UCook’s David Torr shares his recipe for success.
He might have been expelled from several posh schools, been a marijuana dealer at 17, cut off from his trust fund in his twenties – and voted by his classmates at the Red and Yellow School as the person most likely to go to jail, but David Torr, CEO and co-founder of South Africa’s largest meal-kit provider, UCook, was grinning from ear to exhausted ear when we met.
By the time you read this the company, founded by Torr and his friend Chris Verster Cohen in 2015 after they had met in Thailand, will be well on their way to opening their first unique flagship retail store at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront – “in a prime location near Woolworths”. They will be selling an assortment of dinner kits and other ready-made meal products. Besides getting into the retail sector, UCook will, in June, also launch a range of ready-made meals online.
The company, which delivers convenient, healthy dinner kits with easy-tofollow recipe cards, started off with Torr and friends packing meal ingredients into boxes from a garage in Cape Town. (They once sent off the kits without the recipes, he recalls.) The business had reached a turnover of close to R100 million by the end of last year.
At the time of going to press, UCook had just emerged from a series of “long and laborious "negotiations” with three of the country’s top retailers with a view to providing a range of products to one of them – a deal that would have seen UCook’s ready made meals and other ethically produced goods expanded to about 150 stores over the next few years. But in a phonecall just before deadline, Torr told Noseweek that all potential deals were off. “They all want exclusivity… which means that the meals we trade in the stores must be different to the frozen meals we have on site, so we’re not going to go with any of the retailers, it’s too prohibitive for us, we want to keep the trade to our own site. We’ll just open our own bricks and mortar stores,” he said. “I’m feeling great about this. It allows us to own the stores and to market and brand and engage with users in the way we want to.”
Noseweek has noticed that at least two big grocery retailers have copied UCook by introducing their own versions of meal kits.
Interviewed at his head office in Maitland, Cape Town, Torr spoke about his unconventional upbringing as the child of a secret affair between a wealthy Italian, UK-based businessman and his “esoteric”, unmaterialistic mother; about his remarkable business trajectory; and his personal struggles with being a millennial and “extreme entrepreneur” in a complicated world.
To get to his office, in a drab business park, this reporter walked up an ugly industrial staircase and stepped over a young woman in jeans with a nose ring, sprawled on the steps, smoking, while chatting to a young tousle-haired blond man. Turned out those are Torr’s business partners, Verster Cohen and Katie Barry, who, with her maths Master’s degree has been described by Torr as the person who’s been key to the business’s reaching its impressive revenues in three-and-a-half years.
A whistle-stop tour of the premises suggested that UCook is slowly colonising the business park: besides the admin/operations office, they have a big warehouse from which local distribution takes place as well as housing their marketing and tech offices. They also have warehouses and offices in Midrand. UCook delivers about 120,000 meals (20,000 meal kits) a month.
The parcels contain only what is needed to make a meal and include recipes from top chefs. Among that week’s options were “The famous panzanella with fior di latte and basil; Moroccoli with pearl couscous and longstem broccoli; or Lamb adana kebabi with roti and fresh Lebanese salad”. No food is wasted in the kits and the company supports small farmers and keeps their menus seasonal and organic.
Recipes are divided into three categories – Health Nut, Vegetarian and Easy Peasy – and nine new recipe options are given every week. Orders are packed in boxes with ice-packs and delivered right to your door on specified days.
When we met, Torr had big plans for the year ahead: the retail store – expected to launch in August – was foremost in his mind.
Torr described himself as “very much a millennial in the technical definition, but anti-millennial in my value construct”. He referred repeatedly to his conviction that wealthy people have a duty to give back to society. “There’s a real entitlement that’s been born in this generation – as if you deserve reward without having to do the work. I don’t fit into that category at all.”
Torr also spoke of the relentlessness of being at the helm of such a big enterprise. “There’s a misconception around the kind of liberation that comes with being an entrepreneur and running your own business. I feel very shackled in many ways to the set of obligations I have to my greater employee base, the board and the investors.
“My commitment definitely supersedes that of a traditional employer… and there’s lots of pressure within the e-commerce and tech environment. We run a business with week-to-week pressure. We’re as good as our last order week. Right now I am tired.”
Describing himself as an “extreme entrepreneur”, he said: “In many ways the success has cost me the great lifestyle I would love. My work involves extreme, obsessive commitment. I’m at work at six in the morning, home at ten and I‘m up till midnight. I lose track of time. My twenties, are supposed to be the most vital years of my life. These are the years people go on amazing journeys and explore who they are.
“The by-product of all this business stuff for me has been a general degeneration in my personal development. I’m starting to see a therapist quite frequently. It’s been fundamentally tough running three or four businesses simultaneously. I’m not available socially as much as I’d like to be… I don’t really see anyone during the week so I overcompensate when I do go out. I get very drunk. Being an extreme entrepreneur has been challenging.”
His father died when Torr was in his teens, leaving strict instructions for Torr to receive his inheritance via a trust fund. He spent his early twenties, travelling, teaching in Thailand and working as a waiter and as a chef on a boat (he was fired after two weeks). While travelling, he heard that he’d been completely cut off from his trust because he had passed his tertiary education period and the trust could no longer motivate supporting him. “Those were my father’s wishes.”
He returned to South Africa in 2013 with a new attitude and a few ideas.
“When I arrived back in Cape Town, the house my mother was living in in Noordhoek was in squalor and my mother had 12 vagrants living in our house, paying her a pittance in rental. Everything just came into focus then. That was the year when I started everything.
Before UCook, Torr started a couple of other businesses which are still growing. In 2014, he came up with the idea of launching a festival. With no money to kickstart the venture, he and a friend launched the Eden Experience, using the money from tickets they sold to pay for the venue. Today, Eden hosts three festivals a year By the end of 2015 Torr had earned a respectable R120,000 which he invested in UCook.
In 2014, noticing a gap in the student accommodation market, Torr borrowed money and launched a property development company, Solace, which he built up steadily, starting with a development in Woodstock, Urban Artisans.
While travelling in the UK, Torr had come across a concept of meal kits called HelloFresh and thought meal kits were a fascinating concept which could work in South Africa – with better meals and more transparency about the supply chain of the products.
When he and his girlfriend were in Thailand Torr met Chris Verster Cohen – who had just completed his BSocSci at UCT – and told him about his idea for meal kits. Verster Cohen was interested and the duo decided to work together.
When UCook started in 2015, it was from a garage at the home of Verster Cohen’s parents. They each borrowed R25,000 which paid for a vacuumsealer, and some weighing and kitchen equipment.
They launched on Facebook and their first 21 orders came from family and friends, most of whom stopped their orders when the pair forgot to include recipe cards with the ingredients. Not long after this, the company’s third partner Katherine Barry, joined UCook.
While working as waitrons to cover their costs, the team was soon sending out 50 boxes of food every week. They worked hard on marketing and promoting their new business and got good publicity. but they needed more funding – and after making use of an investment from Torr’s Eden earnings, the company realised it needed even more money.
In mid 2015, following some hard talking, the Cape Town-based investment firm Silvertree Internet Holdings bought 50% of the business. The investment enabled UCook to take on bigger premises and invest in more equipment such as industrial fridges. Since then they’ve grown their database to more than half-a-million people who want to cook like top chefs.
The business is now holding on to more than 10% of the country’s online grocery market.
Next to invest was retail business, Smollen, bringing the value of the business to R200 million.
On top of the UCook developments, the year ahead will see Torr working on another student accommodation development of 55 units in the Urban Artisan development in Woodstock under the Solace umbrella.
Torr has always had an entrepreneurial streak – at 12, he sold firecrackers to kids at school and at 17 he set up two friends in rental apartments to grow marijuana, which he sold in a sophisticated distribution network. “I was a legit marijuana dealer for a yearand- a-half, making R100,000 a month.”
But things have not always been this rosy for Torr. Born in 1990, he started life in Johannesburg. A child who was “technically the son of an affair,” he battled with serious rejection issues, even though his biological father visited him regularly and clearly loved him.
“My mother, Anthea Torr, had a relationship with my biological father, Guy Zammit, and then married my stepdad, Andrew Torr, when I was three years old. Andrew Torr is, to this day, still my surrogate dad and the most active parent in my life.” Anthea and Andrew later divorced but David remains close to his stepfather.
“My (biological) dad’s affair with my mom took place unbeknown to his family, who lived in the UK. I was kept secret from his family and they only found out about me when he died. I am, only recently, getting to know those members of the family. I am the physical manifestation of my father’s betrayal,” Torr said.
“Although I was kept a secret from my father’s family, I used to see him every two to three weeks. He’d either fly me to the UK or visit me in South Africa. He never abandoned me. He just didn’t tell his family about me.
“My biological father was a wealthy deal-making hustler constantly doing different stuff and he travelled a lot. He had many different businesses.When in South Africa, he was based in Sandton.
“He was a lovely guy who was hugely charismatic, mysterious with lots and lots of layers. He was Italian by origin and spoke seven languages. He had a real magnetism and told fascinating stories. He had a running classic comic character in his stories, called Contrarino, who never got anything right. He was very spontaneous and in the moment.
“He did ridiculous things and would always bring a situation to life. He always had these magical ideas. Once he wanted to develop a suit that could be filled with helium, which people could get into and then float around in parks. Another time he decided that what we needed to do as a hobby was ride dirt bikes, so he arrived having purchased a whole bunch of dirt bikes and took us – me and my step siblings – on these ridiculous excursions.
“We would often cook together. I remember cooking pasta with him for the first time – and being about ten years old, sitting in his bed, watching weird PG 18 art nouveau movies and eating whole chickens from Nandos.
“He phoned every week. I’d see him every two to three weeks. He was present in my life, big on family, just very cowardly. He didn’t want to destroy his other family.”
“I loved him. He was my hero. We’d sit for hours just talking.”
After Zammit died of a heart attack on his game farm in Thabazimbi in 2002, young David was not mentioned at the funeral. “That was a big one for me. They had funerals in Johannesburg, Italy and the UK and I wasn’t mentioned in any of them. I was hugely devastated. When he died I lost my best friend.
“I’d always wanted to meet the family of my father but only got to meet them when he died – and then they didn’t accept me for 13 years, from when I was 13 until I was 26.
“There was always this element of rejection in my life. I was always on the periphery of my core family.”
The young Torr was not physically active, because of a broken arm which remained in a cast for about four years due to a bone graft that didn’t heal. “I couldn’t do the traditional things like play on a jungle gym. I became introspective, a daydreamer.”
Torr described his mother, Anthea as an esoteric person, who, in direct contrast to his father, is not interested in “worldly stuff”. “Interestingly, she is such a happy person, while my father, with all his money, was very unhappy. My mother is devoted to a higher purpose in her life and follows the teachings of the ascendant masters. She is hugely spiritual.
“As a kid, my mother was extreme and way ahead of the curve. She was doing organic and free-range way before anyone knew what it was; she already avoided chemicals and knew that parabens cause cancer. She did the research, made sure we were eating properly, hated sugar and was a great mother.
“Our house was off the grid by the time I was 13. We had solar, all our gas was methane and we had a two-acred vegetable garden we were eating off. We were vegan. She is the most loving person I know.”
His mother currently lives in a mobile home. “She travels around and recently went up into Africa for two years by herself to meet up with our former Malawian caretaker, Watson. She is a wanderer and a woman of few luxuries. I support her financially.”
Torr was at Reddam school in Johannesburg and aged 13 when his father died. “That was when I went off the rails. It was definitely a trigger event. I started doing a whole bunch of stuff. I was very obnoxious and got into lots of fights.
He was expelled from Reddam “for strapping a whole lot of widowmakers (fire-crackers) together and blowing up a toilet; also for throwing a soccer ball at the biology teacher’s head”.
He then went to Somerset College in Somerset West from grades seven to nine when he moved to the Waldorf School. He was expelled from there, too, for his general behaviour and because of reports that he was dealing in marijuana, which he was.
“One of the funnier moments at Waldorf was when I was asked to give a speech about the land surveying camp. I didn’t think it was hugely useful so another guy and I created a 15-minute dialogue about how useless it was. The skit didn’t go down well. I also locked a lot of teachers out of the classroom.”
After a year-or-so of home schooling, he eventually finished school at Abbotts before going travelling in Thailand and the US for a year.
“I was a trust fund kid for most of my life. There was always a safety net. I knew that when I was 30 I’d receive a large sum of money so I never really had an urge to make a success of myself commercially. Well, I’m not yet 30 and I haven’t received that money yet!”
Torr spent two years at the Red and Yellow School in Cape Town, where he “enjoyed the lateral thinking bit” but realised he was hopeless at copywriting, and went travelling again, returning in 2013 “with a renewed vigour and the serious desire to prove myself”. That was when he started the Eden Experience, followed by Solace and then UCook. The rest is history – and Torr believes he will grow from strength to strength in his range of businesses.
Asked who he admires in business, he retorted: “One person I do not admire is (the late Apple founder) Steve Jobs. “Despite his achievements, there is a lack of humanity there. Elon Musk is interesting. I find what he’s doing super riveting. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia (the US-based outdoor apparel firm) and author of the book Let My People Go Surfing, is someone I really admire. He’s managed to turn his business culture into the company’s growth engine.”
Torr is “greatly concerned about the corruption in big business in South Africa” but believes the country could be “one of the most incredible… powerhouses in the world”.
“We have all the right chemistry but I think in order for that to occur, at some point of time there is going to have to be racial unionism.
“Many of my friends are Jewish. The Jews are an amazing collective... united, based on belief and past suffering. South Africa has been through a lot as a country. We need to throw our lot in together and make this thing happen.”
When he’s not working, Torr loves playing “nerdy magic” card games. “I am into weird fantasy stuff. My collection of magic cards is worth R1 million. I’ve been playing since I was ten. Playing cards takes me back to a better time.” Besides getting UCook into the retail sector, the company will launch a range of ready-made meals online in June.
On top of that, Torr is in the process of starting a new business with former Miss South Africa Adè van Heerden, who is a medical doctor and nutritionist.
“We are developing a four-week holistic health and longevity programme for women. We’ve been studying all the blue zones around the world, like Okinawa, where people live on average for 100 years and have analysed their dietary habits. We are building a fourweek programme in which we deliver four meals a day and which includes exercises to kickstart the metabolism and immune system so that people can feel good and healthy again.”
Also on the agenda this year, said Torr, is an investigation into an honest foods micro grocer which speaks to the UCook narrative. “We would like to bring a range of independent producers together into an honest grocery concept that serves the full spectrum of grocery needs, but which abides by a set of ethical principles so that people don’t even think about what they are buying, they just know that the products buy into a collective philosophy. It would also create an environment for small community projects to trade wares.”
Another big thing Torr is aiming to do this year is to become more of an activist in business. “We are looking at developing UCook’s touch points and our ability to communicate with users iteratively,” he said.
“Think about this: we are a subscription model, people receive a box of food every week, from us so we are getting right into their households. It is the perfect place to start putting interesting messaging and communication. I want UCook to start taking an activist position in relation to demanding an honest food culture. There is a huge need for this. Our communications must filter down to government bread level. We will even interrogate what nutrients are actually going into our bread.
“We want to be big whistleblowers in that space. Food is the biggest killer in the world. It creates obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. We want to ensure that businesses are fundamentally honest in what they say they are and what they are... if they claim to be a health product, they must be healthy; if they are not healthy, then that’s ok, but then they must admit it. Let’s not pretend Kelloggs has all the nutrients and vitamins needed for a child to grow. It’s bullshit and it’s wrong.”
Torr also wants to build a business blog that will showcase what UCook is actually doing as a business.
“We will promote ethical business practices and share how we do it. We’ll answer questions like, how do we treat our staff, what do our employment upliftment programmes look like, what are we doing within the cultural environment and agricultural space?”
On top of all this, Torr intends writing a book to tell his story and share anecdotes of successful business practices. But he’s really looking forward to taking a sabbatical at the end of the year to touch base with himself. “I’ve been so immersed in all these projects, there’s a part of me that feels a bit lost. I have no spiritual life whatsoever. I’d like to take two months’ sabbatical to maybe do the Camino or a ten-day meditation or maybe go to Kashmir.”
Foremost in his mind is the need to give back: “While UCook is an ethical business in terms of its construct, it hasn’t really done enough… to positively impact the greater community. We have the potential to do so much more. I believe that being of service is what brings real happiness. Look at my father, who was this hugely rich wealthy industrialist businessman. He was hugely unhappy. My mother, who has no money, has spent her life serving others and she is one of the happiest people I know.”
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