Hoya Highlight: Richard E. Bennett II (B'03) & Renee Cherkezian (N'03)

Co-Founders, Epicured

What inspired you to start Epicured?  Was it the Jesuit motto of cura personalis, or care of the whole person?

RICH: The phrase cura personalis and the idea of “women and men for others” have both always stuck with me, and in many ways challenged me. Was I spending my time wisely? Was there a path not taken that had been clouded over by other motivations? The concept of finding a unique way to contribute to society, one individual at a time, almost gnawed at me.

When Renee and I started discussing what would become Epicured, cura personalis was the framework or lens.  But it all started with Renee, a registered nurse and a serious amateur chef, who learned first hand in her medical career about the importance of good nutrition in managing chronic illness and achieving good health. Throughout her career, she witnessed countless individuals who suffered due to a lack of food options for their particular conditions, so she wanted to do something about it.

RENEE:  As I began to brainstorm, I connected with Richard, attempting to take advantage of his business background and recalling his desire to help others. We knew that in order to be successful and have a positive impact, we had to find a niche that would work well for a business model, so together we set out to study the different ways in which nutrition plays a crucial role in the overall good health of a human being. This is especially true for those managing chronic conditions. Ultimately, we were drawn to serving individuals with gastrointestinal sensitivities, which require specific, complicated, and often time-consuming diets. We knew we could make a positive impact that would be quickly appreciated because it’s an area that’s sadly underserved by meal replacement services and food producers.

Our focus is a perfect reflection of cura personalis because “the meal” holds a primary place in both people’s social lives and their physical well-being—there is a mental and emotional component in addition to the clearly physical benefits. By providing appropriate evidence-based meals, we both believe Epicured serves others in a wholehearted manner.

Tell us a little about your respective careers prior to taking on entrepreneurial roles with Epicured.

RICHARD: I am so proud of Renee because she has made sure Epicured represents a synergy of her clinical and culinary experiences, skillsets, and passions. She spent more than 12 years as a nurse. Most recently, she served as a clinical manager in the operating rooms of New York-Presbyterian /Weill Cornell Medical Center. But where I saw Renee more frequently as a friend was in the kitchen.  She nurtured a love of cooking, which was reinforced when she saw her patients begin to actually feel better as a result of proper diet and nutrition.

While still working full-time, she trained during the evenings in meal preparation at the four-star restaurant David Burke Townhouse in New York. Having the courage to follow her heart and be open to a journey, Renee took a brief hiatus from patient care and moved to Paris, where she honed her culinary skills and earned a certificate of excellence from the Ritz L’Escoffier in Paris, France.

RENEE:  Rich (B’03) did always like eating my food, so that was a good start for him to make this leap.  I always knew him as both creative and entrepreneurial.  He never followed the usual path.  When we started talking about Epicured he was working for Bank of Tokyo as the COO of Latin America Corporate & Investment Banking Group.  Before that, he was building Vivo Health, a health and wellness business for North Shore-LIJ (now Northwell)—a $7B not-for-profit health system.  I originally approached him about my idea because he had actually done this before. His ability to take an idea or a dream and figure out how to go about doing it is unbelievable. It was this background that made our partnership so perfect and natural.  He knew how to build companies in this space, and wanted to take on a challenge that could have a positive impact. 

Rich, you had mentioned that the successful launch of Epicured was very collaborative in nature.  Can you talk about the role of your Georgetown friendship, as well as other alumni connections, as you turned this idea into a reality?

RICH:  The number of Hoyas who have contributed to the inception of this company is shocking—even to me—and I love hiring and working with them.  It’s a core strength of Epicured. It’s a company founded on Georgetown values, and everyone involved understands that.

Obviously, Renee and I met at Georgetown, but certainly never expected to work together. Adam Fels (C’03) and I ran the Georgetown Film Festival together, and worked together in healthcare. He jumped in as our chief marketing officer. David Gruppo (L’83) was my boss at Bank of Tokyo. He and his wife invested in the company, and serve as day-to-day advisors. Salomon Kalach (C’03) found out about what we were up to through Renee, and signed up to serve as our head of strategy, business development, and many other hats…

Bette Jacobs was a mentor of mine while at Georgetown and Renee’s dean. We wouldn’t have set out on this course without the benefit of her wisdom and leadership, and luckily she just signed up formally to our advisory board.

And, while not in formal roles, Brent Stackhouse (F’03), Matthew Hopkins (C’03), Mona Mouallem (C’03), Shravan Vidyarthi (C’03), Dominick Maggio (B’03), Charles Trunz (B’75), and my Hoya siblings Christina (C’04) and Conor (C’12) have all supported our launch in real, professional, meaningful ways. My brother Patrick (Stanford ’07) helped too, despite his lack of a Georgetown pedigree. We needed their talents, and they were gracious enough to jump in.

This was and continues to be a difficult thing to pull off. We recruited based on trust and talent. We were blessed to go to Georgetown and be surrounded by Hoyas back then, so we wanted to continue to be surrounded by the Georgetown community as we embarked upon this new adventure.

What has been the most challenging aspect of running an online business?

RICH: Epicured exists online but I wouldn’t characterize Epicured as an online business. We produce a physical product—cooked meals—which have a direct, positive impact on people and their well-being. The physicality of it all is what I find so interesting. The challenges of menu design and testing, production, quality, logistics, and scale are real and serious aspects of our business.  But in a world that is increasingly virtual, I embrace these challenges as opportunities to distinguish ourselves.

The web is a tool we leverage to communicate with our customers, and facilitate business transactions. My business experience has taught me that this is the path to establish and scale a real-time relationship while making our operations more efficient, effective, and most of all, responsive to our customers’ needs.

RENEE: As a registered nurse I know the importance “word of mouth” plays in the medical world; this, along with the the Internet, is our primary sales and branding platform, where the main challenge is being heard and showing our uniqueness. The web makes it easier for companies to advertise their products, which increases competition, particularly in the food and meal delivery realm where the number of businesses is growing rapidly.

RICH: I would add, that in a medium that is increasingly characterized by a cacophony of unverified claims and even misinformation, the challenge is attracting attention in a responsible way, without losing our core values—integrity being primary among them. We want our potential customers to try our food, and experience what Renee promises with “Gourmet, Everyday” —our guarantee to provide flavorful meals, cooked with honest ingredients, and crafted around evidenced-based recipes that places our customers’ well-being at the center of our mission.

What has your experience with Epicured taught you about the importance of digital marketing and online branding in the success of business ventures in today’s markets?

RICH: Our online presence allows us to advertise our brand and market our products, and that brings with it challenges and opportunities, which are reflected in our messaging and outreach strategies. However, at our core we are an “experiential” company; i.e., our success depends on the quality of our food, and the comfort and simplicity we provide to our customers throughout the whole experience, from ordering our meals to enjoying them.

RENEE: That is why, from a marketing perspective, our first goal is to develop personal relationships with the clinical and culinary communities that are key stakeholders in the support of our mission. Building on that foundation, we have broadened our dialogue via a variety of channels that are indeed digital, but there is nothing like tasting the food. In fact, when we look at customer conversions and the cost of acquisition, the best method remains physical, in-person interactions, which will present a challenge as we seek to scale the company throughout the Northeast and beyond.

RICHARD: Digital marketing and online branding will be key as we expand, but it is crucial that we never lose track of our core mission, which is to deliver a quality meal. Renee and I have never sacrificed quality for the sake of customer growth, and we never will.

How important is a sense of humor to surviving the world of startups?

RICH: There are definitely some dark days, and the only things that can lift you up in the middle of those challenges are your partners and colleagues, a lot of perspective, and the ability to smile.

If you choose your team well, you can rely not only in each other’s talents, but also in the warm company and support each person provides.

RENEE: If you stay true to your mission, always maintaining your integrity, the dark days dissipate when you take a step back to gain perspective, and appreciate the progress that has been made. Knowing that you are here to help people lead healthier, happier lives goes a long way to bringing the sun out. And humor… well, there is nothing like a good laugh, especially in the company of friends.

If you could offer one piece of advice for an upcoming Hoyapreneur, what might that be?

RENEE: Passion and problem solving. In other words, identify a problem that you are passionate about, and find a solution that helps address it. And, of course, surround yourself with others that share that passion—people with proven talent that you trust—especially if they are fellow Hoyas. And never forget the character lessons and life aspirations that we began to understand the first day we arrived at the Hilltop.

If you want to learn more about Epicured visit epicured.com or reach out to Rich or Renee through the alumni network.