Eat My Lunch founder Lisa King opens up about how the business has affected her family

Her marriage did not survive, but family life has changed for the better in immeasurable ways.
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It’s early morning in an Auckland warehouse where volunteers are packing up the 1600 lunches they’ve made to be delivered to low-decile schools around the country. The big, sunny room is bustling with loud chatter driven by coffee and goodwill.

Eat My Lunch founder Lisa King has just arrived into the well-organised chaos after dropping her kids Ella, 10, and Toby, eight, at school. The petite, softly spoken marketing executive is the antithesis of the noisy bustle going on in the building, but looks can be deceiving. Lisa is the powerhouse behind the two-year-old organisation, which has grown exponentially since the idea came to her during a Labour Day escape in 2014.

Lisa, who had been working in marketing for corporate food companies for 15 years, was having a glass of wine with her then-partner Iaan Buchanan and discussing the crisis of conscience she was having about children going without lunches in New Zealand. Her dismay had been triggered by seeing a piece on the TV show Campbell Live that was comparing the lunches of kids at low-decile schools with those at high-decile schools.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, is this really happening?’ A lot of people were talking about it and I was like, ‘Well, what is actually being done about it? These kids are coming to school every day hungry and no one is doing anything!’ I was wearing a pair of TOMS Shoes and I said to Iaan, ‘What if we did a buy-one give-one on lunches like TOMS has done?’”

Lisa says that Iaan, being the more commercial of the pair, suggested a sell-10 give-one model, but she was determined.

“We are set up as a social business,” she says. “We have a clear delineation: when people buy a lunch, that funds a lunch for the kids; we don’t rely on or ask for donations.”

By June 2015 she had acclaimed Kiwi chef Michael Meredith on board as her Eat My Lunch (EML) partner and had quit her high-powered marketing job at Fonterra to start the social enterprise in her and Iaan’s Mt Eden kitchen.

That first year was somewhat of a whirlwind, starting with their estimated orders quadrupling by week two. By the end of the first 12 months they’d delivered 178,000 lunches to kids, had Lorde on board as an ambassador and had moved out of their kitchen to their current inner-city Auckland premises.

Just over two years since inception, they have 27 paid staff running the “buy side” of the business (the lunches delivered to paying customers), volunteer slots booked up two months in advance, and have delivered 450,000 lunches to children in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington. Children who would have otherwise have gone without.

On their second birthday Lisa stopped and took stock of what they had achieved. “On our first birthday I went, ‘Thank God we’ve made it, we got here, and we survived,’” she says.

“On our second it was a bit different – I woke up at 3.30 in the morning quite excited because it felt more like a milestone, like we had actually achieved something.”

To celebrate, the keen traveller took her first holiday in two years.

“I also turned 40 this year and so I had a big trip overseas – just me, no kids.”

“I went to New York and the Cayman Islands, where my best friend lives. I was so tired, I think my friend was like, ‘Do you want to actually get up and go do something?’”

The children who receive EML were given a birthday gift too – packets of Lego that were delivered with each of the lunches that day.

“For a lot of the kids that was the only present they’ll ever get and they were blown away. They said, ‘Can we actually take this home?’”

She used that opportunity to help her own eight-year-old son Toby practise some empathy of his own.

“Toby loves Lego and so when he saw it all he said, ‘Can I have one?’ and I said, ‘Well Tobes, you decide – because if you take one, a kid misses out. You have a lot of Lego and this might be the only Lego these kids have.’ He sat there and deliberated for literally 10 minutes – ‘I really want one, but I know a kid’s gonna miss out, but I really want one.’ It was torture for him, but in the end he went, ‘Oh, I won’t have it.’ They live in their own little bubble and they have everything and sometimes you have to remind them.”

Lisa says the success of EML has come from a mixture of her empathy and passion and Iaan’s business sense, the schools, volunteers, marketing and communications. Iaan looks after the commercial side of the business and she looks after the people side.

“We have always had that distinct separation of roles – we say he is the head, I am the heart of the business – you need both to make it work really well. This was my idea that he helped to execute and that has always been driven by my passion and what I wanted to do.”

“We were able to break even after six months. Something like 75 per cent of small businesses die in their first five years, so we were always really conscious about how we were going to survive.”

She says charity fatigue hasn’t affected EML because of its immediacy.

“People get their lunch and the children are being fed that day too. It is really transparent – I think people want to know where their money is going to and what it is actually going to do.

“Both of us had had all of this experience working for large corporates and I think that has given us a real advantage in terms of being able to move really quickly, in a systematic way – what people don’t see is what makes it happen. It is a massive logistics operation.”

What people also don’t see is the personal cost Iaan and Lisa have paid to get the enterprise to this point. It is a business full of joy and giving but it has taken a toll on their private life. The couple split up a year ago.

“Often people see this amazing business that has grown out of nowhere but for Iaan and I there has been a lot of personal sacrifice and a huge labour of love with all the hours that have gone behind it – people don’t realise we have worked incredibly hard.

“When Iaan and I were together he had two kids and I had two kids from previous marriages and we were trying to work this blended family and a new business working all hours – something had to give in the end.”

They remain business partners.

“We are no longer together but we still run the business together – it was a challenge, but again it was like having a baby, having this thing we created together that we both really loved, and neither of us wanted to walk away from that. So I wouldn’t say it was easy but that is how we have worked for a year now.”

In fact, she says while she was nervous at first about being alone, she has found empowerment in being single and knowing she can do things on her own.

“I would want my daughter Ella to feel she could do this too if she needed to.”

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There has been no shortage of high-profile people wanting to endorse the business.

“Lorde’s agent rang us a few months after we launched and said she would like to be involved. She was in Los Angeles and she said, ‘I don’t need lunch obviously; how do I give both my lunches to the kids?’ We had been working on ‘give two’ which meant anyone, anywhere could give both their lunches to the kids – and so she launched that.

“Recently, Liam Malone, the Paralympian, messaged me on LinkedIn and said, ‘How can I get involved?’ So he came in and loved it and became EML’s first official ambassador, and the same thing happened with Joseph Parker – he was in here on Friday filming for us. It’s awesome because it is so genuine and authentic; we are not forcing someone to be a part of something that they are not passionate about.”

The biggest coup was getting chef Michael Meredith, whom she originally met when she was in marketing and he helped her launch a product she was working on. When Lisa came up with the idea for Eat My Lunch she contacted him to ask if he would be involved.

“Within minutes of chatting he said, ‘Yes, I am in, but I don’t want to just put my name to it – I want to be fully involved.’”

During the first few months they did the recipe testing together – Lisa would come up with an idea and Michael would work with her to improve it.

“He was so lovely – he would get me to make up the recipe and then would go, ‘How about we put this in it?’ and he would do something that would make it 10 times better, and he was always so lovely the way he went about it.

“And then for the first six or seven months, he would come at five o’clock in the morning, make lunches like everyone else. He is so incredibly humble, he would be sweeping the floors, doing the dishes. Then he and I would take the lunches out to the schools and that would be our reward – being able to hang out with the kids.”

“Even though they lived here for 30-odd years, it was never really home for her. Yeah, it was hard her going, particularly because a few years later I had kids.”

Two years into her first marketing job for The Dairy Board (which became Fonterra), Lisa moved to the Philippines to work with her then husband, the father of her children. She was there for three years. “It was fascinating. It is really chaotic, dirty; it’s a developing country.

“Then we moved to London; I worked for Unilever there for about two years, and that was amazing, just living in Europe and actually having a proper job and having money to travel. We spent about five-and-a-half years overseas and then came back to have Ella.”

That was a decade ago. Lisa says Ella is a bookworm and her younger brother Toby a “typical boy”, who loves Lego, rugby and sports. They also have a Westie poodle called Noodle.

The children fight over who will take over the company in the future and miss having the business based at their home.

“They miss the buzz and the activity,” says Lisa.

“When it was in the house they would wake up and walk into the kitchen and there would be 20 or 30 strangers all making lunches and they loved it. They would talk to people and Toby is a really keen cook, so whenever he got up he would make breakfast for himself and for Michael Meredith. Now he asks sometimes to come in here [EML’s headquarters] a little bit earlier – about 6.30am – to help out.”

Asked about their awareness of what EML does, Lisa says the process has been organic.

“They know in theory. If you ask them what Eat My Lunch is about they will tell you – because they hear us talk about it so much – but to actually experience it is different. I took Ella to a school one day to drop off some lunches and she saw that not every school and area is as nice as her decile 10 school. She saw a lot of the kids had no shoes and it scared her a bit. As they get older they are getting more aware that there are lots of kids who don’t have what they have.”

Leaving her high-powered job in the corporate world to establish EML was a risk for Lisa. There were still bills to pay and children to feed, but she says she doesn’t miss her old job one bit.

“It has been so liberating to be able to make decisions without going through a process. Between Iaan and I, we make a decision and it happens. I have never worked so hard in my life. For the first seven months, we were working from four in the morning until 11 o’clock at night, but you feel like every minute you put into it there is an outcome and that effort hasn’t been wasted.”

No mean feat for someone who doesn’t like mornings.

“I am just not a morning person and so my friends thought it was hilarious that I had come up with a business idea that started at four in the morning. People said I’d get used to it but I never have. I am a real night owl – I would rather stay up until midnight and work.”

Lisa says as soon she and Iaan created the enterprise, people came out in droves to support it.

“One of the biggest highlights of this job is the people. The type of people we attract here are so different from in the corporate world, and I am blown away every day by people’s generosity – people give us things because they really want to help us and they don’t ask for anything in return. Whereas I think in marketing and sales you get so stuck in ‘what’s in it for me?’

“The guys from Caffe L’affare just started sending us two kilos of coffee a week for the volunteers, then the sales manager from Brink’s chicken walked in and said, ‘I saw a piece on you guys saying you needed 60 kilos of chicken a week – how would you like that for free?’ And they don’t ask for anything.”

Then there are the volunteers – like Victoria Nicol, who is, as we speak, making coffee. She was one of Eat My Lunch’s first volunteers and is now the only paid employee on the give side, where she co-ordinates the volunteers and inducts them every morning.

“Everyone at EML has a story. She was the stepmum of my boyfriend at university. In our second week when our numbers quadrupled and we weren’t expecting it, I put out a post on Facebook saying, ‘We need hands – please come and help,’ and she came and volunteered every morning at 6am for about a month; then we hired her as the business grew.”

It started off with friends and family, but the word spread quickly.

“People I didn’t know started coming and they would bring their friends and so we literally had strangers walking into our home. There was a big hallway that led to the kitchen and we couldn’t always hear the door so we would leave it unlocked and people would just walk in past the kids’ bedrooms. I did wonder at times if we should be locking the door – but we didn’t and nothing ever happened.

“Everyone who comes in is there for the right reasons.”

To order a lunch, click here

To volunteer, click here

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