Why an early exec quit unicorn food delivery startup Deliveroo to launch a food business in the middle of a pandemic

  • A former Deliveroo exec has launched a market food hall startup in the middle of COVID-19.
  • Dan Warne was managing director of the unicorn startup until 2019, but has now launched Sessions Market as a community food hall concept to rejuvenate UK towns after the pandemic.
  • Warne says he hopes to bring his experience from Deliveroo, particularly about customer behavior, to the analogue world of food halls.
  • The first venue, Shelter Hall on Brighton seafront, launches July 4.
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On Saturday, the UK's bars, restaurants, and cinemas will fling their doors open to customers for the first time since a strict lockdown commenced in late March.

Given continued public health concerns around the coronavirus pandemic, it might be unwise to open a new food business right now.

But Dan Warne, a former high-level executive at British unicorn startup Deliveroo, has launched Sessions Market, a series of community-orientated food halls that will try to regenerate the UK's town centers. 

Warne joined delivery startup Deliveroo in 2014 as its twelfth employee, and he left in 2019. His job was to help scale the company, which was then only operating in the central part of London.

Over the five years Warne spent as Deliveroo's managing director, he helped to grow the startup into a tech unicorn worth billions. Deliveroo in 2019 raised $575 million in a funding round led by Amazon, and one source close to the food delivery startup estimates its valuation at more than $3 billion.

"From the moment I joined Deliveroo, I saw that as a stepping stone so ultimately being able to launch my own thing and that's this," said Warne. "There are lots of parallels to Deliveroo … It's a platform, albeit a physical one, but it's a platform that has to choose the very best restaurants and manage those restaurants in the right way."

Sessions Market's first venue, Brighton's Shelter Hall, is opening on July 4 and will bring together local restaurants to provide an upmarket dining experience.

Sessions will provide all the digital and capital infrastructure in exchange for a commission, so that the restaurants don't have to invest anything upfront. To comply with social distancing measures, customers will be able to order takeaway food from outside via an app, or served at the tables inside by staff. 

Having launched Deliveroo's Editions business — a network of delivery-only kitchens — in 2017, Warne understood the restaurant market and was well-versed in the capital infrastructure investments needed to build venues like Shelter Hall. But, launching a food hall has been a new experience.

"There is an incredible amount to learn in a short period of time … so we've had to bring in the right experience and the right staff in those areas," said Warne. "On the flip side of that, [coming from a different area], you bring perhaps a different perspective to the industry and you can apply some of the learnings that you get from working in the technology business to a bricks-and-mortar style business."

He hopes to leverage his experience of customer data at Deliveroo, bring a digital twist to the otherwise still-analogue food industry.

"We obsessed about customer data at Deliveroo," said Warne. In the restaurant industry, "of course they're obsessed by the customer, but they don't have the data to really model that customer behavior in quite the same way".

Warne wants to change that.

He hopes to track customers on the platform — from how they were acquired to what, where, and how they consume.

Over time, he believes this will help the startup evolve to reflect what customers want. That's why Warne tells investors he doesn't need to know what a food hall will look like in five years' time — often a question put to founders about their sector by venture capitalists.

"I don't need to know that because I'm going to enable this business with technology that affords me a deep understanding of consumer trends," he said. "I will flex it and move it with those trends in the same way that Netflix will serve the content before you really know that you want it."

He also hopes his experience helping to grow Deliveroo into a unicorn tech platform will help him to scale his new startup. 

"It's harder to figure out precisely how to scale it in the tech kind of way, where you don't need to be finding property," said Warne.

Warne plans to lease the Sessions brand out to third-party venues, in a similar way to successful pop-up gig startup Sofar Sounds. He likened this to Deliveroo, Uber Eats, and restaurants creating virtual restaurant brands that only serve delivery apps.

He said: "If you come up with brands that you want to run virtually across multiple different kitchens across the country, it helps if you can test them in front of a consumer in a live environment, which is something that we have." 

At a time when a lot of the hospitality industry is struggling, Warne hopes a venue that provides the necessary digital infrastructure to comply with social distancing measures and allows restaurants to avoid long-term lease arrangement will have a clear appeal.

"It's a model that's very well conditioned to this environment: it is highly supportive and conducive to helping some of these businesses get back on their feet," said Warne. "If you are concerned about keeping a distance from others, well you can order through our technology outside and just have it come to a window and pick it up and eat it on the beach a long way from anyone else."

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