sets," Dineen says. "I had time on my hands when I came home so I worked with the website developer, did all the legal stuff and the banking. Then the three of us sat down and argued over menus and styles.

"I'm very much into Asian fusion, but Phil has been working non-stop feeding Irish people for 16 years so he knows what families need. Renata is very good with business, making sure the bills are paid on time and that we are doing everything by the book."

The three friends were determined to start small and grow very gradually. They tested the business on family and friends before launching in May.

"We spent a few weeks in April delivering to friends and family to make sure we were getting the temperatures and timings right," Dineen says. "We also needed to make sure the language of the recipes was universal and that we were not overcomplicating each dish for customers."

The startup was initially funded by the combined savings.

"We had to have a great van for deliveries rather than a banger...and we have refrigeration costs," Dineen says. "We had to buy 200 delivery boxes and photographing every meal on the menu property is quite expensive.

"We bled through our savings pretty quickly so we had to look at our options. We didn't want to get a loan and owe money, but I was in the fortunate position where I could go off and work on yachts for the summer."

The company's location, in Kilcoole Industrial Estate, is strategic: Thyme at Home is surrounded by suppliers, such as farms, The Fishman in Wicklow town and Flemings Butcher in Greystones.

"We have the freshest fish and we can get produce directly from the markets and box up the ingredients," Dineen says. "Sometimes it involves getting up at four in the morning, but once we get to the markets and see what's available, it's great fun.

"We never get bored. With restaurants, you could have the same menu for a whole season, but if a supplier tells us they are getting a huge amount of rocket the following week, we'll change the menu to reflect that.

Related: Use our calculator to estimate your small business loan repayments

Besides, Dineen thrives on being in the kitchen, whether in Wicklow or on a boat in the Mediterranean.

"I need the stress of a kitchen," he says. "L'Ecrivain was a very tough restaurant to work at. You couldn't mess up because Derry would let you know he was not happy with you. But I love it."

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