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Q&A: Relay Foods CEO Zach Buckner on leading an online startup in today’s food retail world

6 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Zach Buckner, Relay Foods CEO (Photo: Relay Foods)

As online shopping, and increasingly, online grocery shopping, has become ubiquitous in the lives of consumers everywhere, supermarkets and grocery stores are jumping in line to serve the needs of today’s busy consumer. From Webvan to Amazon Fresh,  online grocery shopping sites have come and gone over the past 10-plus years. Still, Zach Buckner, CEO of Charlottesville, Va.-based Relay Foods, saw a need to feed consumers’ growing hunger for convenience, and started the online food marketplace focused on delivering groceries, local and organic produce, and specialty items in 2009.

Now, with five years under its belt, Relay Foods is looking to the future with new priorities including investing in tools, products and enhancements to its website in order to streamline and simplify customers’ efforts to incorporate high-quality foods into their lives, Buckner told SmartBrief.

We talked to Buckner about his journey in starting Relay Foods, the lessons it’s taught him and what he looks for in potential leaders.

Can you tell us about your path to becoming CEO of Relay Foods?

Since childhood, I loved experiments and invention. My dad, a professor, helped to cultivate this spirit in me — he would bring home old phones and mechanical relays as toys for me to play with. This love grew into an early fascination with computers, leading me to earn bachelors and masters degrees in engineering at UVA.

My engineer’s approach to life — finding compelling problems with potentially systematic solutions irresistible – turned me into an accidental CEO.

After my third child was born, I noticed that much of the after-work time I could be spending with the family was instead allocated to trips around town in rush hour traffic for everyone’s favorite foods. When I got home, I still wouldn’t have everything my wife needed for the evening’s meal (often necessitating yet another trip!). Driven to find a solution to the frustrating problem my family (and, I’m convinced, lots of other families) faced, I started researching more efficient ways of getting food from the people who make it to the people who consume it.

While I knew success was highly unlikely, I decided to dive in and try my hand at building an “invention” that could solve this problem. It felt like a worthwhile undertaking because, on the small chance my “invention” succeeded, it could have a huge impact.

After the initial spark of invention, I knew I needed to find hardworking, passionate individuals who could cultivate the seed I had planted. While I work alongside the team and provide insight where I can, it is the vision and creativity of our team that have grown Relay into the flourishing entity it is today, far beyond what I envisioned on day one.

What has it been like leading a startup in a category, online grocery shopping, that is just beginning to gain traction? What were your greatest challenges, successes?

In Relay’s early years (2009 and 2010), many potential investors had been burned by Webvan’s implosion in the early 2000’s, or had witnessed that failure. Investors have long memories for catastrophic failure, and they were not eager to re-examine a category they viewed as likely to simply implode again.

This skepticism made our first few years extraordinarily difficult.

In some ways, though, the cloud had a silver lining – we stepped into the unknown with only a few dedicated backers and even fewer competitors. This initial slow growth phase allowed us to spend a couple of years honing our operations, testing initial ideas and building out a website from scratch.

More recently, the online grocery industry has gained increasing interest as big players like Amazon are entering the battlefield, along with many smaller startups. It has been gratifying to feel ahead of the curve in many respects, to know that systems and brands like ours are not built overnight. We have a head start in an industry many people are now interested in building and supporting.

Speaking personally, leading Relay has been incredibly fun and rewarding. As a chronic innovator, Relay as a whole and the many small questions and projects that arise within it, satisfies my desire to build something new and to share something of value with our customers and communities.

How do you feel the food industry has changed in the past 10 years, and how has that affected your leadership style and what is important in leading a company?

With information of all kinds being made accessible through the Internet, businesses in every industry have been pushed towards higher levels of accountability for their actions. Businesses can no longer easily hide their missteps from consumers, and that’s a good thing.

This is especially true within the food industry. As a society, we are becoming increasingly aware of the connection between what people eat and how they feel. I don’t think it would be overstating the case to say there has been an re-awakening to the importance of food quality for overall health and well-being.

Healthful foods have gone from being a niche interest to becoming a concern of a much broader swath of consumers. Increasing numbers of consumers are demanding transparency about where their food comes from, how it is made, and what is in it.

Here at Relay, transparency is a core ethic in all of our work. We want our consumers to know where their food was grown, and by whom. We also deal with one another transparently — we try to foster a culture of honest feedback and data-driven decisions.

What do you look for in potential leaders at Relay Foods?

I look for many qualities — cultural fit is an important value to us here, as the right team members make work more efficient, more enjoyable and more creative.

Four qualities that are important to me are:

  • Humility (both being willing to admit fault and being willing to wear many hats outside an “official” title)
  • Willingness to take risks
  • An experimental mindset (bias towards data over dogma)
  • Sheer capability

What are three key things you’ve learned about leading a company in the food and beverage industry that you’d like to pass along to other emerging leaders?

First, this industry already has incredible scale efficiency. You’re not going to out-Wal-Mart Wal-Mart. Instead, the secret to success is learning how to identify and create other points of value — convenience and quality — rather than being stuck in a price battle.

Secondly, food is unavoidably real and tangible. You can’t just “hack” fresh food into being less perishable without sacrificing quality. So having systems in place that respect food and quality is critical.

Third, hire people who deal well with diversity. Our company’s providers and partners run the gamut from farmers who don’t have cell phones to some of the country’s best developers. There are all kinds of people in the food industry, and successful employees will build incredible relationships with all of them.

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