Cooking for others has become increasingly complex these days thanks to ever more diverse dietary requirements. Monique Chambers talks to Jessica Edwards about her perfect solution.
Dinner parties can be daunting. The new people, the small talk, the etiquette. It is a social dance many find challenging. Me? I’m a shy vegetarian who also happens to be lactose intolerant. Being invited to a dinner party is not something I particularly look forward to. I have to beg for options with no meat, no fish, and no cheese and then watch the host’s face drop, instantly regretting their invite. I usually end up being served a lettuce salad with a side of resentment. But now… there is a solution.
Monique Chambers is the mind behind an application called Indulge Me FOOD. The app allows hosts not only to send out invites to their dinner guests and receive their RSVPs, but also stores their food preferences and intolerances ahead of time, meaning the host can cater for all ‘picky’ eaters present. The app cleverly provides recipes that account and accommodate for everyone’s intolerances.
Monique has been working in marketing and PR for 25 years, technology marketing in particular. It was during this time that she developed an appreciation for all things ‘lovely and nice’. And that was where the Indulge brand started. The philosophy behind it is one of self-appreciation, the idea of treating yourself and enjoying the ‘nice’ things in life. The brand includes books, a magazine, property, and apps.
The first app is based on the idea of having a wish list that can be seen by others. The inspiration? ‘So you know when your boyfriend buys you something and it’s the wrong size, the wrong colour. I had had enough of that and decided to go down the route of creating an app around it,’ Monique says. And thus the Indulge Me GIFT app was born. Since then, it has been downloaded thousands of times and travelled to 110 countries.
After the success of the Indulge Me GIFT app, Monique was ruminating over new concepts. At this point she was working as part of the marketing team at the Knowledge Transfer Office (KTO) at the University of Malta (UM), helping start-ups get their message across correctly ‘from tech to human’. It was then that her thought to merge algorithms and hosting elaborate dinners emerged. How great would it be if you could have an easy way to invite all your friends, gather their RSVPs and their food intolerances, and find the right recipes that would cater to all those dietary needs at once? This train of thought set the ball in motion.
Looking to focus on her new app idea, Monique left her position at the KTO and dedicated herself fully. A year later, in 2016, Monique’s plan was set, and she sent in her application for the UM’s TAKEOFF Seed Fund Award. Hard work paid off: she was awarded the funds and became an incubatee. With this came the opportunity to read for a Masters in Entrepreneurship at the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation, with the Indulge Me FOOD app as her major project.
The venture began with research. ‘You have to research, research, research. The first app I made [Indulge Me GIFT] did okay, but I didn’t do any research. You need to make sure no one is doing the same thing and that you’re getting the most out of the app,’ she says. ‘I just thought it was a good idea and that was it. That approach was a missed opportunity. Although it did well, I could have done so much more with it.’ With that lesson learnt, she joined forces with British Panel Research agency FLY to find out more about people’s entertaining habits and how they felt about this new level of nutritional diversity in today’s social circles. The results confirmed some key points. 94% of hosts do not know what brands to buy for certain intolerances or diet restrictions.
54.4% of hosts are unhappy to create a separate meal for friends with dietary restrictions.
They also found out that 40% of hosts use messaging services to invite guests, which makes it more difficult to keep track.
Following that, Monique sat down and considered her skillset. ‘I always want to avoid being a jack of all trades,’ she says. Despite the budget restrictions, she brought a number of experts on board who could handle different areas in app development. UK-based lead generation agency Buying Time took on the role of finding an audience. She also hired development studio JustSomeCoding to build the app with assistance from SWITCH for branding. ‘I worked with both for the Indulge Me GIFT app and a couple of other projects,’ she says. ‘Relationships started in 2011 when I worked with them on adverts from their clients which were included in Indulge magazine,’ Monique states, highlighting the importance of keeping connections close and networks growing.
The app came together and is now receiving its final touches. The way it works is that hosts send off their invites. Once guests receive the invitation, they fill in their profiles, unless they have done so already, along with their eating restrictions. Once everyone has accepted the invitation, the host gets a list of everyone that’s accepted and a list of their intolerances. From there, they would be presented with menu suggestions that cater for all of the intolerances at once. ‘Recipes usually only cater for one particular eating restriction, these would cater for all of them,’ Monique says, eliminating the need to make multiple dishes.
Indulge Me FOOD is not only appealing to hosts. Monique is currently in talks with retailers to find partners who would like to offer the app to their customers exclusively. This means that these business partners would be able to build a repository of their own products which clients could refer to, related to their recipe of choice. This way, the app would also be able to provide clients not just with a set of recipes, but with an easy-to-follow shopping list tailored to the retailer and the items it stocks. For the time being, the app is being offered to foreign companies because Maltese retailers are not big enough. That said, it will be available in app stores for local consumers to use. ‘Often people go to more than one shop to get what they need, unlike abroad, where you can usually find all you need in one shop, including home ware,’ says Monique.
Through this journey, Monique has done away with some outdated anxieties. She says she is now happy to talk about her ideas openly, doing away with ‘paranoia’. ‘Having an idea is one thing, making it happen is another entirely,’ she says. Not to mention how people can sometimes point out things you overlooked. ‘A friend mentioned religious diets and the restrictions that come with those. It was an area I hadn’t even considered. And I should have,’ she says, ‘The world is a very small place.’
Besides making it easier for the host to organise dinner parties, this app will definitely help in making all the guests feel included. I look forward to the day I can enjoy a dinner party and stay late because I no longer need to nosedive into the fridge at home.