A keen interest in food together with a number of stints in high profile kitchens set James Nathan, founder and CEO of online platform Food Orbit, on a mission to change the world.
A born and bred Londoner, Nathan identified a number of key issues in the kitchens that he worked in throughout the UK, specifically in relation to how chefs sourced their produce and suppliers. He found that there was a real disconnect between chefs and where their supplies actually came from due to the amount of middlemen that operated to take some of the cream off the crop.
When Nathan moved to Sydney three and a half years ago, he found a similar problem. All the chefs were really passionate about their food, but any connection with the actual producer was rarely evident. And it was from here that Nathan decided to take matters into his own hands with the inception of the Food Orbit platform.
The platform gives wholesale buyers such as chefs and restaurateurs the ability to connect and trade directly with local farmers and producers online. The platform shortens the supply chain and cuts out middlemen to ensure that farmers receive a fair price for their product, in addition to providing chefs with access to the best local produce available.
Not even a year after the platform’s initial launch, Food Orbit has been nominated for the Community Impact Award at the 2014 Talent Unleashed Awards, and will be representing Australia in the global finals which are judged by Sir Richard Branson and Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple.
Understandably, the achievement is something that Nathan is quite pleased about.
“It’s brilliant,” says Nathan. “We were up against some stiff competition so it’s obviously great to be representing Australia in the finals for the awards.”
Regarding the inspiration behind the platform, Nathan says that he simply followed his calling.
“I started just following my passion for food by working for free in different kitchens of Michelin starred restaurants in the UK - which was all in my own time after my full time job. I just approached different people and asked about working in their kitchens and I saw some really obvious problems," he says.
“All the chefs were really passionate about their food but it just didn’t seem much more than a commodity really. And then I came over to Australia three and a half years ago, and again started getting involved in a lot of kitchens.
“When I came here, I just thought the food was incredible compared to what we have in the UK… (But) everything I read was that farmers were going out of business, and that Coles and Woolworths had this huge dominance over the food system… none of it really stacked up.”
Nathan said that the problems he found in the kitchens of Australia mirrored what he had experienced in the UK and after a but of research, he found that no one had really tapped into technology to attempt to solve the issue.
“We set out with the idea and mapped out how many people there were in the food chain between the grower growing the product, and the end user being the chef buying it… There were so many people in the middle. Some of them added value and some of them didn’t. So we just tried to see if we could use technology to act as a marketing platform and a sales platform for farmers, and essentially, put these guys directly in touch with chefs in one aggregated place.”
Since its initial launch, Nathan says that the platform has evolved to include a range of additional suppliers and wholesalers so chefs can purchase everything that they need – all of their food and drink – in one place.
At present, Food Orbit is only available within NSW and is being used by the team at Bronte’s Three Blue Ducks, along with the Southern Highland’s Biota Dining, and the Bucket List in Bondi.
Nathan says that he plans to roll out the platform nationally, however there are still a few “little creases” that need to be ironed out before an Australia wide launch.
“We have done a strategic partnership Market Boomer (an online procurement platform for hotel groups), and they have given us access to a large number of their suppliers which will help us roll out across the whole country,” says Nathan.
“That’s the bit that is really exciting for our next stage of growth, and that is really where we will be able to grow outside of the NSW region. (Being NSW based) was one of the limitations… we had a lot of demand from farmers in Tasmania, but we had all of our buyers based in Sydney, so with the model that we previously had, it was very difficult to build out the business… but now we can focus on expanding across the whole country quite quickly."
Nathan says that is main focus now is to get chefs to purchase all of their food and drink through the platform by getting their existing suppliers on-board.
“The main thing that we are doing now as opposed to going out and getting farmers on board and then approaching chefs saying ‘hey guys, we’ve got these great farmers and great products’, now we are going to the chefs and asking them who their current suppliers are... we then get them on board so chefs can start buying from all their existing suppliers straight away on the platform,” he says.
In addition to solving supply issues, Nathan says that the platform enables chefs to solve a host administration duties and costings, right down to profitability per dish.
“Some of the main issues that chefs communicated to us were around the hassles of ordering food - that it takes too much time, you can’t compare prices easily between suppliers, the invoices are all over the place, the data is all over the place… So our real focus now is on the chef, and being able to have an aggregated source of data, payment, invoicing, pricing, planning… absolutely everything all stored in the cloud and available from a mobile, tablet or computer and really just giving them the tools that they need to spend less time sitting behind a computer, and more time doing what they like, which is spending time in the kitchen.
“It’s amazing how many chefs still use spreadsheets to do food costing, and then they get their invoices which are all on paper. But with us, we are talking about linking with the POS data so you have got all of your revenue split by all of your revenue items. Then you’ve got your food costing in our system which is all live and up to date which then allows you to calculate profitability by dish and see it live on your smartphone as its happening. I think all that kind of stuff is what chefs’ dream of but never really thought would be a reality, so hopefully we can do that.”