The Man Disrupting LatAm's Food Industry

Maria Saldarriaga and Pedro MejiaExecutive Profiles
José Calderon

Courtesy of José Calderon.

José Calderon describes himself as a person who likes to solve problems that generate the greatest possible impact. Already one of the most successful serial entrepreneurs in Latin America at just 33 years old, José has co-founded and led three of the most disruptive food-tech startups in the region: Domicilios.com, Merqueo, and now RobinFood, which he founded in 2018 and is perhaps his most ambitious venture yet.

His first business was a crepe cart in Colombia that he used to run in high school during breaks. Shortly after, when he was in college, he started to work with Miguel McAllister, now his long-term business partner, on how to digitize food delivery options in his hometown of Bogotá. This is how they co-founded Domicilios.com in 2007, which became one of the most important players in LatAm’s food delivery industry. The company was acquired by Delivery Hero and IPO’d in 2014.

Despite the major success of Domicilios.com, José told The Org that he still felt frustrated even after selling the company. Unlike in wealthier regions where food delivery is commonplace, in LatAm it was still an exclusive service for the rich, meaning that the company was never able to be a massive socially-transformative entity in the region.

Post Domicilos.com, José co-founded Merqueo, the online grocery-delivery company that is now the biggest in Colombia. Run by Miguel, it is now bigger than Rappi, Cornershop, Éxito, Jumbo, and others. During his time helping to build Merqueo, Calderon kept thinking about the problem of food and restaurants in LatAm and how it could be possible to disrupt the industry in a manner that benefitted a wider population.

The “corrientazo” is Colombian slang for a cheap meal at a local restaurant; it is a well-known lunch of the middle class and every country in LatAm has its own version. Plus, what qualifies as the middle or working class in LatAm differs from North America and Europe. The average equivalent annual income for a middle-class worker in LatAm is around $8,500, vs. $58,000 in the U.S. or $33,800 in Europe.

As Jose once stated, a $5.99 BigMac combo meal from McDonald’s is a luxury in LatAm. So, the majority of people in the region eat a “corrientazo” for lunch for about $2, or they bring homemade food to work that requires prep time or help from a family member that isn’t always available. This translates to consumers having limited options for lunch that also represent a poor experience. Most of the time, lunch is simply not that good.

That’s how Jose got the idea of creating MUY, a food-tech startup that makes good, affordable food available every day and for everyone in LatAm. The first restaurant opened in February of 2018 and by the end of 2019, the company had 34 locations that sold more than 500 meals a day on average per restaurant. At MUY, patrons can combine a mix of over 30 ingredients, including things like rice, sweet plantains, veggies, or beans, to create over 6,000 unique meals. Meals cost around $2.50, a very affordable price for a balanced and nutritious serving.

Muy Meals

A sampling of the potential meals available at MUY.

More important than the number of restaurants was that MUY, as a tech company, was conceived in its beginnings as a minimum valuable product (MVP). In their first two years, José led his team to hack the restaurant market through learnings and iteration, treating the restaurant business as a digital product.

“We started understanding what people liked and wanted, not only in tastes and design, like a traditional restaurant does, but in terms of time and efficiency,” Jose told The Org. ”We use digital technology, such as self-order systems or automated ovens, to improve labor and operational costs, ultimately making things easier, cheaper, and faster for MUY and our customers.”

In 2020, José took MUY to the next level. He rebranded the business into RobinFood, building a multi-brand food company that merges a traditional on-premise restaurant with a cloud-kitchen model, a market considered to be worth $1 trillion by 2030 according to Euromonitor.

RobinFood now has more than 50 stores in Colombia, México, and Brazil and has launched six more off-premise cloud-kitchens to complement the menus at MUY, which is now one of the brands within RobinFood. By diversifying their food portfolio to also now include Mexican, Italian, and fast food, RobinFood took advantage of their kitchen’s capacity to bring both its physical and virtual restaurant initiatives under the same name. As José said to The Org, RobinFood’s tech stack merges its virtual restaurants, kitchens, and physical spaces into the same system for smoother overall operations.

This year, the company launched its first 100% contactless store with no human interaction. As they call it, this is the 3.0 version of their on-premise channel stores. Meals can be ordered via the company’s mobile app or a touchscreen kiosk at one of its brick-and-mortar locations. These physical MUY locations feature cubbies where customers retrieve the food, eliminating interactions between restaurant staff and customers.

RobinFood - Image #3

A customer picking up a contactless food order.

Due to COVID-19, many objectives changed, and RobinFood shifted from a physical footprint expansion goal to an accelerated creation of virtual brands to take advantage of the situation. The company is currently allotting over 80% of its budget to the inception of these brands, with hopes of simultaneously improving food service and return on investment.

Last October, RobinFood raised a $16 million debt funding round from MGM Sustainable Energy Fund II LP. This now brings RobinFood’s total funding to date to $36M. José and his team plan to use the new financing round to continue growing across Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, adding 2,000 new brand-locations in Latin America over the next five years. Their goal is to sell more than $1 billion of food annually by 2025 in LatAm and successfully IPO RobinFood, which would be the second one for Jose.

“We want people in LatAm to stop cooking at home,” he said. “RobinFood is giving them access to multiple experiences in a single stop, where they’ll find affordable and endless options to meet their food needs from breakfast to dinner.”

An incredible vision from the boy who started with just a crepe stand.

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