Interview with Jerry McLean, the Snack Freak and CEO of ChewsWize

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ChewsWize.com is a personalized healthy snack box developed in Hong Kong. You can order online and have the snacks conveniently delivered to your home or workplace each week. The innovative package means the boxes fit into a regular mailbox without the need for a signature. You can choose from over 40 snacks with box types being Original, Skinny (less than 150 calories per snack), or Kids (nut-free, perfect for school munchies), as well as bulk corporate pantry boxes. berry pie

Tell Us About The Management Team.

Jerry McLean

Founder: Jerry McLean

Ran a number of businesses before, including advising CEO’s on geopolitics/business strategy and is a big fitness and clean smart eating advocate.

Has a background on food, management and China/Asia advisory.

Huge fan of the ocean and sustainability and was one of the co-founders behind the HK Shark Foundation.

Josefina Bergsten-Head of Design

Major tree hugger. Our mother earth in the business. She is the creator of the brand look, imagery, design, videos and also snack innovator. She’s an avid sustainability advocate, ethical eater and was one of the co-founders of the HK Shark Foundation too.

Clarissa Becker-CTO (Technology)

Our tech geek who previously founded the successful Baby Central.com which all parents know very well for the smart products they offer.

Outrigger paddler extraordinaire and snack fiend too. Clarissa can normally be found wandering around the ChewsWize Beehive Office, with a snack in hand!

What is your background and what inspired you to start ChewsWize.com?

I used to be the General Manager for a geopolitical and macro-economic advisory service business for CEOs, but I also have a big background in food. I was a Pizza’yol (pizza guy) at a local Italian restaurant in South Africa for several summers whilst studying and there was a stint working for one of the big fast food majors. I also learned from my mother who believes in cooking from scratch with ingredients you recognize. At home we always ate incredibly well and there were no fad diets in our house (you should have seen the cakes we demolished!). So seeing the rising obesity rates caused by junk food on the one hand and extremely expensive quality food offerings on the other frustrated me in Asia. It’s either super-organic-very-expensive-blessed-by-the-Dalai-Lama type food or cheap chemically riddled rubbish. So why not bring affordable, quality, healthy (yet cheeky and fun) snacking for everyone?

chewswizeHow do you source the snacks?

We source from around the globe, with around 40% coming from the US and the rest from South Africa, Europe and parts of Asia. We look for partners who understand our ethos in safely sourced food that has ingredients you recognize, and free of any artificial additives (colouring, flavouring or sulphur preservatives) and who are interested in food innovation too. We limit the number of suppliers, as we’re still a small team. Given we’ve launched aggressively with a large line of over 40 different snacks, we have to keep things small. Otherwise, supply chain wise, it becomes too complex and costly.

Ditching palm oil….

One other thing was deciding to go palm oil free. It was honestly really tough, as palm oil is used in over 50% of all packaged food products on supermarket shelves today! Even certified palm oil is problematic in our view as there isn’t a sufficiently independent and rigorous auditor of the supply chain in the main growing countries of Indonesia and Malaysia. Whilst we’re open to hearing of alternatives that show better auditing, we see RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) as a talking shop and the CSPO (Certified Sustainable Palm Oil) process in a market like Indonesia as too easy to corrupt.

Describe your typical work day?

8am: In the office or BEEHIVE as we like to call it. As it’s the centre of all that we do both

ChewsWize at the Sai Kung Market

for the office and it happens to be the name of smart snack production/selection tracking system. I spend the first 20-30 minutes of my day, mapping what wasn’t done yesterday and compiling as realistic a To Do list as I can. It’s tough; as an entrepreneur you want to do everything now, you want to run fast and push, push, push. But realistically, I find it’s more like slowly run fast. In other words, prioritise what is needed for the business now vs the longer term nice-to-haves but ensure it fits within the business plan we’ve laid out…stick to the plan, as they all say, and then push hard.

Once the day’s plan is set up, we check in to see what orders have been placed overnight and what messaging themes we should aim for in the week ahead on social media.

Then it’s off to the ChewsWize kitchen nearby to taste and test new snacks we have in the works, as we aim to introduce 2-4 new snacks every month. Also, I talk to the kitchen team on how the packing system is working and ways to further refine it, as we’re moving now from a proof-of-concept phase to a scaling phase. It’s a tricky transition and we want to keep it as seamless as possible for the customer.

One of the key fundamentals of the business is around being agile, so we created our so-called BEEHIVE system. The BEEHIVE system, collects thousands of ChewsWizer’s snack ratings, which enables us to quickly adapt and have the ability to personalize a ChewsWizer’s box to their taste buds - a core concept we felt was needed in order to develop this product for the Asia audience, which is very demanding and constantly changing.

Having the BEEHIVE system really is invaluable, we can create, design, launch and data test a snack within 8 days (we aim to get this down to 2 days later on). Once we have assessed the data from the thousands of ratings (the customer can rate the snacks: “Love”, “Like”, “Try” or “No Thanks”), we get a sense of whether we should roll it out further or just kill it. This is something none of the snack majors out there are doing, so we’re bringing a bit of a snack revolution to Asia.

12.30pm: Off to the gym or some kind of cardio outdoors for 45 minutes. I try to keep 3 lunches a week free so I can get to the gym and clear my head. My days can be full-on and I rarely have the energy to face the gym by day’s end.

2.15pm: Either in meetings, talking with suppliers, investors, media, or with our accountant. In-between I’ll be handling customer questions.

5pm: Back at the BEEHIVE, finishing up documents and marketing copy for the design team or sitting with Clarissa looking at how to improve the user interface of the site (as we started off building a “Toyota” and are aiming to upgrade the site to more of a “Mercedes” in the near future).

7.30pm: I’ve answered more emails, talked with some of our suppliers overseas and I’m grabbing dinner with the other half, who also happens to be my great head of design.

Biggest challenges in building our startup?

order more boxes photo

Balancing commerciality with being original in look, feel, taste and design. I’m a very commercial person, which can be both a blessing and a curse; blessing in that you can see what the mass audience likes, and a curse in that you risk being samey same with all the other food/snack firms out there. It’s scary taking a punt on a design with limited budgets for focus groups etc when all your own money goes into a new business!

So we struggled to find our own voice and identity at first and in the end came up with a brand guiding principles document, which helped us filter every decision we made around the colours, names, style and feel. It’s important to me that the customer has a full 360 experience of the brand look and feel from offline to online. Plus, our head of design, Josefina, fought hard to ensure we maintained a different look of the snack packaging and styling from everything else in Asia.

We are a cheeky, fun, yet earnest company wanting to show a better way to snack and also care about the planet we inhabit. Hopefully we have the balance right. I guess time will tell, as more and more consumers experience ChewsWize and our snacks from around the globe.

Most Memorable Moment?

Hearing from some media that we’ve got it just right - as you know they can be very tough to impress. They had seen other subscription box companies but said our colours, snack concepts and fun snack names really brought snacking alive. That really felt like all those debates we’d had internally were totally worth it! But we’re still humble, we still question the snack concepts, our marketing and everything else, as Asian consumers change fast and we need to stay on our toes.

What do I think of HK’s start up scene?

It’s certainly vibrant and dynamic, although the number of accelerators you come across and their “reach” for prospective investors has not been that great in my experience. I think the toughest bit is finding investors whose remit match up with your business theme. Hong Kong is very fad oriented, so right now if you’re in FinTech, getting money is a lot easier. In FoodTech like ours there are less people about so we’ve had to really turn over every stone. Now, as we move into our next funding round, it’s about finding the institutions that are into FoodTech, which is not easy. It would be great if there was a clear listing somewhere…

What are the 3 things you want consumers to know about your company?

Innovation, Personalisation, and Healthy Natural Fun.

Innovation:

At our ChewsWize kitchen we design healthy and fun snack concepts, nutritionist approved, that you won’t find anywhere else in Hong Kong’s supermarkets or 7-11. From our deconstructed “Bo Lo Bao 2.0” to (Aka-Pineapple bun) to our “Antioxidant Dessert” or the simple no-added-sugar fruit we source which isn’t day-glow orange.

Personalisation:

ChewsWizer’s have the ability to personalize their boxes by rating on our site the 40+ snacks we have on offer. Choose from, ‘Try’, ‘Like’ and ‘Love’ if you want them in your box, or ‘No Thx’ so you will never be sent those almonds you hate. The data we then collect on each ChewsWizer’s taste preferences helps us hand pick an ideal box each week. In other words, the box is catered to the ChewsWizer’s own taste buds, but with some surprises that people wouldn’t normally choose but may enjoy.

Healthy, Natural and Fun:

I can’t stress enough how much it bugs us to see ingredients no one can recognise. All our fruit and berries are either straight up naturally dried or juice infused, with no added sugar or sulphur preservatives.

The flavours we invent use normal ingredients, simple, tasty concepts, as if you were inventing them at home. That’s our approach. But we also want snacking to be fun! Being healthy shouldn’t be so serious or tasteless. Hence we name each snack with some cheekiness and we go for interesting flavours - be it straight from nature or pimped up with natural spices, such as our “Mexicana Lurve Bites” and “Bananas on Fire”.

What plans do you have for the future of ChewsWize?

Our aim is to go beyond Hong Kong to other bigger markets. There is a need for better foods and more and more Asian consumers want to eat small meals, so ChewsWize is perfectly positioned to tap into this need. As we shift into our next investment round, we’ll be looking for investment partners who can add value beyond just money, based on our mid- and long-term goals.

We also aim to innovate further with snacks that speak to local tastes and memories of childhood, but also bring new exciting flavours to the region.

For more info, visit: ChewsWize.com and Facebook.


Interview by Ludivine Lombard Taverne