A veteran of the food industry, Eli Feldman knows restaurants. His company, Clothbound, stems directly from the challenges of building a strong staff. Through an easy-to-use app, the service connects candidates with job offers, facilitating the process on both ends of the industry. We talked to Eli about his experience with crowdsourcing and the shifting workforce dynamics in food.
Branchfood: Where did you find inspiration for Clothbound?
Eli Feldman: It was a matter of looking at the food industry -- where are some of the biggest challenges? We felt strongly that challenges around the workforce were the most complex, interesting, and important.
BF: Were these some challenges that came up for you personally in the restaurant industry?
EF: Absolutely. You know, finding and hiring great people was the number one focus of my job and it's always been hard, but I watched it get progressively more difficult over ten years. It has a lot to do with urban and digital trends. As more and more traditional retail moves online, we still have physical spaces that need to be filled in cities. You can't go out to eat online and you can't eat megabytes of data, so we're increasingly seeing ground-floor retail being synonymous with food service, which corresponds with the proliferation of restaurants and a shortage in the labor pool.
BF: How did Clothbound evolve from that environment?
EF: About two years ago, we started a crowdsourced effort called Three Hundred Ideas that asked, "can we create 300 ideas to move the needle on labor force issues in Boston's restaurants?" We brought together chefs, restauranteurs, city officials, design thinkers, university professors. We sent it out to thousands of people, then brought a diverse group of stakeholders to sort of push back and beat up on the ideas. It emerged that there may be a shortage of people to work in Boston's restaurants, but there's not a shortage of people who could benefit from a good restaurant job. It became a question of access and awareness: how do we make good jobs more readily available to people who need them? It became a question of infrastructure: how do we reach people where they are in the context of their life? And you know, the way that the majority of restaurant hirings occur is on Craigslist and other one-sided job boards, which is sort of the equivalent of putting a flyer on a tree and hoping the right person walks by. Second to the Craigslists of the world, hiring through reference is the primary way that restaurants find people. But as the labor pool gets stretched thinner, that pipeline dries up. We thought if we could modernize the infrastructure of the job search and the hiring process, we'd have a better platform upon which to improve the experience and efficiency and efficacy of that whole side of the industry.
BF: How many users do you have?
EF: We have about sixty-five restaurants live on the platform, hiring. We've consciously kept that number low as we find liquidity and understand how the marketplace interacts, how each side interacts. We targeted about seventy-five restaurants, bakeries and such in the Boston area. We launched with eighteen and we're now at sixty-five. On the candidate side, we just passed 2,000 active users.
BF: It sounds like you're being fairly cautious about scaling.
EF: As of right now, I'd say we're trying to be thoughtful about balance in the marketplace to ensure we're delivering real value to both sides. If we onboarded 200 restaurants but didn't have candidates to fulfill their needs, we wouldn't be delivering any value. On the flip side, if we don't continue to add restaurants at a certain pace, we don't post opportunities that are attractive to the candidate base as it grows. We're playing the marketplace game.
BF: Has being based in Boston's technology sector influenced your work at Clothbound?
EF: We cultivated a number of good relationships through the Mass Challenge program. Clothbound lives in two worlds -- it's both a technology product and a restaurant product. We live straddling the technology and restaurant communities with a deeper background in the latter. We're continuing to build new relationships on the technology side. But you know, the problem we're addressing is a nation-wide issue because the forces that are prompting greater restaurant growth are also nation-wide --the problem we're addressing is not unique to Boston by any stretch.
Eli spoke at Branchfood's Mystery Speaker Series in Boston, MA on March 23rd, 2016. To learn more about Clothbound, visit http://clothbound.com/. Interview conducted by Chloe Barran.