When Adrian Tay was growing up, the child of working parents in Malaysia, he’d come home from school to find lunch waiting for him in the form of a tiffin; a hot meal prepared in someone else’s kitchen that was delivered in a reusable metal container.
“We ate whatever they were making that day, but it was always good,” said Tay.
While the tiffin concept is still very much in use in India, it has spread throughout Southeast Asia as well. Meals are delivered by bike or motorbike, and customers return the empty containers when their next delivery comes.
Tay was traveling in India a few years ago, on sabbatical from his corporate career. Seeing tiffins hanging from bicycle handlebars reminded him of the concept once more.
“If they can do this in India, why not in San Francisco?” he thought.
And he’s given the idea a particular Bay Area spin: Green Tiffin has launched this month, offering freshly-cooked healthy vegetarian meals delivered to offices in downtown San Francisco – by electric bike.
Photo slideshow by Wendy Goodfriend
Tay has years of experience in the corporate world, working for companies such as Mars and Coca-Cola. He was always incredibly ambitious, he said, and finally, a few years ago, while living in Sydney, he had an epiphany.
“I was living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, where I could afford whatever I wanted, but it struck me that the gratification of the job I was doing wasn’t there anymore,” he said. “I began to wonder what the purpose was of selling brown sugar water and candy bars.”
Tay knew his gift was in marketing, but he wanted to put it to use selling something he felt passionate about.
He quit his job and went traveling. Interestingly, he became vegetarian while in India, because it was there that he realized he could enjoy a delicious meal just as much there, without missing meat.
Since Tay had already lived in San Francisco prior, he returned here and began testing the idea out on friends and family. He then began developing recipes with the help of friends. Tay did not have a professional culinary background. So far, the business is small enough that he personally shops at the Alemany and Civic Center farmers' markets for all the produce they use, with most of it coming from local organic farms.
The idea is simple; customers subscribe to the service, paying a $25 refundable deposit for the tiffin itself, which is returned each time a new delivery comes. Customers can order one to two meals a week, for $11 a meal and the price drops to $10 a meal if ordered three times a week or more. Delivery is $2, and Tay is working on having pick-up points where people can walk to get their meals to both get out of the office and save on the delivery charge. The tiffins come in a reusable burlap holder with a bamboo spork, which they keep. The holder is returned with the tiffin inside.
Tay spent about nine months working on the concept, developing recipes, branding, and such and now has about 100 regular subscribers. He’s making about 50 meals a day so far, (which is a lot for a few weeks in business, he says).
In addition to himself, he’s hired several employees, with two in the kitchen, three making deliveries and two doing promotional work.
Tay says he has about 70 items on the menu, so that even if one subscribed five days a week, one would only experience repeated items after about three to four weeks.
While vegans and gluten-free eaters can easily be accommodated, it’s much more difficult to accommodate individual preferences, like “I don’t like mushrooms or green peppers.” But because the menu is announced Friday the week before, a subscriber can change their days with enough advance notice, if there’s something they want to avoid.
Tay says he thought long and hard whether to offer a meat option, and decided against it.
“Most of our customers aren’t vegetarian, but are flexitarians who want to eat healthy,” he said. He doesn’t expect anyone to order from him every day (though he’s fine if they do) and feels people who want meat for lunch can get it elsewhere.
“Eating vegetarian just fits better with our model of using less energy and conserving resources,” he said.
So what would a subscriber get on an average day?
On the day I sampled Green Tiffin, the upper tier (each tiffin has two tiers) was filled with marinated mushrooms and onions over a bed of baby spinach and arugula, and the bottom tier held a Penang curry with Kabocha squash, snow peas, Japanese eggplant and tofu topped with toasted coconut with a brown and wild rice mix on the side.
The mushrooms were especially delicious (they were marinated in a mix of red wine and sherry vinegars overnight, with fresh herbs like parsley and oregano) and while the curry could have been spicier for my liking, it was not at all lacking for flavor. The portion was more than enough for me (though consumers with a larger appetite can specify the “green me up” option for extra).
While the meal I got didn’t include any superfoods like hemp or chia seeds or koji berries, those are sometimes in the mix, and every once in awhile a dessert is offered too. Raw foods like zucchini noodles are in rotation as are Asian noodle dishes, veggie burgers made from ingredients such as lentils, beets and nuts, and collard green rolls. Tay is dedicated to the notion of making his customers feel sated but not with an over-the-top food coma that makes returning to work difficult.
He’s trying to find that balance where his food is healthy but doesn’t sacrifice anything in terms of having excellent flavor, too. Menus show influences from a wide variety of countries.
“Eating something healthy that tastes good shouldn’t be that difficult,” he said.
Tay is especially proud of how little waste the company produces (since customers order in advance, he knows exactly how much food to buy) and the tiffin system produces no trash. The electric bikes contribute no fossil fuels to the environment.
He can cater company lunches up to 20 servings, he said, and his delivery area includes downtown and SOMA to the Civic Center.
Tay has funded the venture by himself so far, and is looking into becoming a B Corporation. He is wary of outside investors to scale up because he doesn’t want to compromise his values, and once profitable, he intends to donate a portion of each sale to anti-hunger or nutrition education programs.
“It happens in businesses all the time, where the goals of the investors are different from that of the original founder, and certain ideals are compromised, like no longer sourcing food from local farms to cut corners,” he said. “I am committed to not letting that happen.”