February 12, 2021
The Future Of Food Is Here: This Woman’s ‘Life-Changing Technology’ Could Transform The Way You Get Your Dinner
By Amanda Svachula for Katie Couric Media
Christine Marcus, founder of Alchemista, on making restaurant food more accessible
On a late night in 2011, MIT business student Christine Marcus and some of her fellow students were gathered in an empty classroom, cramming before finals. Hunger eventually hit. Her friend, whose family owned several Italian restaurants around Boston, ordered a large spread. Years later, Marcus lovingly remembers biting into a forkful of steaming bolognese and tasting the intermingling of flavors in prosciutto-wrapped dates.
“I was blown away,” she told KCM. “I asked him, ‘Why are you not competing and delivering your food to a place like MIT, that’s literally spending millions of dollars on generic meals?”
“He started explaining to me the challenges of local mom and pop restaurants, who have this amazing food, but don’t have the infrastructure that allows them to compete in the (large-scale food and beverage) industry.”
That fateful night planted the seed of an idea in Marcus — she wanted to pioneer a cost-effective, safe way to bridge the gap between local food joints and large corporations and businesses in need of delicious meals.
Today, with her company Alchemista, Marcus is on the brink of changing the food industry as we know it. She has pioneered a temperature-controlled, sanitized, easily installable locker technology, called the “Orbit,” that can be filled with fresh, healthy, “Dean & Deluca-type” food, 24/7. The lockers are like “mobile markets” that can fit in corporate offices, apartment buildings, schools and even outdoors at bus stops. Once freshly made food is placed in a locker, it’s kept either hot or cold — ready for pickup by a lucky consumer.
“The technology is literally life-changing,” Marcus told KCM. “It’s a machine that we can choose to put anything in, and it’s run by software that’s completely remotely controlled and monitored… We even have ones that are waterproof.”
“We’ve pivoted in a way of thinking about food… rather than having to order it or wait for it, we literally can put it anywhere, bring it everywhere, and change the paradigm about what accessibility actually means.”
In fact, Alchemista just received a game-changing investment from a large international food and beverage company and has been feeding the employees of Moderna, the pharma company responsible for one of the nation’s Covid-19 vaccines, during the pandemic. However, Marcus’ idea was not always so expansive, and like many entrepreneur stories, the journey has not been easy.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Marcus’ family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 3 years old. She went on to work in the Department of Energy, before quitting her job to attend MIT.
After that fateful night in business school, over the last seven years, Marcus dedicated her entire life to building Alchemista. She had no food world experience, very little money, but a lot of passion for food and its ability to bring people together. “I’m from a Middle Eastern family and food has always been a key part of our family,” she said. “We were the house that everybody would gather at all the time.”
“I took kind of the bootstrap path,” she told us. A single mom, she sold her house, began living off her 401K, and worked with whomever she could. “It was basically me and a couple of free interns,” she said. “I just did everything; talked to the restaurants, I figured out how the technology works. I built a lot of it myself because I didn’t have money to hire people.”
In its original iteration, Alchemista was solely focused on moving into the corporate space — and bringing healthy, delicious lunches to big offices. In 2020, the company was in full-fledged launch mode, ready to roll out in several different corporate buildings across the country. That’s when Covid-19 hit. As one by one, companies ordered their employees to not return to their offices for an indefinite period of time, Marcus watched seven years of hard work dissolve in the blink of an eye. “I literally was just crying nonstop for 48 hours,” she said. She was forced to furlough her staff, and she was back to square one.
Like thousands of other businesses that have had to restructure themselves during the pandemic, Marcus was forced to think about her business in a new way. And in her case, she decided to think bigger: What if she could turn Alchemista into a lifestyle brand, and bring it into people’s homes, beating even delivery services at their own game? That’s when Alchemista decided to expand beyond corporate, into apartment buildings, schools and other areas.
“Over the past six months we’ve been able to completely pivot the company in a way that would not have been possible without Covid,” she said. “It has opened our eyes to new opportunities that are much bigger than what we were doing before.”
Beyond Moderna’s offices, the lockers are currently installed in 10 buildings in Boston, with plans to expand further in the next months. Alchemista has partnered with several James Beard award-winning restaurants to bring high quality, hot, fresh or cold meals to these buildings, so people are able to access them 24/7.
Marcus said she’s definitely missing “the fear gene” — and couldn’t have gotten this far without taking risks and being flexible. “I mean there’s been so many terrible things that happened along the way, that 99.9% of people would have been like, ‘OK, maybe it’s time to go do something else.’ I was like no, this is temporary. I think that’s a key piece of being successful in business.”
“When people look back five years from now, I would like them to ask themselves ‘how did we ever live without Alchemista and without having good fresh food available any time, anywhere, within seconds?’”