Evgeniya Malina, Head of Strategy and Operations, Food Rocket
Evgeniya Malina is a member of the founding team at Food Rocket, having started with the company from its very first days, and has had a direct role in its growth and expansion into 3 different states in the US. She is a professional with 9+ years of work experience in strategic management services, tech consulting, fintech and foodtech with a passion for digital technologies.
What's your industry?
Rapid delivery, foodtech
How did you end up sitting where you are today?
I graduated from University College London and earned a Master’s degree from the Queen Mary University of London. After finishing my studies, I joined a leading consultancy, Ernst & Young, in London, where I worked on high-profile projects for companies on the Fortune Global 500 list, like Amazon.
Later, I joined an international bank where I was the head of analytics within the Digital Business unit. It was a time when huge companies like Google, Amazon, Alibaba and Tencent were building a digital ecosystem around their core products. They wanted to capture clients within the ecosystem by creating products and services that seamlessly penetrated their daily routines, from grocery shopping and booking flights to looking for a job or getting medical help. My team and I analyzed 18 digital markets in three months and developed a strategy for building an ecosystem for the bank, thereby creating one of the leading digital ecosystems in the region.
Afterward, I was invited to join the digital office of a major tech company, where I was responsible for the research and development of 5-year plans to implement technologies like 5G, blockchain and big data across all business, academic and state spheres at the national level. It was a six-month trip, after which I joined another prominent national bank.
The corporation planned to build a service-based structure and undergo digital transformation to accelerate the development of new products and services. The team achieved this by implementing more advanced IT systems and technologies as well as changing the organizational structure and operational processes across all divisions and functions. I was responsible for creating a complete methodological and strategic development for the transformation. As a result, the bank was able to implement more than 1,000 new products and services and reach its financial goals.
I was always looking forward to dealing with actual products and joined another department dealing with debit cards at the start of the pandemic. My goals were to create new debit cards and help smooth the process of digitalizing client experiences, particularly for customers who were only used to offline banking services. One of the most interesting and challenging goals was the development and implementation of a new technological process that would automatically transfer more than 80,000 clients to the national payment system, allowing them to receive their pensions and social benefits without physically attending bank branches in times of COVID-related restrictions.
What kind of work does your daily role involve?
My role at Food Rocket evolved as the company grew. I was recruited by the founders and became one of the first three team members involved in the initial setup. As head of strategy and operations, I set up the foundational operational processes from scratch. Because of this, my daily routine varied: I did everything from setting up the store efficiently to putting myself in the shoes of a picker or driver (during the first weeks, you could often see me delivering orders to test the service, meet customers and get their feedback!) to shopping for the best produce on the market. I did a little of everything to ensure our operations worked and we had the best product offerings.
Once floor operations were established and people were trained, I moved to automating processes via system development. I was responsible for rolling out internal systems across all operating stores and a DC. I designed and tested the systems, wrote technical requirements and instructions, trained over 80 employees and worked continuously to improve the systems to eliminate manual tasks and scale up quickly when the time came. The systems I implemented were the cornerstone of Food Rocket's distinctive operational advantage, and the results achieved with my systems were a deciding factor in closing our Series A round. We reduced order defect rates from 12% to 2%, cut delivery time from 20 minutes to 9 and reduced order costs by 60% with the processes I developed.
My role then evolved into leading the Modules stream: high-growth projects for building new revenue streams alongside the core business, further differentiating in the market of quick deliveries. This is where I had the most fun because my daily routine would be so different - it was like building businesses within a business.
My projects included launching dark kitchens with hot food and drinks prepared and delivered within 15 minutes alongside grocery orders, meeting the need for hot food and groceries in a single app. Once established, every third order included a dark kitchen item.
During this time, I was constantly busy with all aspects of the project: constructing kitchens to ensure efficient operations, creating a menu, selecting equipment, finding a chef, trying out all the ingredients and end dishes I was about to launch, crush-testing disposables and food photo shooting.
I also built the system functionality to automate kitchen processes for the chef's team. This is how I work: To create the best technological solutions, I have to live through the processes and do them all myself. This helps me develop solutions that are reliable, scalable and intuitive.
Another project was piloting the first in the world “greystore” scaling concept, using the existing infrastructure of Circle K and the digital systems of Food Rocket to offer clients the most comprehensive food delivery experience. We digitalized the physical store of Circle K, set up the darkstore operations next to it and integrated back-end processes like payment, so the client experience stayed seamless.
In addition, I developed an innovative low-cost solution to enable age-restricted delivery, with 300+ stock-keeping units offered through the app – truly unique compared to the competition. During this project, my daily routine included designing the concept, researching the market for the best age verification solutions and developing in-app customer flows to comply with existing regulations and provide the best customer experience.
What gets you excited about your industry?
Food is the industry where demand will always be present! Our sector can potentially revolutionize how we grow, produce, distribute and consume food.
It has been amazing to be a part of this continuous industry evolution and see other players like Doordash experimenting with new things.
As a digital leader, it has been amazing to see how tech gets intertwined with all of this, making our lives better, processes more efficient and services more innovative. With Food Rocket, we first intended to help people get groceries without risking their safety by going outside during Covid. Later, this translated into a larger statement of improving lives by freeing up time spent grocery shopping or commuting for more important things like hobbies or family.
With the advent of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and robotics, foodtech companies can offer innovative solutions to help address challenges such as food waste, food safety and supply chain transparency.
At Food Rocket, our mission has been to minimize food waste by offering clients only the best products and implementing AI-based technologies to predict demand and reduce waste.
This mission of eradicating hunger is particularly close to my heart. I have always been involved in volunteering to help people, so this tech may even speed up finding a solution. It excites me to work in an industry that can help improve so many lives!
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you on your journey in business?
"There is always a way." Coming from a corporate world, I feel there has always been a designated territory where you "can't" go beyond because it might be too risky for a big company, too unconventional or simply not worth the effort.
However, startups are all about disruption and having a hunter's mindset. If you want something, there is always a way to do it.
For me, the launch of age-restricted delivery is a good reminder of that.
Launching an age-restricted delivery for alcohol and tobacco products was a big challenge since it is a highly-regulated industry, and we were a young player, but I knew it was worth the risk. I invented a new business model by placing Circle K within a Food Rocket store, ensuring quicker launch, low cost, control over delivery and on-shelf availability (OSA).
To do the same, GoPuff invested $350M to purchase BevMo. At the same time, New York players like Gorillas or Jork had to drop their 15-minute promise to visit nearby stores (aka the Instacart model), giving up control of assortment and OSA. We, in turn, had a minimal investment in the project while keeping delivery time and variety under control thanks to our partnership with Circle K.
What's the most challenging project or situation you've overcome to date?
Definitely greystores. They were a massive and complex project that required coordination between two completely different organizations with their own established systems and processes, moving at different paces and making decisions very differently. I served as a bridge between the two, creating one environment we could work in.
The most distinctive contrast between the two is that Circle K is an offline retailer with many processes not tracked in real-time, whereas with Food Rocket, efficiency in operations through digitalization is the key to the company's unique selling point of speed.
The whole process was like starting a new business from scratch. The hardest part was trying to digitalize and automate processes on Circle K’s side and align them with the darkstore operations. On top of this, since it was new geography for us, we had no existing network of contractors, no experience with local regulations, no established relations and no experienced workforce. I had to prove the concept (since it had never been done before) and deal with the pressure of having my company's reputation and our much bigger partner's reputation on my shoulders, too.
What helped me overcome this was a combination of things. Learning our partner's operations firsthand was a huge help, and having such a deep understanding of Food Rocket's systems allowed me to creatively integrate what I knew from both sides. I also had to keep an open mind and be willing to test, fail, learn and test again until we found a solution.
There have been plenty of challenges with Food Rocket, but my number-one principle is that transformations don't happen in a day. As long as we stay open to new perspectives and are willing to understand the "why," we can accomplish our goals.
Are you using any AI tools right now to help grow your business or, if not, do you plan to use any this year?
Yes. AI and data are at the essence of everything Food Rocket does. It helps maintain the quality of service at a high level by improving the overall experience and saving time so customers can spend time doing things they like (which is our mission!)
The Food Rocket app takes a customer-centric approach to product cataloging, tailoring its offerings to the unique preferences of each city's local customers based on data. This ensures that the most popular categories are prominently displayed at the top, making it easier for customers to find what they are looking for.
In the case of the Food Rocket app, the algorithm also analyzes customer purchase history and the purchases of other customers to identify patterns and make recommendations for complementary items. For example, if a customer frequently purchases pasta, the algorithm might recommend a complementary item such as a jar of pasta sauce or a loaf of garlic bread. These recommendations can increase the size and value of the customer's order and improve their overall experience with the app.
The built-in algorithm also calculates how long it will take us to get the order to the customer by considering factors like weather, number of drivers, how busy the store is, traffic, etc. The internal system auto-assigns a driver to delivery based on availability and proximity to the order. This helps ensure rapid delivery.
Machine learning is at the heart of Food Rocket operations. The inventory management system tracks OSA on an hourly basis, learning how to predict demand at any given point and thus recommending when and how much to order. This ensures high OSA and low waste while minimizing overstock issues. Storage is optimized for efficient picking with the algorithm allocating nearby items that tend to be sold together.
In addition, the system used by store supervisors analyzes which orders are located nearby and suggests batching options, thereby increasing the business’s efficiency.
Overall, do you see AI as a good thing for business?
Yes. AI is a cross-functional instrument that can automate tedious and repetitive tasks, help businesses make better decisions through data analysis and pattern recognition and provide better-personalized customer experiences. Overall, AI can be a powerful tool for businesses, but it is essential to remember that it is not a panacea to every business problem.
My favorite example is chatbots, which can be an efficient solution for some businesses, but they may not always be suitable. This was the case for a healthtech company I worked with, where the emotional nature of customer support calls made it difficult for chatbots to handle. Customers already experiencing difficulty dealing with pain or caring for loved ones were left feeling frustrated and unsupported by the chatbot, ultimately losing trust and decreasing customer satisfaction.
At Food Rocket, our customer support team is predominantly composed of human agents. This approach has proven a competitive advantage, particularly when compared to larger players like GoPuff, where customers may not receive the same individualized attention. But of course, with ChatGPT just being introduced to the world, all this may change relatively soon. Unsurprisingly, market giants like Instacart are already at the forefront of piloting ChatGPT services, making the customer experience more convenient and personalized.
Overall, do you see AI as a threat or an opportunity in business?
Opportunity. Like anything else, it can bring great things to humankind or be immensely misused.
However, that's why we have laws and regulations. Throughout history, whenever something radically new was introduced, rules would evolve to create controls that limit illicit usage.
Inevitably, AI will replace jobs currently performed by humans, potentially leading to significant job displacement and economic disruption. Yet new jobs may also be created, or the nature of people's jobs will change.
Nevertheless, it is not something we can stop, so we have to learn how to live with it and use it to the world's advantage.
Overall, businesses must approach AI cautiously and carefully consider both the potential benefits and risks before implementing it in their operations, especially in its still-early stages of development.
If you had one wish for the future of your industry, what would it be?
Becoming more sustainable through less food waste and more conscious consumption, contributing to the world's sustainability and the healthy habits that improve the quality of our lives.
My other wish would be transparency in the supply chain because we often don't even know what we eat and what effect it will have on our health.
Humans should start treating their food consumption as a conscious choice, and both of those things would help create that shift.