The Story of Kiffin: A Phoenix Rising from the Ashes

Prologue (Editor’s Note)

Everybody likes good food. Not everybody has access to it. And not all good food is good for the planet, or the people preparing it.

That’s why McGill MBA alum Natasha Alani and chef Aaron Fetherston started Kiffin. They’re on a mission to make real food accessible to real people. And they’re doing it while running an operation that’s sustainable and ethical every step of the way.

They offer a farm-to-office food experience for workplaces. Their next move? Re-opening their restaurant.

This heroic journey spans across several chapters. It involves moving from San Francisco to Montreal, a building burning down, and what seemed like a potential lawsuit. As you read between the lines and see the pattern of Kiffin getting up every time they fall, you’ll see there’s more to it than a series of hardships.

It’s a story of resilience and renewal. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of its predecessor, Kiffin has gotten up every time it has fallen. And not only did they get up, they got stronger.

Before you turn to chapter 1 of Natasha’s recounting of their story, keep in mind Kiffin’s story isn’t over, and that you can be a part of its ongoing epilogue by signing up for their grand opening weekend’s pajama brunches with an exclusive discount. Just click here. (Discount code: DOBSON)

Support Kiffin and taste amazing food by signing up for their grand opening weekend’s pajama brunches with an exclusive discount. Just click here. (Discount code: DOBSON)

Chapter 1: Bienvenue à Montréal

“When we were still working in San Francisco, I already knew we were onto something.

It was 2011 when I realized that the general public – including people considered middle class in America, did not have access to sustainable, healthy food.

And that’s just not okay.

If what you put in your body affects your cognitive ability, and not everyone has access to high-quality fuel, how can you assume that everyone is playing on a level playing field with equal opportunity to be smart and productive? Education is an important piece of human development, but there’s more to it. We need to make sure people are eating well.

Based on past experiences in social work and non-profits, I realized that the best way to accomplish this was actually to build a solid business. Along with that, I needed to have all the social pieces in place.  If you drive enough demand, you can affect the system from within it.

What I found in San Francisco was that really, really wealthy people liked our food and could afford it. But getting it to people that needed it was hard, and expensive.

I needed to scale up to increase access to real food, and doing it there was so expensive I just couldn’t do it.

I had 3 options: I could either sell out, give up, or find another way.

And that’s when I decided to come to Montreal.”

Natasha pitching Kiffin at DocuSign offices during Demo Day in San Francisco.

Chapter 2: The Fire

“We had our grand opening in May of 2017. And for 6 days, things were great. We had people lining up outside for our food, staff that we adored, and more business than we knew what to do with.

The next day, I got a call at 7AM from the landlord. And she said ‘Natasha, there’s been a fire. Call your insurance, and you might want to come by.’

Nobody was hurt, and it didn’t happen in our space – it was next door. I actually thought it wasn’t that big a deal, and actually went about my day normally – I got a lot of things done. Then I called my insurance, and made my way to the place around 10AM

And that’s when I realized this was serious.

The ceiling had fallen in. You could smell the smoke – I couldn’t breathe. The kitchen and bathrooms were destroyed. As an entrepreneur, I was still optimistic and thinking I could handle this. I went and pitched the next day to the McGill X-1 Accelerator to get into the program for the summer as planned. But those first few days weren’t as bad as the next few months.

It took 2 months for us to get the news that there was asbestos in the building. We still didn’t know when we could begin to use the space again. We were a fledgling business at the mercy of everyone else.

And that’s a vulnerable place to be as a startup because I didn’t have money coming in from anywhere else. We understood more about how insurance works than anyone could ever want to.

I had to make sure that my village – all the mentors, customers, and champions rooting for us, knew that we were going to come out the other side okay. And I had to do that even though I wasn’t even sure we were going to be okay.

So we tightened up all our costs to prepare for the long storm, and we were lucky enough to be accepted into the McGill X-1 Accelerator. That’s what forced me to look past the tragedy of the moment, and keep my eye on the big picture for our business. That way, we could become investment-ready for Demo Days and extend our influence and get support from all over the continent.”

Chapter 3: You’ve been served

“When a setback happens, there are a lot of stakeholders. And all of them are in a bad situation, regardless of how big or small they are, because they’re worried about their livelihoods.

One night about 3 months after the fire I get home around 10PM, and there’s just a card from a bailiff. It says ‘Urgent.’

I have no idea what this is about. It doesn’t say anything: who it’s from, what they want, nothing. I stayed up all night long wondering ‘Have I done anything wrong? Do I owe anybody money? Have I upset an employee? Who could want to sue me? I’m not important enough to sue!’

And by 6AM the next day, I had went through all my mental records and I realized I didn’t do anything wrong. I met up with the bailiff and he explained who it was from. And the letter was basically a heavy-handed way of reminding me what my legal responsibilities were.

I consider myself a savvy business person. I care about a lot of things that make a business work. But business is also administrative, and there’s a lot of infrastructure. And I didn’t really  understand those parts.

After ‘being served’ as a matter of procedure I started to really understand these less creative, more infrastructural (and equally important) parts of a business.

Startups may miss this because when you start out you have to move fast and break things, but once you have something to protect, the skills you need to succeed totally change.”

Natasha and Aaron were part of the Core X-1 team that participated in Demo Days in Montreal, Boston, San Francisco, Toronto, and New York City. They are pictured on the right during their visit to Sequoia Capital.

Appendix A: The Silver Linings

“These challenges forced me to get more clear than ever about what we stand for. That earned us credibility. It’s really difficult to show people how much you care and at the same time prove that you can manage the financial health of your company. By continuing to make sales, participate in the accelerator, and fight in the face of uncertainty, I was able to demonstrate my passion to the world.

In fact, it did more than that. I reached out to people and included them as part of a collaborative process during the challenge. Through this, I was able to deepen my relationships with a lot of my supporters. I really would like to thank the mentors from the McGill X-1 Accelerator including Natalie Voland, Andrea Courey and Jeff Baikowitz! They are all amazing McGill entrepreneurs who really had my back and talked me through the darkest days.

Also, I learned a lot. There are parts of business that I thought I knew, but was completely blindsided by. I did my undergrad in Finance, and got an MBA from two of the best business schools, but there’s stuff you only learn when there’s a TKO of epic proportions. I’m glad I learned this while the business was still small.”

Appendix B: How Kiffin persevered

“At the point that our business is now, it’s important to more than just me. It’s important to my cofounder Aaron. There’s also my staff, our customers, and mentors who have put in so much time to help me get this off the ground.

I didn’t think it was fair to all these people to suddenly lose my strength of vision just because things got hard.

They believed in me when I was in a strong position. I needed to stay strong. I was very aware of how many people I got engaged in this vision, and I couldn’t let them down.”

To sign up for our grand opening weekend’s pajama brunches with an exclusive discount, click here. (Discount code: DOBSON)

Epilogue: How this launch is going to be different from the last one

Clasically trained at Le Cordon Blue Portland, chef Aaron Fetherston has worked as Chef and General manager at top West Coast establishments, such as The Heathman in Portland, Sweet Woodruff and Square (of the Michelin earning Son’s and Daughters group) in San Francisco.

“Our first launch was in the spring. It’s been 6 months since then; winter has come. To make it through the winter we have reimagined what Kiffin could be in the winter. How can we survive the winter while maintaining what we stand for?

So we came up with this 6-month concept with 2 components.

Every night, we have a mac & cheese bar with seasonal vegetable side dishes and ancient grains. These are things that traditionally don’t go together. But when you think of autumn and a gorgeous squash side dressed in a way you’ve never imagined. Or imagine a mac & cheese topped with vegan chili or made to accommodate vegans, and those with celiac disease. Your perception can change. It feels like winter, it’s sustainable, it’s healthy, and it makes both our customers and our employees happy.

On the weekends we do pajama brunches. These are pre-sold, and are like small parties. There are 2 seatings: one at 10:30 and one at 2:30. By booking in advance, you help us eliminate food waste. And by doing that, the quality of the food you eat goes up – we’re not buying more than we need, so you get fresh ingredients and the savings pass on to you!”

“There’s also great beer, wine, and cocktails. We’re making the best food possible, under the supervision of Chef Aaron, with special consideration given to dietary restrictions. Our location is a converted 19th century home! Make no mistake – we’re not a traditional restaurant. It really feels like a brunch in someone’s house where you can meet new people, try new flavours, and you’re being served by an incredible Chef and a talented team. That’s Kiffin!

To sign up for their grand opening weekend’s pajama brunches with an exclusive discount, click here. (Discount code: DOBSON)
Mo Akif

Mo Akif

The Editor-in-Chief of the McGill Dobson Chronicles. Never having started a lemonade stand as a child and tired of reading blog posts about entrepreneurship without actually doing anything, he was on the verge of giving up and joining a pyramid scheme. Luckily the McGill Dobson Centre decided to adopt him, allowing him to get a closer look at what it takes to build something valuable.