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How Quebec meal-kit company Cook it rapidly grew and transformed during lockdown

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The Montreal firm turned the ultimate test of survival—too much business, not enough staff—into a sterling revolution of company values Cook it’s co-founder Judith Fetzer (Photograph by Stacy Lee) If one were to compare Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to most modern companies’ employee-compensation structures, they might start to notice some uncanny overlap. Where the…

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The Montreal firm turned the ultimate test of survival—too much business, not enough staff—into a sterling revolution of company values

Cook it’s co-founder Judith Fetzer (Photograph by Stacy Lee)

Cook it’s co-founder Judith Fetzer (Photograph by Stacy Lee)

If one were to compare Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to most modern companies’ employee-compensation structures, they might start to notice some uncanny overlap. Where the American psychologist listed “physiological needs,” like food and shelter, on his oft-studied pyramid’s base, employers have salaries and water coolers (or Nespresso machines).  Climb ever further up the triangle, and intangibles like “belonging,” “esteem” and “self-actualization” crop up. But, in 2020, for Canadian companies grappling with the literal life-or-death cataclysm that is COVID-19, what place could fostering workers’ sense of purpose have in a pandemic?

If you asked the top brass at Quebec’s Cook it—the province’s first-ever ready-to-cook meal-kit company—their operation simply would not have survived to see a post-lockdown economy without a radical, new-found emphasis on its workforce’s intrinsic values.

Business Cinderella stories are a rarity in COVID-19’s economic climate, but Cook it (No. 21 on Growth 2020, with 3,860% growth over five years) is certainly one. Within three weeks of the shutdown, Judith Fetzer’s brainchild had achieved two years’ worth of projected profit growth; by week five, its revenue had tripled.

Founded in 2014 by Montreal mom of three Fetzer (and two partners), Cook it’s raison d’etre was to provide a plethora of locally sourced, nutritionist-approved and occasionally vegetarian meal options to reduce food waste and dinner-time decision-making stress within harried Québécois—and later, Ontarian and Maritime—family units.

After pivoting from an à la carte model to a subscription-based service in 2016, sales—and Cook it’s employee count—tripled within one year. In 2017, following a command performance by Fetzer on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, Arlene Dickinson and, later, Alain Bouchard—former CEO of convenience-store chain Alimentation Couche-Tard—signed on as key investors. And by December 2019, Cook it had all but levelled its direct competition, having acquired both Kuisto and Miss Fresh, the latter previously owned by Metro.

On the eve of Quebec’s (and greater Canada’s) COVID-19 shutdown, Cook it’s 200-strong workforce—marketers, customer service workers and production clerks—was sitting pretty, having upgraded into a 34,000-sq.-foot industrial facility. The rest is recent history: as of March 23, the province had all but shuttered, rendering meal-delivery services an essential—and suddenly incredibly lucrative—service.

For Fetzer and company, an already all-hands-on-deck situation now required even more hands, presenting what she called “a fun challenge.” Speaking to Cook it’s sunny CEO as she worked from home (and cared for her puddle-jumping son) in her Plateau neighbourhood in mid-July, it quickly became clear that Fetzer’s demeanour makes her suited to steer a rapidly growing team through a thorny acquisition, a physical move, a workforce integration and an unprecedented global health crisis, all within a single business quarter.

“I don’t really know what ‘risk’ is,” says Fetzer, who worked in Montreal’s bustling restaurant scene in her 20s before hopping continents to start her own commodities-importing business in Ghana on a whim with two friends. (Though a lover of uncertainty, for Fetzer, malaria was one wild card too far.) “Let’s enjoy the ride,” she says. “I still see Cook it through the eyes of a startup.”

To navigate the quarantine economy, Fetzer says Cook it’s existing team “came together like a big family,” though the shifts required of employees—18 hours per day, seven days a week to compensate for the insane uptick in demand—were “exhausting.” The next step, which involved the minuscule task of hiring 600 new workers, well, yesterday, required the formation of a six-person human-resources recruiting task force, headed up by Céline-Audrée Desautels—a friend of Fetzer’s and a chef whose vegan restaurant, Planté, was forced to postpone its opening. “We thought, ‘It can’t be that hard to find people to work when everyone’s losing their jobs,’ ” says Laurence Gagnon Beaudoin, Cook it’s director of marketing, half-laughing at her past ignorance.

Between the “27-hour shifts” and endless posting on Facebook and recruiting platforms, Desautels recalls that, at one point, the HR squad was hiring 50 workers per day to prepare food portions for packaging and carry out other labour-intensive tasks: laid-off teachers, single moms, foreign students and people who—in Beaudoin’s words—otherwise “weren’t content to sit at home and bake bread.” Some had “zero experience,” and some “only wanted to work one Monday every two weeks.” Which was fine by them.

But without a robust onboarding protocol in place, and compounded by the new health standards mandated by Quebec officials (read: masks and face shields), Cook it’s usual standards for candidates were sacrificed, which both Beaudoin and Desautels aren’t too proud to admit. (To put it bluntly: “It was a s–tshow,” Desautels says.) The 600 new workers were brought on with stunning expediency, the majority of whom went into the production facility. Within two months, half remained.

On top of the rapid exodus, the company’s usual error rate for meal-kit packaging—which tracks everything from shipping delays to missing garlic cloves—had quadrupled, from two to eight per cent.

It was a painful but necessary moment of reflection for Fetzer. “The business was thriving, but we weren’t necessarily the most welcoming employer at that time, which was already scary for workers,” she says. Customer subscriptions were increasing by 25% week over week, but internal morale had never been lower.

“COVID gave us the opportunity to rethink everything about our culture—to start a new startup, basically,” says Desautels. Among the changes were revamped training videos, a lengthy new checklist to ensure skill-building in new workers, and a “buddy” (or mentorship) system enacted to build relationships between supervisors and their subordinates. But, according to Desautels, the lion’s share—and most meaningful aspects—of Cook it’s top-down culture renewal addressed primarily emotional touchpoints, like “ambiance” and attitude. Or: the feel-good ephemerals closer to Maslow’s pyramid’s peak.

“When I started, some workers were like, ‘I’ve been here six months and no one’s ever asked me my name!’ ” says Desautels, audibly shaken. The installation of two chipper front-desk workers—or “sunshine girls” as the workers call them—were an unironic game-changer. Simply having a friendly face (or two) to wish Cook it’s factory staff a good morning, explain a punch-clock glitch, show new hires to the washrooms or ask how the bus ride was “may sound foolish,” says Desautels, “but before, all they had was an automated mailbox. Human connection matters.” Cook it’s long-standing talent pool got some extra love, too, especially considering how easy-going they were about the company’s new Zoom-centric meeting system. (The average age of a Cook it employee is 22.)

In short order—Cook it’s apparent preferred speed—the internal culture flourished: up popped daily cinq à septs (also live on Zoom), intra-office games and even optional history quizzes on Slack. The new sense of goodwill then overflowed: on Fetzer’s orders, Cook it donated 1,000 meal kits to workers in Quebec’s restaurant industry, hosted 11 a.m. cooking classes (starring Montreal-based chefs) for kids cooped up at home and added stock from local food suppliers to the company’s ingredient list to spotlight the province’s hard-working (and beleaguered) producers.

Desautels’ voice cracks when I ask what will carry Cook it through. “You know, it’s four degrees at some places in our packaging plant, and right now, with the masks, our people can hardly see anything,” she says. “They weren’t exactly too happy to come in, and we had to give them meaning [beyond] making boxes. So we told them, ‘Every day, you’re helping 12,000 families who can’t make it to the grocery store. You’re helping them eat. You’re helping them live.’ ”

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Asian Stocks Erase 2021 Gains on Concerns Over Inflation, Virus

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Author of the article: Bloomberg News Min Jeong Lee (Bloomberg) — Asian stocks dropped, with the regional benchmark briefly erasing its gains for the year, as mounting worries over inflation and a resurgence in Covid-19 cases soured investor sentiment. The MSCI Asia Pacific Index slid as much as 1% and was down 0.9% as of…

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Bloomberg News

Min Jeong Lee

(Bloomberg) — Asian stocks dropped, with the regional benchmark briefly erasing its gains for the year, as mounting worries over inflation and a resurgence in Covid-19 cases soured investor sentiment.

The MSCI Asia Pacific Index slid as much as 1% and was down 0.9% as of 12:52 p.m. in Tokyo, tracking losses in American shares after data on Wednesday showed U.S. consumer prices climbed in April by the most since 2009. The Asian gauge has now fallen more than 9% from a Feb. 17 peak.

Tech stocks have been at the forefront of a selloff in global equities this week as an explosive rally in commodity prices threatens to push up inflation. Asia’s tech shares, which are contending with higher U.S. bond yields and stretched valuations just like their global peers, have also been hurt by regulatory tightening in China. Further, a fresh surge in infections in several countries including India, Japan and parts of Southeast Asia is weighing on regional stocks.

“We need to kind of price in a more normal interest-rate environment, more normal inflation environment,” said Ken Peng, head of Asia investment strategy at Citigroup Inc.’s private-banking arm. “The shake up could last a while longer. But I’m still not too worried because, growth will comeback to be the most important element once interest rates normalize.”

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Technology and communication services were the worst-performing sectors on the Asian gauge Thursday.

Japanese shares declined for a third day on Thursday, while stocks in China snapped a two-day winning run. Markets in Singapore, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines were shut for a holiday. In Taiwan, the benchmark stock index extended losses after slumping the most since March last year on Wednesday partly due to concern over tightening of virus-linked restrictions.

SECTORS TO WATCH

Stocks linked to cryptocurrencies fell in line with the slump in Bitcoin, after Tesla Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk expressed concerns over its energy usageTraditional Chinese medicine firms advanced as President Xi Jinping called for the development of the treatments after experience gained from COVID-19

MARKETS AT A GLANCE

Japan’s Topix index down 0.6%; Nikkei 225 down 1.8%Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index down 1%; Hang Seng China Enterprises down 1.2%; Shanghai Composite down 0.7%; CSI 300 down 0.8%Taiwan’s Taiex index down 0.7%South Korea’s Kospi index down 0.5%; Kospi 200 down 0.7%Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 down 0.6%; New Zealand’s S&P/NZX 50 down 1.1%Thailand’s SET down 1.4%; Vietnam’s VN Index down 0.2%

ADVANCERS

Seven & i Holdings jumped as much as 7.4% in Tokyo as ValueAct Capital disclosed the acquisition of a 4.3% stake in the operator of convenience storesKirin rose as much as 4.3%, the most since Nov. 16, after the Japanese beer maker beat quarterly profit expectationsChina Mengniu Dairy jumped as much as 5.4% after Danone finalized its HK$15.4 billion ($1.98 billion) sale of approximately 9.8% stake in MengniuGrainCorp added as much as 8.3%, the most since Nov. 13, after the Australian agricultural company raised its FY earnings forecastHanwha Life Insurance surged as much as 8.7% after its 1Q report showed earnings jumped nearly four foldNTT climbed as much as 2.8% after the telecom giant’s quarterly profit and forecast for the current fiscal year beat analyst estimates

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DECLINERS

SoftBank Group declined as much as 6.7% as its record quarterly profit failed to impress a market reeling from a global selloff in tech stocksGongniu Group dropped as much as 9.7% in Shanghai after the company said it was under investigations by local authorities for monopolistic behaviorPerenti Global tumbled as much as 28%, the most since March 2020, after the Australian mining services company cut its guidanceChina Evergrande New Energy Vehicle Group sank 8.7% in Hong Kong after its parent sold 260m shares at HK$40.92 apiece, a 20% discount to last closeNexon slid as much as 17% after the game developer forecast as much as a 19% y/y decline in operating profit in 1H

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

Bloomberg.com

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Gold up on hopes for continued low rates, firm yields cap gains

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Author of the article: Gold edged up on Thursday on hopes that the U.S. Federal Reserve would not raise interest rates anytime soon, although a jump in U.S. Treasury yields following a strong rise in April consumer prices capped gains. Spot gold was up 0.2% at $1,818.22 per ounce by 0318 GMT, after falling more…

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Reuters

Gold edged up on Thursday on hopes that

the U.S. Federal Reserve would not raise interest rates anytime

soon, although a jump in U.S. Treasury yields following a strong

rise in April consumer prices capped gains.

Spot gold was up 0.2% at $1,818.22 per ounce by 0318

GMT, after falling more than 1% in the previous session.

U.S. gold futures eased 0.2% to $1,818.80.

“We’re still getting on the aftershock of that consumer

price index release and the expectations now from the market

that the Fed will be forced to do something about inflation,” IG

Market analyst Kyle Rodda said.

The Fed, however, has been reiterating that inflation will

be so transitory that it won’t have to worry about adjusting

interest rates, he added.

Data on Wednesday showed U.S. consumer prices increased by

the most in nearly 12 years in April, intensifying concerns over

rising inflation.

Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida said the twin surprises of

weak jobs growth and strong inflation in April has not dented

the U.S. central bank’s plans to keep its support for the

economy wide open.

Lower U.S. interest rates put pressure on the dollar and

bond yields, increasing the appeal of non-yielding bullion.

However, worries over rising inflation lifted benchmark U.S.

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10-year Treasury yields to their highest in more

than a month, while the dollar held firm.

“The stronger dollar and higher U.S. rates punished the

precious metals group (yesterday),” ED&F Man Capital Markets

analyst Edward Meir said in a note.

“Although we suspect that this weakness will prove to be

short-lived given rising inflationary expectations and a Fed

that at least for now, does not seem to be too eager to raise

rates.”

Palladium gained 0.9% to $2,882.69 per ounce. Silver

was steady at $27.04 per ounce, while platinum was

up 0.6% at $1,217.01.

(Reporting by Shreyansi Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Rashmi

Aich and Vinay Dwivedi)

In-depth reporting on the innovation economy from The Logic, brought to you in partnership with the Financial Post.

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Tesla’s Musk halts use of bitcoin for car purchases

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Author of the article: Reuters Hyunjoo Jin and Kanishka Singh Tesla Inc will no longer accept bitcoin for car purchases, Chief Executive Elon Musk said on Wednesday, citing long-brewing environmental concerns for a swift reversal in the company’s position on the cryptocurrency. Bitcoin fell more than 10% after Musk tweeted his decision to suspend its…

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Reuters

Hyunjoo Jin and Kanishka Singh

Tesla Inc will no longer accept bitcoin for car purchases, Chief Executive Elon Musk said on Wednesday, citing long-brewing environmental concerns for a swift reversal in the company’s position on the cryptocurrency.

Bitcoin fell more than 10% after Musk tweeted his decision to suspend its use, less than two months after Tesla began accepting the world’s biggest digital currency for payment. Other cryptocurrencies, including ethereum, also fell before regaining some ground in Asia trade.

The use of bitcoin to buy Tesla’s electric vehicles had highlighted a dichotomy between Musk’s reputation as an environmentalist and the use of his popularity and stature as one of the world’s richest people to back cryptocurrencies.

Some Tesla investors, along with environmentalists, have been increasingly critical about the way bitcoin is “mined” using vast amounts of electricity generated with fossil fuels.

Musk said on Wednesday he backed that concern, especially the use of “coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel.”

“Cryptocurrency is a good idea on many levels and we believe it has a promising future, but this cannot come at great cost to the environment,” he tweeted. Tesla shares fell 1.25% after hours.

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Tesla revealed in February it had bought $1.5 billion of bitcoin, before accepting it as payment for cars in March, driving a roughly 20% surge in the cryptocurrency.

Tesla would retain its bitcoin holdings with the plan to use the cryptocurrency as soon as mining transitions to more sustainable energy sources, Musk said.

Bitcoin is created when high-powered computers compete against other machines to solve complex mathematical puzzles, an energy-intensive process that currently often relies on electricity generated with fossil fuels, particularly coal.

At current rates, such bitcoin “mining” devours about the same amount of energy annually as the Netherlands did in 2019, the latest available data from the University of Cambridge and the International Energy Agency shows.

Analysts said Musk’s about-face was inevitable.

“The environmental impact from mining bitcoins was one of the biggest risks for the entire crypto market,” said Edward Moya, a senior market analyst at currency trading firm OANDA.

Meltem Demirors, chief strategy officer at digital asset manager CoinShares Group, said Tesla was unlikely to have sold many, if any, cars using bitcoin and the backflip generated positive publicity while simplifying payment processes.

“Elon was getting a lot of questions and criticisms and this statement allows him to appease critics while still keeping bitcoin on his balance sheet,” Demirors said.

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Mark Humphery-Jenner, an associate professor of finance at the University of New South Wales, said he was more concerned about Tesla management’s “very hasty and precipitous” decision-making.

Musk did not say in his Twitter comments whether any vehicles had been purchased with bitcoin and Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

CRYPTOCURRENCY SUPPORT

Some bitcoin proponents note that the existing financial system – with its millions of employees and computers in air-conditioned offices – uses large amounts of energy too.

Musk reiterated he remained a strong believer in cryptocurrencies.

“We are also looking at other cryptocurrencies that use

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