Say no to stodge

Healthy eating startup to disrupt Germany's office canteen tradition

Rostbratwurst – nein danke?
Good, old-fashioned slice of potato sausage for lunch, anyone? Source: DPA

While Alexander Eissing, heir to a German catering company, was working as a creative director in New York in 2011, his schedule meant he would often miss lunch. But it wasn’t a problem. There was a quick, healthy option on every corner in the US metropolis, from sandwiches to salads to snack bars.

When Mr. Eissing returned to Germany, it was a different story altogether. German canteens have a long-standing reputation for producing stodgy food. A traditional midday meal in Germany involves meat and potatoes or other substantial foods, and eating outside of official lunchtime hours means you often have to resort to bags of potato chips, chocolate bars or fries and kebabs from takeaway bars. Given his family background, that got Mr. Eissing thinking.

His idea is simple enough: Combine convenience and healthy eating for office workers in a hurry. Instead of vending machines full of Snickers bars, how about a dedicated fridge full of quinoa salads, red lentil soups and wholegrain energy bars? Which is where Mr. Eissing’s start-up, Livello, comes in.

Like many other young entrepreneurs, Mr. Eissing is sure of himself and buzzing with his bright new idea. But unlike many of his peers, he has a background in the business. His family owns Apetito, a catering company specializing in supplying businesses and schools, with around 9,000 staff and annual revenues of around €829 million.

With an MBA under his belt, he has also founded no less than eight startups. Two have been particularly successful: After selling off the technology underlying Decayenne, an exclusive social network, he went on to sell Copernica, his marketing software company, to a Dutch rival.

0203196156 livello
Alexander Eissing and his healthy meal machine. Source: Livello

His new venture, Livello, has its offices on the grounds of Apetito’s headquarters. But the 34-year-old businessman insists that this is a totally separate enterprise, with completely independent financing. In time, it could even become a competitor to the family business.

Mr. Eissing has ambitious goals for Livello. By the end of next year, he wants to see 400 Livello refrigerators in office buildings and hotel lobbies across Germany. For each, the company will charge a service fee of up to €500 per month, as well as taking the entire revenue from food sales. Customers serve themselves at the Livello machines. The refrigerated machines use a unique software and sensor technology, meaning that when a certain product is running out, a message is sent to Livello headquarters. The fridges are refilled several times a week and customers can pay for the food, using a phone app, by registering their bank cards or with an employee card with a microchip. After they take the food out and close the fridge door, their account is automatically charged. Livello’s offerings cost between €1.50 and €4.99.

And a soft launch this summer suggests demand is high, especially in offices outside of city centers. To hit his target though, Mr. Eissing will have to raise external funding. And he has already had to change his thinking on a number of aspects of the business. Initially, he wanted to make Livello’s selection entirely vegetarian and fair trade. However, customer habits proved hard to change, forcing him to put chicken wraps back on the menu.

If things don’t work out as planned, Mr. Eissing says his plans B and C are already well developed – refocusing on selling the technology, and developing the company’s branded food products. Branching into catering could even steer him towards the family’s business: He’s not ruling out a collaboration with Apetito at a future date. For now, Mr. Eissing is sticking with his one-man show – and who knows, maybe Livello might even inspire those stodgy office canteen cooks.

Lilian Fiala is a reporter and intern with Handelsblatt and its sister publication, WirtschaftsWoche. Brían Hanrahan adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global.

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