Interview: Ken Hernandez of Collective Green SF


Ken Hernandez started his catering company, Collective Green SF, two-and-a-half years ago. He now serves almost 400 people a day, and just doubled his capacity. He cooks over 100 lbs of Bacon a week!


Ben Hanna: If somebody asks “What is Collective Green?” What is your answer?

Ken Hernandez: We’re a holistic gourmet catering company. I define that as sustainable, healthy great food, with a twist. We had to learn how to take normal food and make it healthier, but still make it taste good.

Ben Hanna: What put you on the track of what you’re doing now?

Ken Hernandez: A lot of the pushing, to be honest, came from Jason Sanders. He’s said “I think you should do this.” and he fully supported me in what I was doing. Because, essentially I was an employee at Couchsurfing, so I was supposed to be focused on CouchSurfing but he really let me have some lee way to figure out what I was doing and restructure my arrangement. That really, really helped a lot. But, I remember doing a catering gig for someone else after being at Couchsurfing. Then, I realized that it felt really good that I could cater for two companies. I thought it was going to be a two company thing.

Ben Hanna: How many companies are you working for now?

Ken Hernandez: Right now, we have about 10 companies, but overall we’ve cooked for about, I’d say 50 companies throughout the years. Both in events and lunches. We have cooked for Anchor Brewing, Instagram, Anyperk, Apple, Beats, Camp Grounded, CrowdFlower, Couchsurfing, Heroku, Lookout, MetaMarkets, Lumnia, UpShift and others.

Ben Hanna: Where are you at right now with staffing and how do you handle that? How many people per team you’re working on?

Ken Hernandez: One of the weirdest things is that people I started with, I’m not with anymore. It was one of those things that when I first started I thought I was going to be working with these guys for a very long time. But, that’s not really how business works and as far as us, we’ve all left on really good terms and everything is super awesome. My team now, there is 15 of us. We have different branches of the company, so we have our daily meals, then we also have our events, then we also work with a third party called Choosey. We also work with Thistle. Right now with staffing, 60% of my staff works for daily meals, then another 20% on events, then the other 10% is for Choosey, and then the other 10% is for Thistle.

Ben Hanna: How many employees are cooks versus on-site food prep and delivery? Was it trial-and-error figuring out how many people you needed each place?

Ken Hernandez: I really want the food culture of Collective Green to exemplify what I had at Couchsurfing, but reality and money hit me very quickly that the manpower wasn’t affordable. We couldn’t afford the culture that I was envisioning. That was the saddest part for me. Right now, if the client is less than 30 people, it’s just a drop off. We set up the food. We label everything. Right now, with our bigger clients, with about 100 people, I have my chefs stay there. As far as delivery goes, all my chefs do enjoy going out and delivering the food. We rotate our menu — so if it’s their menu, they love going out and delivering the food because they can talk about it.

Ben Hanna: They can answer questions that people have.

Ken Hernandez: Exactly. Now, it’s actually worked out very well with what we’re doing. We still have that Couchsurfing chef, on-site chef there.

Ben Hanna: Tell me a little bit about the culture that you envisioned. What is your ideal work culture?

Ken Hernandez: My ultimate vision within the company, which is something we’re doing right now, is very similar to what we do at Couchsurfing. With the bigger groups, we make sure that my chefs stay on-site and sit down and eat with them. They really interact and get to know these guys and gather, almost like, data about these people. It’s a little intangible, but it’s something that we can still put together.

Ben Hanna: It helps you plan food accordingly, and take special needs into account.

Ken Hernandez: Yeah, I really had to teach these guys how to take feedback in a constructive way. A lot of these engineers, they’re kind of socially awkward.

Ben Hanna: They’ll tell you exactly…”I don’t like white food.”

Ken Hernandez: Yep, and you’re like, “What?” Or, you don’t like soup. It’s things like that. When my chefs understand how to take those criticisms, it exemplifies that culture that I really want. It’s understanding how mom would be if you said something about her cooking, but you know she’ll do something better next time. It’s building that trust with our clients. Them knowing that we are there to cook for them, and it’s something that we want to do. It’s not just something like our competitors who are coming in and dropping things off. I want to show we care, because we actually really, really do care.

Ben Hanna: Do you have the same people working for the same teams as often as possible?

Ken Hernandez: Yeah.

Ben Hanna: So that you build up a rapport.

Ken Hernandez: Yeah. Absolutely. For example, chef Abhi, he was always at Heroku every Monday. He was the lucky one that got a gift basket over the holidays, and none of us did. The best beef jerky I stole out of that basket.

Ben Hanna: What are some of the trials that you went through where you figured it out baptism-by-fire style?

Ken Hernandez: One of them definitely is starting a business. At first, I thought starting a business was super easy. There wasn’t any paperwork or anything like that. I quickly learned that you had to get your paperwork, your licenses, payroll and all of that. If I had not caught that early on, I think I would be in a lot of trouble right now. Kitchen-wise, a lot of it was ordering. At first, we were picking up groceries from the store. We were getting retail prices. Now, we’re doing wholesale. We’re saving a lot more money. The quality of food is a lot better than picking it up at grocery stores. Staffing-wise, it’s just having a formula of how many people should be working on certain days, and how many hours it should take for something to be made. Money is always a factor because of what you do.

Ben Hanna: It’s what business is.

Ken Hernandez: Yeah. I think one of the biggest trial and error things that I really ran into was over-staffing, and thinking that I should grow as quickly as possible, solidify things, and then have that thought that I can just get rid of people. But that’s not what it is. Over time you kind just of fall in love with the people you work with. When push comes to shove with money situations you have to think about the business as a whole and not personal feelings.

Ben Hanna: Do you now analyze, very carefully, before you decide to bring another person on, because you want to be sure that you can keep them on for long enough? Then it’s a good situation for them also.

Ken Hernandez: Absolutely. I mean one of the things we really changed within the company was a lot of our work is contracting work, so I kind of assumed that I should have contractors. That’s not really the case because we are essentially employees. We have different branches that I’ve created in the company, like events, daily meals, etc. We’ve created a real business plan and a real business flow, where we can actually have employees and not just contractors.

Ben Hanna: So you do have employees and are providing health benefits and everything?

Ken Hernandez: Yeah. W-2’s and all of that. We switched over about eight months ago with that, so it’s been really good. It really raised a lot of company culture.

Ben Hanna: Can you give a little bit of insight into your financials, in terms of how much you guys are bringing in? And how has that scaled over time?

Ken Hernandez: It’s real interesting. In our first year of business we actually made six figures in sales. And this following year… Actually, we’ve only been at this like two-and-a-half years. The end of this year we actually hit pretty high up on the six figures. We tripled our sales within a year.

Ben Hanna: Amazing.

Ken Hernandez: Which is awesome. We’re just starting the new branches. As far as scaling goes, we do want to maintain, but we are growing. One of the things that I’ve really programmed in this company is that every single year we start something new. We start a new branch. For example, this year we’re going to add on event planning. Because right now we’re just doing event catering so we work with event planners. So, this year we want to kind of cut out the middle man. Our event planner actually just started about three months ago, and he’s awesome. He brought in some sales already.

Ben Hanna: You have diversified your income stream and are planning on continuing to do so.

Ken Hernandez: Yeah. I want to minimize trial and error as much as possible. It’s more about this whole entire thing is a learning experience. So every single year I want to do something new that’s not too risky, but it’s also still something that I know this company will financially grow from and also culturally and personally for all these guys to learn a little bit more. Because every time we start a new branch, I make sure that I remember that my company put their two cents in on what we’re doing. So I try to put everyone on the same page as much as possible and really eliminate the “Oh, what’s happening in this department?”

Ben Hanna: How do you allocate your time? It used to be a one man show! You were cooking, doing everything. Now, what are your day-to-day responsibilities?

Ken Hernandez: My day-to-day responsibility right now is still everything. I mean I am still joining these guys in the kitchen. I don’t know if I am a micro-manager or I just still… I just love to cook and I love to cook with these guys. Everyday I kind of start off the day going through emails. Our office manager, Bella, goes through my e-mails too and answers any questions from our clients that she can and sends me the rest. And then at some point I kind of just jump back in the kitchen and collaborate with everyone and see how the meals are going, where I can help. The kitchen is the one part of this company I just won’t get myself out of.

Ben Hanna: It’s why you’re doing this. That’s what’s in your soul.

Ken Hernandez: Yeah. Absolutely. And, I know some other caterers out there that, they haven’t been in the kitchen for years. They’ve just been doing the business. I can’t imagine that. I can’t imagine not having a knife.

Ben Hanna: That disconnect. From doing what you love to running a team that now does what you used to do.

Ken Hernandez:: Absolutely. I think it’s really knowing your product and even being a part of creating it is important.

Ben Hanna: Are there any offices that you’re offsite at often?

Ken Hernandez:: Right now just at Lookout and Heroku.

Ben Hanna: Is that because you know people there and like hanging out?

Ken Hernandez: A little bit of both. I kind of end up going back to the cultural thing we were talking about is that. I kind of just grown to really like these people. Yes there are people I train at these companies, but also made friends with. Not just friends, but also just like, it’s… I like knowing my clients. I like interacting with them because the more relations go by with them the more raw our conversations are about food. They really let me in. They really tell me the truth about the food. It makes us better in the kitchen because I come back and am like hey guys, some people didn’t really like this. This is their feedback. What do you guys think about that? In a culinary sense. It’s feedback like that helps us evolve.

Ben Hanna: It’s basically like going to a culinary school food review.

Ken Hernandez: Straight to your face. No holds barred.

Ben Hanna: If you could give any advice to anybody starting a restaurant?

Ken Hernandez: Oh yeah. Really good to know your landlord. Really good to know the space. And cover your bases going into it. A lot of things in catering is like really planning ahead. And I think that’s also something you can kind of take to anything.

Ben Hanna: You’re about to move into a new kitchen space. How’s that going to change what you are doing?

Ken Hernandez: I think it’s really gonna change things. For the new kitchen I looked at something we could scale into in the future. Right now we’re really getting a lot of inquiries for our daily meals, but we have to turn people down just based on us not being able to handle that much more business right now. And it sucks that we can’t do that. But, luckily, all these companies are actually asking to have us for daily meals aren’t starting until end of February.

Ben Hanna: So what will that scale your capacity up to?

Ken Hernandez: Right now our capacity is at 400 meals that we can cook at a time. We’re actually at 375 for clients. So we can take maybe one company but when we move to that kitchen we can do about 1000 meals a day.

Ben Hanna: You will more than double what you can do. That’s amazing.

Ken Hernandez: Yeah. I’m very excited. Right now my operations team is also working offsite because we don’t have the space for it here.

Ben Hanna: In the new space will your operations team be able to work out of there also?

Ken Hernandez: We’ll all be there. We’ll have an office space and everything. We’ll also have our warehouse there where we keep a lot of our events equipment. So it’s a lot easier. Everything kind of solidified.

Ben Hanna: How did you go about finding that space?

Ken Hernandez: So I really had to think about how much we could actually afford. I really had to research areas of San Francisco that we could afford. And cut down in certain areas. It was either we were going to move out of San Francisco and go, just a little bit, into the greater bay area, and it would be a lot cheaper, or we would go to further areas in San Francisco, like Sunset. But the one place that I actually ignored was The Tenderloin, which is where The Kitchen is. I just, you know, “oh, there’s no kitchen’s there and it’s kind of not the best area.” But I finally caved in, and decided that “I’m just going to research.” And I found a lot of kitchens in that area. Very cheap, very close to all of the companies that we work for, so it just made sense, you know? It was just a matter of what area it was, but looking into it, I kind of stereotyped The Tenderloin that bad, but it wasn’t. So upon looking at this place, I fell in love with this space. It’s humongous, you know. It’s 6,000 sq. ft., it has everything you need.

Ben Hanna: What’s the average size of the companies you’re working with now?

Ken Hernandez: Right now, fifty.

Ben Hanna: Are you doing meals four days a week, or something more?

Ken Hernandez: Actually, it really depends. I’m a firm believer in that I think you should eat healthy the majority of the time, but also you can’t forget about your flavor, your taste. And it doesn’t matter how unhealthy it is, so a lot of companies that actually want to contract us for five days, I ask them to contract us for three days instead, or two days instead. It’s because I found when we have that balance of healthy and kind of not healthy days, our contracts last way longer.

Ben Hanna: Is that because there’s choice involved?

Ken Hernandez: I don’t think it’s so much choice — all the feedback we got from having companies five days a week was like, Where’s our fried food, where’s this, where’s the bad stuff?” And personally, I just can’t put myself to do that. We put desserts on now with gluten and dairy and all that, but sometimes you just want next-level unhealthy, and so… I mean, it’s something I can’t provide and my chefs can’t provide.

Ben Hanna: But I heard you do have Bacon Days!

Ken Hernandez: Yeah, just for our breakfast accounts. Some breakfast accounts are different from our daily meals too but yeah I think we cook over 100 pounds of bacon a week.

Ben Hanna: Woah! That’s a lot. Give me some other numbers like that.

Ken Hernandez: Every week we average about 500 pounds of meat a week, close to 1,300 pounds of produce. And we use a lot of water!

Thanks so much Ken! If you want to get a hold of Ken and his crew for your event or office, you can find him at [email protected].