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.

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2 tweets made me go Paleo for my startup

“There were no red bell peppers in the Stone Age!”

“You can only eat raw meat, right?”

“Is butter allowed?”

These are the questions I face as I take on the Paleo diet, from outsiders who know little about this new culinary choice. It’s a little painful and awkward to correct people.

A lot of Chewse customers and potentials have reached out to us about meal options for Paleo, and they are definitely feeling the pain. As a founder, I want to feel that pain too.

Twitter _ Interactions-1

And even MOAR pain:

matt harley (mattharley) on Twitter-1

One of our core beliefs at Chewse is that food is an emblem of identity. That what’s on your plate has become just as important as what’s in your closet or who you hang out with. And nothing has reminded me more of this fact than when I challenge myself to take on Paleo for 30 days — and not simply a new diet, but a new lifestyle.

What the hell is Paleo

Paleo diets encourage you to eat the right fats, anything that moves (animals), and to avoid grains. The basic health principle is that modern foods disrupt our digestive system and lead to killer diseases — foods that we should never have processed for consumption. This includes bread (celiac disease) and processed sugar (diabetes). The two things I love most.

As a diet that’s less than 15 years old and somewhat crowd-sourced, there is no single answer. In my opinion, the diet tries to maximize two feats: living primal and living healthy (which are sometimes mutually exclusive). So when I get questions about why I can’t eat legumes (beans, peas, lentils, peanuts etc.) even though ostensibly they were around in primal/caveman times, I understand why it’s confusing.
Note: Legumes apparently are poisonous in their raw form, due to certain chemicals that need to be processed in order to prevent them doing damage to the human body. Chemistry nerds can read up here.

For a great infographic on the subject, check out Paleohacks. For a cheatsheet, I reference Paleoeffect. And when I want some damn dessert, I salivate over recipes at paleOMG.

Why founders should always feel pain

While I’m still unconvinced of Paleo’s magic, I do prescribe to the underlying principle that founders should spend some quality time feeling the pain of their customers.

I worked with administrative assistants to order company meals while at USC. And the painful 2 hours that I took to order a catering for 30 people was the most valuable 120 minutes I’ve ever experienced.

2 hours of pain brought me through 3 years of my startup.

You know when you see someone get stabbed in a movie and you wince? A little flesh wound can be good for you as a founder (please don’t take that the wrong way!). There’s something utterly visceral about going through what they go through — and that fuels your need to build a product or service that solves it.

Go feel the burn. Your customers will love you for it.