30 Days of Pain, Pork, and Paleo

I went Paleo for 30 days to get closer to potential customers of my startup, who expressed their own frustrations with low carb catering options. It involved a great deal of restriction, awkward conversations, puréed dessert recipes, and big hunkin’ slabs of meat. What I came away with is an even stronger appreciation for how much culinary choices shape identity and why startup founders should consistently remind themselves of the pain they are trying to solve for.

Deconstructed Spam Musubi Burger: although the grain-filled bun had to be abandoned, this was a delicious Paleo treat.

Paleo is a diet that combines dietary choices available to our primal ancestors with the belief that processed foods account for an overwhelming amount of terrible diseases that plague modern-day humans.

My diet consisted of meat (mostly grilled, avoiding fried or breaded varieties), eggs, and vegetables. It excluded rice, bread, dairy, processed sugar, cheese, yogurt, beer, and every other thing that I normally find delicious. For my friends who know that I’ve been vegetarian for 10 years, this came as a huge shock — but I wanted to viscerally understand the pains of a growing segment of my customers. I wanted to feel the burn.

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Date, Banana, + Coconut Flour Donut: since regular flour has grains (non-paleo), coconut or nut-based flours are handy substitutes.

I’ll admit, by the end of the 30 days, I was craving my old diet (PITA AND HUMMUS!). But here’s some of the valuable takeaways:

  • Learn to love eggs: Eggs were the perfect protein to satisfy me at any point in the day (including sneaking their way into my dessert concoctions). Finding alternatives that weren’t meat was painful.
  • Deal with food going to waste: This was one of my first frustrations with eating out on Paleo. Carbs are foundational to dishes (rice, pasta, etc.). And they have to be avoided. That means food is constantly left over, and you’re left without the food you need to fill you up.
  • Tell waiters you have celiac disease: No matter how hippie California-land may seem, not one restaurant owner I spoke to knew what Paleo was. The response was a lifted brow and, “Come again?” When I explained myself, they would shout, “OH, so you have celiac disease? We can accomodate that!”
    At Chewse, we work with a variety of restaurants in Los Angeles — and it still confounds me that they don’t know the difference between vegan and vegetarian. So it shouldn’t surprise me that they wouldn’t get Paleo. This was a big pain every single time I ate out. Sometimes, you want an easy meal without having to lead a sermon on your diet.
  • Prepare to get lambasted over otherwise peaceful dinners: People reacted negatively when I told them I was Paleo. I mean, downright offended. As if I had told them that their high-carb lifestyle was going to prematurely kill them (note: not what I said). As if I took my primal diet literally and started cooking meat over fire at the table.
    It made me feel defensive about my choice, and required that I better prepare for the naysayers or avoid bringing up the topic altogether. It also created an immediate bond with others on Paleo. We were put into an “us vs. them” mentality, which meant that we were compelled to create a partnership to find haven in. I had several group dinners where the other Paleo guests at the table and I ended up commiserating over limited food options and stigmas. But it also had the positive benefit of a community where we would get jazzed discussing fitness programs, outdoors activities, and philosophies on organic and farm-grown agriculture.
    Social situations became kind of painful.

So am I still Paleo?

Bone Marrow at Lolinda steakhouse in SF: tastes like butter.

Nope (even though tasting bone marrow was pretty freaking fantastic). I can’t say that I found Paleo to be a sustainable diet for me. I didn’t feel the extra boost in energy that some people get with the low-carb, high-protein diet.  It didn’t quite work for my body. I definitely met people who loved the food options and felt it naturally fit with their lifestyle, and I absolutely applaud them.

What I am left with is a healthy respect  for my customers on Paleo – I felt the pain urgently. I was put in a position where a miscommunication about my lunch could mean no food. That kind of urgency makes you learn and commiserate, quickly.

Understanding and listening to the customer can be really hard when your customers have a huge range of diets that are hard to keep up with. I hope to translate those frustrations I learned from the last 30 days into a language that restaurants understand and can accomodate when preparing meals. To be a true marketplace, we need to create a common dialogue that connects customer needs to restaurant deliveries, from soup to nuts.

As a founder, feel the pain. Listen in. Solve pain in a lucrative way. That’s how we win.

Special thanks to Ben Braverman of HeyZap — one of the original tweets who inspired the journey and who took the time to review the post. If you want to learn more about what I’m building, follow me on Twitter and salivate over delicious office lunches at Chewse.com.

#500strong

Team @ 500 Startups

Say what’s up to my NorCal family!

I’ve decided to move up to the Bay to accept an offer from 500 Startups. That means Chewse flies north for the winter (with Jeff, my co-founder, in tow). For those of you who may gush over celebrities back in Hollywood, consider these guys the stars of the Valley. For a local Angeleno, I have little sentiment for celebs back home. Here, I’m utterly starstruck.

The incubator ecosystem is a relatively new one (for those who don’t know, here’s a high-level overview). If Y-C is the Harvard of incubators, I’ll make the argument that 500 is USC. Some striking similarities include:

  • Being welcomed into the “500 Family,” the phrase posted on almost all USC promotional materials and lovingly referred to as the “Trojan Family”
  • Tapping into an incredibly powerful alumni network (Day 1 had us attend an Alumni Panel and hazing of sorts…)
  • Fratting out (or being a band geek, if you agree with founder Dave McClure’s estimation)
    • Caveat: We actually enjoyed GOOD beer and hard apple cider the first night of pitching. No Nadi Light or Keystone here. Togas seem to be optional.
So what can you expect to hear from me here? Certainly no references to sunshine, sunbathing, or sunlight. Possibly a little startup nerdiness (overuse of vocabulary like “optimizing” and “hustling”). Plenty of good eating. I’ve started a map of places to eat near the offices at 500, as I make my culinary journey down Castro St:

Love to all my LA homies I leave behind. You’ll be tanner than I am in 4 months.