Charlie Yi, the CEO and founder of WeWork member Zoku Sushi, is building his company with the future in mind. From a small-scale test market in South America, to the bustling streets of New York, Charlie’s vision for sustainable sushi on-demand is thriving within a tight-knit community of clients. Read on to discover how Charlie strategizes, motivates, and, ultimately, grows his business.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your business journey, and how you got started in the food delivery space?
A: My journey to creating Zoku Sushi started in the world of finance. I have a business degree and spent much of my career working for global financial firms. But along the way, I joined the team at Kozmo.com, one of the first online food delivery platforms (long before Seamless and Postmates made a name for themselves).
My experience with Kozmo.com really got me thinking about how to improve the online business-to-consumer (B2C) experience. What does the end user of food delivery need? How can we provide a friction-free experience for them? And so on. After a stint in venture capital and private equity, I decided to come back to the food delivery space—this time with my own concept for the marketplace: Zoku Sushi.
Today, the off-premises food market is worth over $100 billion, with 65 percent catering and 35 percent restaurant delivery. More than ever, people want to stay home, watch Netflix, and enjoy their meal time. The notion of always having to go to a restaurant to have a high-quality meal is changing.
The first Zoku Sushi began operationally in São Paulo, Brazil, led by ex-Nobu chef Hideto Shimizu. He became our executive chef five years ago, and helped launch the current form of our business. In choosing Brazil, our intention was to incubate the concept in São Paulo, a city that mirrored the market condition of New York. It was a cost-effective way to prove out the model and build our technology. After the technology platform was built, and the business model proven, it was time to scale into the New York market.
Today, we are a sushi delivery and catering services company; we’re not a restaurant, we’re a digital kitchen. Online is the only way to access our cuisine. You place an order and we bring it to you. That’s why we’ve had success serving big, global companies like WeWork, where employees work together in a communal space. Food is their common thread—needed by everyone—and we’re here to provide it.
But opening Zoku Sushi wasn’t just about the customer experience. I had also become passionate about food sustainability, and wanted to offer a delicious yet sustainable option to the market in support of that.
Q: How is Zoku Sushi changing the game for sustainable food delivery?
A: We don’t source specific types of fish, such as eel, or farmed fish, to support those populations and the health of our customers. For example, many people don’t know this, but there is very little wild salmon in the Atlantic Ocean anymore. That’s why we don’t source salmon or bluefin tuna, or a lot of fish we consider either endangered or unhealthy to consume due to where they are farmed.
When we do source fish, it tends to be smaller varieties, such as smaller tuna, fluke, or Spanish mackerel. We source in-season wild cod at the highest standards, and with plenty of stock.
Zoku also offers a wide variety of vegetable sushi. In fact, vegetarian dishes represent about 15 percent of our sales—appealing to both vegans and non-vegans alike. We provide a vegan combination that you can’t really source anywhere else in New York.
Q: How has your partnership with WeWork helped you grow your business?
A: We moved into multiple WeWork locations about two years ago. At the time, I was looking for a space we could grow into, and now we have a team of 12 in our WeWork office.
WeWork and Zoku are a perfect product market fit. We launched our business in October 2018, and our catering services and digital kitchen in February 2019—and broke even after four months of operation. We attribute a lot of that success to WeWork.
WeWork is the physical community, and Zoku is the content or service that plugs into that platform. One of the reasons we were able to do that successfully is because Zoku and WeWork both have similar values: sustainability, sharing, and community. WeWork members understood the mission behind our company.
In addition, WeWork community managers had a great experience with our product, reached out to other community managers on Slack, and promoted us internally. It really helped us. They were able to help us expand our footprint even further.
Because of our shared values and the WeWork community we tapped into, we’ve been able to serve our products to 60 WeWork locations in New York. Today, for example, we did four sushi days in four WeWork buildings at the same time. Next up, we’re offering Zoku Inside—a permanent offering at WeWork 33 Irving, which provides free delivery, on-demand. To meet our growth, we’re constantly hiring part-time and full-time staff for production, logistics, tech, customer service, and sales.
Q: How has the WeWork global member network and sense of community contributed to your business’s growth?
A: The community aspect of WeWork is such a unique value prop—in fact, it’s the aspect that made us choose WeWork as our office space originally. It’s extremely valuable to be able to share knowledge, tactics, and business ideas with other companies in the same workplace, especially in WeWork’s food labs. For example, we have a number of WeWork enterprise members, especially in tech, who are now customers of ours. We’ve been able to tailor our product to their needs with an immediate, in-office feedback loop.
There’s tremendous learning from your peers that comes from that face-to-face interaction. It sharpens your focus and your overall value in the marketplace. In a short time, we were able to get very clear on which products and services we would gain the most value from, in order to make in-market decisions. Even in the early days of moving into our WeWork office, it was easy to identify the right teams and people to be able to help us, all in one place. I was even able to hire a developer who actually sat across from me and a bookkeeper through the WeWork member network, and even found our insurance company that Zoku uses to this day.
Q: What advice would you share with other WeWork members who are hoping to leverage our global network?
A: Select a place that is going to make your life easier as you run your business. WeWork has certainly done that for us. Depending on your stage of growth, if you’re a startup looking for feedback within a tight-knit community, visit some WeWork locations and get a sense of the vibe and energy and companies that are members of that building. Is it a hub for tech teams, creative teams, or sales managers? Though consistent in quality, every WeWork has a different subculture, depending on location. Take some tours and understand the vibe of the office you’re selecting. That being said, regardless of location, the community management teams have all been fantastic to work with.
Also, as an entrepreneur, you have to put yourself out there to connect with other business decision makers. WeWork’s community teams often host happy hours and events that are very helpful in connecting with your peers. Take advantage, and use your level of engagement within the community to make the connections you need to grow your business.
WeWork empowers small businesses, startups, and individuals to focus on doing their best work by offering premium workspace at the best value with the flexibility to grow and evolve. Whether you need a hot desk (a guaranteed place to work from a WeWork location), a dedicated desk, or a private office, WeWork has the space for you and your team to be productive.
Marnie Williams is a global content marketing manager at WeWork. She writes about the intersection of business and real estate. Previously, she created data-driven editorial and video at Oracle.