What do you do on your lunch break, besides eat? Socialize with colleagues, make a pharmacy run, eat chicken salad at your desk between emails? According to a study done by the hiring company OfficeTeam, Americans are increasingly falling into the latter category, with 29% saying they work through their breaks. New food startup Rootastes is hoping to bring a greater sense of community to the workplace through the oft-neglected lunch hour.
“Even for one hour, we try,” says co-founder Naphat Chaiparinya. She sighs, visibly frustrated. “You’re supposed to have a good time with your good lunch.”
This mission is heavily influenced by the founders’ Thai origins. Co-founder Mint Pattanan Ketthin chimes in, “we like going out together, in a big group. We enjoy eating out. In Thai culture, getting together makes good relations between employees.” With this philosophy, Rootastes targets corporate employers who want to create a sense of community in the workplace.
Another substantial part of the Rootastes mission is addressing the abstraction of mealtime food that’s intensified in the past decades. Both Chaiparinya and Pattanan have experience working in the corporate world, and talk passionately about bridging the gap between workers and the farmers that produce their food. Reflecting on her time WWOOFing on an organic farm in Japan, Chaiparinya says, “Why is life so complicated? You want money to buy food, but you can grow the food yourself! Whatever you want to eat, you just have to wait for it.” It’s this farm-to-table mentality that inspire the founders to maximize partnerships with local farms and curate a seasonal menu in order to accommodate fluctuating supply.
For similarly minded restauranteurs and caterers who don’t know how to start finding suppliers, Rootastes offers a surprisingly simple path: Chaiparinya and Pattanan went to major distributors Baldor Food’s and Russo’s to taste produce from various local farms, then visited the farms which seemed most promising. “It’s good to learn how they make their product,” says Pattanan. “I work in marketing, but the most important thing is that I work in corporate social responsibility. Besides making good food for people, we want to help local farms as well.”
This initiative to find local ingredients demonstrates the applied passion with which Rootastes’ founders conduct their business. Halfway through our interview, Chaiparinya says with a laugh, “you don’t need to ask us questions -- we really want to talk about this!” The two of them had been up since six in the morning to work on an event, but become instantly re-animated when asked about the new corporate lifestyle they hope to encourage. Pattanan’s attraction to the startup industry lies in this problem-solving mentality: “We find the problem, and the company’s product and service are the solution. I want to create something that benefits the community.”
As for building the Rootastes team, Pattanan explains it happened organically: she and Chaiparinya were friends from before, and their executive chef, Wachira Sittikong, was a friend of a friend. Coming from a long line of family-owned leading Thai restaurants in Boston and Massachusetts, Sittikong studied business and worked in the financial district before attending Le Cordon Bleu.
Instrumental in the creation of new dishes, Chef Sittikong helped design the Rootastes menu. Clients choose packages that consist of a carbohydrate base, like white rice or specialty grain, vegetables such as umami medley mushroom or sesame spinach, a protein, perhaps baked spinach or grilled shrimp, and lastly a sauce, be it ginger teriyaki or garlic basil aioli. The menu is extensive, and packages vary in number of servings and scope of choice. Since the spotlight is on the ingredients themselves, the actual cooking process is simple: a bit of seasoning, with house-made herb oil. And it seems to work -- Pattanan recalls one happy employee who told her it was the best lunch he’d had in two years.
When it comes to scaling the business, Chaiparinya and Pattanan take a measured approach. In business for just two months, they are entirely self-funded and use a commercial kitchen to prepare food. “We just want to make this happen first,” says Chaiparinya. “We proved to ourselves already that we can make it, but we have to prove that to other people. We got a good answer from our customers, so for me it’s a good start. But for the next step, of course funding is the most important. We know that right now.” Pattanan agrees: “The most important thing is the food. We want to make sure we have a very good product before we jump into technology.”
At the moment, Rootastes clients can order through a chat bot on the company Facebook page, as well as the company’s website. But Pattanan envisions, in the near future, incorporating slack, the inter-company messaging system. “People already know our product, they know our food,” she explains. “When we bring in technology so we can reach new markets, new customers.” Chaiparinya says that most of Rootastes’ clients are companies that employ Boston’s extensive millennial population, a demographic that’s both open to trying new things and interested in sustainable sourcing and transparency in where their food comes from.
Rootastes is just one company in a community of startups that take advantage of Branchfood’s numerous resources. Pattanan and Chaiparinya have met with Branchfood mentors several times to discuss business development, and appreciate the sense of like-minded community they share with other entrepreneurs they’ve met through the organization. “The Boston community is very supportive for entrepreneurs,” says Pattanan. Chaiparinya adds, “It’s been over our expectations. We’re looking forward to using more facilities here -- we should, but we’re so busy!”