What do you get when you put a web developer and a graphic designer in the same room with a laptop and a few cuppas? You get Yuppiechef on your doorstep, that’s what. We meet the faces, the founders, Andrew Smith and Shane Dryden, behind the brand that changed South African kitchens forever…
By MALU LAMBERT
Photographs by BRUCE TUCK
The smell of freshly brewed espresso fills the air. It’s not just phones that are smart these days; the
Nespresso Expert and Aeroccino Milk Frother bubbling away on the kitchen counter is an intuitive Bluetooth coffee machine – and it’s smartly doing its thing while we wait, seated around it. The coffee comes served in flame-coloured Le Creuset espresso cups, with just the right amount of crema on top.
Sitting just across from me are Yuppiechef’s co-founders, Andrew Smith (managing director) and Shane Dryden (director). It’s a cosy scene, but we’re not actually in a real kitchen; rather, the counter is in the centre of their new walk-in retail store at Willowbridge Mall in Tyger Valley, Cape Town.
It’s Yuppiechef, come to life. The kitchen and homeware e-tailer is now in its eleventh year of trade – and it all began with a couple of laptops in a lounge in Plumstead.
“We’ve been friends for nearly 20 years,” says Andrew (37). Andrew is the slightly shorter and more clean-cut of the two. Shod in a dark suit, he wears his hair slicked back, while Shane (43) is a bit of a gentle giant and more casually dressed. Their personal styles are reflected in their skill sets too.
“Shane is more on the design side, while I’m more technical,” explains Andrew, coffee in hand. Both are originally from Pietermaritzburg and they independently moved down to Cape Town to pursue their professional careers. Even more serendipitously, they ended up as next-door neighbours.
At the time, Andrew was involved in a web agency, while Shane worked in graphic design. They were both fed up with doing work that paid by the hour. “We had this dream of having something that just ticked over,” says Shane. So, they decided to take out three days and “just start something”.
Andrew recalls: “This was in 2005 and there were four of us involved: Shane, myself and two others in a room with our laptops. We each came up with a product we could sell online – and the one we settled on was called the Bug Zapper, which was a racket for swatting flies and mosquitos…”
“Nobody bought it at first, except for Andrew’s mother,” laughs Shane. “It didn’t go viral on any level, but over time, it started to sell.” (In fact, they sold over R1 million worth of Bug Zappers in eight years, before handing over the site.)
Not satisfied, they kept scouring the web to identify common items people were looking for but couldn’t find. This saw them selling country flags at one point. “We were even about to get into a rat exterminator business – but we needed something we were proud of.”
The idea for Yuppiechef started to take root in 2006. Shane – who identifies as a foodie and, in fact, wanted to be a chef at one point – started thinking about selling kitchen tools online. So, he asked a chef friend of his: “What are a handful of kitchen tools you couldn’t live without?” Her response was: “I don’t know about a whole lot, but there’s this one…” It was a pair of Cuisipro tongs with silicone clasps that you couldn’t easily get in South Africa.
“We realised there was a disconnect between kitchen products that people wanted to use or had seen on TV, and the availability in the country. There was a real gap.”
In August 2006 they went live. “Our first sale went to Shane’s dad,” laughs Andrew. “It was three months before we took in a sale from a person we didn’t know; we asked each other: ‘Is this your family member?’.”
“When we sent this client the product, we wrote a letter to go with it. We wanted to show her we were human beings and not a robotic arm.” Since then, they’ve written over 1 million cards, a responsibility that’s shared by the entire workforce, including Andrew and Shane.
Andrew highlights: “It took us a year to get our first 200 customers.” (Their names are all frosted onto a window in the customer service area of the main office for posterity.) “And it was five years before we took a full salary.
We knew if we expected too much too quickly, we could have killed it.” Shane jumps in: “A big part of our story is that we want people to feel good in the kitchen. We’re there for ordinary people; aspiring foodies who want to try all these different processes and feel good while they’re doing it.”
From stocking one brand in the beginning to now more now than 100 brands and over 5 000 products at their online portfolio, it’s easy to say it’s been a success; why then, would they make the move from the digital space to the analogue?
“People have said, ‘Oh, you’re moving backwards’,” says Andrew with a wry smile. “But it’s the way the physical space and online work together. We’re closing the loop, in terms of building the best shopping experience. Our store is a response to a changing global dynamic in retail.
Consumers increasingly expect cross-channel capability from brands and while the assumption is that traditional shops should be moving online, so too is there pressure on online brands to have a physical presence.” They’re not alone in this thinking: giants of the e-commerce industry, like Amazon, have also launched physical outlets.
Though, of course, it’s impossible for Yuppiechef to stock everything in store that they have available online. The physical shelves will hold around 20% of what they sell. The experience remains an interactive one; the products have QR codes that unlock ratings.
There’s a “genius bar” too, where shoppers can connect with the online site to browse products in store, or even purchase items for delivery or collection. The pricing will be the same for both in-store and online purchases. And they’re very proud of the hand-held point-of-sale device they developed in-house.
They’ve also added a wedding registry service, gift wrapping and the ability to subscribe to food-, crafts- and beer services on site. (There’s talk of a test kitchen too.) “I spend a lot of time here,” explains Andrew. “It’s easy to see how people are tempted very differently in a physical environment versus an online space. It’s more fun to browse around in an actual store!
“People also do come to look at and feel the products; say, for example, it’s difficult to sense the weight of a spoon online. Overall, the response has been great – our superfans come in here and go ‘Wow!’ They love being in the physical representation of the store.” Superfans? Yes, there’s a legion of them.
Yuppiechef’s dedication to customer care has earned them an avid following; in fact, 60% of their business is from returning customers. It’s no wonder they’ve engendered such loyalty when they style themselves as a “customer service business that happens to sell kitchen tools”.
So, just how are they selling these kitchen tools? The interior with its natural timbers and grey undertones was designed by ARRCC, a Cape-based interior design studio. It’s warm and inviting, but it doesn’t come across as overly designed. “We didn’t want it to be so design-orientated that it lost its functionality,” weighs in Shane. “We wanted our products to be represented as they are and to be accessible. Design plays a part and our team on the floor plays a part.”
Speaking of which, while Yuppiechef began with just the two of them, it’s now grown to over 100 employees. “To find, attract and to keep growing, our employees have been the most challenging parts of the business for us, but at the same time, the most rewarding – we’re so appreciative of the culture of care within Yuppiechef.
“We were just two guys from a lounge in Plumstead, and we’re proud to have produced something relevant and pioneering,” continues Shane. As for the question of: “Will there be more stores?, Andrew simply responds: “It was never the plan to open just one.”
Yuppiechef has announced the launch of a second physical store, set to open 1 July 2018 in Gardens Shopping Centre in the Cape Town CBD. The new store launches just nine months after the first brick-and-mortar Yuppiechef store opened. “Our first store has been incredibly well-supported, so opening a second store felt like the natural next step,” says Andrew.
“The feedback we’re getting from our Willowbridge customers is that they’re enjoying the ability to both ‘click and collect’ as well as view the product in-store, while still taking delivery at their homes or offices,” says Andrew. “We don’t want our customers to see Yuppiechef as either an online retailer or a physical store – we want to be seen as a single retail brand, and shoppers should interact with us on their terms, whenever they want and wherever they are”.
In a way, Yuppiechef has welcomed everyone into the kitchen, from simply supplying the utensils to cook with, as well as offering the tools to plug into a foodie community – from recipes and how-to videos to fun, interactive social media. This store feels like the physical manifestation of that welcoming spirit.