Entrepreneur Vanessa Sena is the brains behind My Local Chefs, an online platform that connects Connecticut chefs, farmers, and producers with local homes, where people can enjoy a variety of healthy prepared foods. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price chatted with Vanessa about how she created the business concept and how she’s building a team to help move her vision forward.
NAN PRICE: Tell us about how you came up with the idea for My Local Chefs.
VANESSA SENA: During COVID-19, I saw there was a need for food businesses to create a meal prep model as an additional revenue stream. I also saw the need for people who wanted to stay at home to reduce their risk but still have a healthy variety of prepared food to choose from. So, the whole concept basically came from the pandemic—seeing both needs and realizing there was a demand.
At the time, I was still partnered with a local meal prep company. We were receiving requests from customers who wanted different types of cuisines for their specific diets, whether they had gluten intolerance or they wanted more vegan and plant-based options. They also wanted breakfast and snacks.
Working with one chef became challenging because she had her menu and was inundated with her orders. I knew it wouldn’t be possible to bring in all these other types of cuisines. But I had the capacity to do that for multiple chefs.
NAN: How did you connect with other local chefs?
VANESSA: At the time, I started getting approached by other chefs and small food business owners who wanted me to help them to run the business side and the logistics side of things. I realized I had that capacity. So, I gathered a team of talented food marketers, designers, photographers, and business consultants and we started My Local Chefs in July 2021.
NAN: How has the business evolved since the summer?
VANESSA: It’s definitely growing although we’re still in the very beginning stages. We’re in the process of getting everything in order to do our investor pitching. Our custom system is being built; it won’t launch until April 2022. We’re creating a full app that will be very streamlined, so for customers it will be very similar to ordering from DoorDash, Grubhub, or Amazon.
We’re considering ourselves the Amazon of local food business. With the app, you can order from multiple small food businesses or chefs throughout the state, choose specific foods and a delivery date, and see a driver deliver everything in real time.
NAN: Tell us more about building the team.
VANESSA: I think it’s so important for people to realize, whether you’re a small business or a larger, scalable business, you can’t do it alone. I’m all over the place and I’m able to handle a bunch of different projects at the same time. But if I had to do this all on my own, it would never come to fruition.
So, I have a team working on the tech side, a team working on the marketing side, a team doing admin and customer service, and a team working on quality assurance and logistics. I purposely brought in consultants and advisors—people with knowledge about insurance, risk mitigation, and real estate.
NAN: That ties into the importance of building your community. Is that one of the reasons you became a member of the Hartford Chamber of Commerce?
VANESSA: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s smart to have a network of people who understand where you’re coming from. I’ve always looked at Chambers as a way to broaden your network. Also, I’m new to the area and I’m new to having this type of scalable business. I’ve always run small businesses that were capable of working within a small parameter. Now we’re trying to work in a large parameter.
The thought processes that happens with a small business owner versus a scalable business is different. I’m used to making decisions based on a small business’ needs. I need to start thinking differently.
By becoming a Hartford Chamber member, I hope to connect with people who have that experience, can relate, and can hopefully help. That’s what I’m hoping to achieve and why I joined. And then my goal is to become one of those people, in time, so I can go help the next generation after me.
NAN: Are you connected with any other local business resources?
VANESSA: Yes. The Women’s Business Center at the University of Hartford’s Entrepreneurial Center (EC-WBC) set me up with their Small Business Technical Assistance Program (TAP), which helps with my marketing, creating a pitch deck, grant writing, the tech to build the platform, and access to funding.
I also have a startup advisor through CTNext who I meet with weekly. We go through my five-year financial plan and my go to market strategy. We’re working on my pitch. We’re working on everything I’ll need to get to those investors. That, in and of itself, feels like its own job.
Also, I have a consulting gig, which has helped me bootstrap this business. Without that, I would be dead in the water. The president of the company has asked to be my first pitch. So, I’m hoping everything goes well in 2022 and I’ll start to make some real money and keep building My Local Chefs.
Because this isn’t just about me. This is about all the other small food businesses that can use this as another stream of revenue, as another way for them to make money—especially in Hartford, especially in places where there’s hardly any foot traffic. With My Local Chefs, these business can have access to delivery throughout the state. They don’t have to open a brick-and-mortar or worry about maintaining a website or upkeeping a point of sale system. They can use the platform to sell their products and we can take care of all the backend stuff.
NAN: Any advice for others?
VANESSA: The biggest thing is to surround yourself with people who are experts in their field, people who are smarter than you. Lay down the ego. Be open to criticism—as long as it’s constructive.
I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have people who had already been there, done that tell me: You’re not doing this right, but I’m here to help you do it right and fast. That’s the only way you’re going to be efficient and accomplish anything in a real time. Teamwork makes the dream work.