Tim West: The Great Dorito Empire - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Tim West: The Great Dorito Empire

Tim West: The Great Dorito Empire

By Vignesh Ramachandran

SourceVignesh Ramachandran


Because although food entrepreneur Tim West’s family legacy is in Doritos chips, he wants to shake up the food system — with sustainable, healthy food.

By Vignesh Ramachandran

Tim West’s grandpa invented Doritos chips. But he prefers kale, quinoa and tree-ripened fruit.

Now, the 30-year-old Bay Area food entrepreneur wants to completely reinvent what we eat — and how it’s produced. 

A chef who trained at the esteemed Culinary Institute of America and New York’s St. Regis Hotel, West is ready to bring a dose of millennial-hipster to the legacy of his grandfather, Arch West. And of course, it’s all happening in San Francisco, where West is spreading his mantra and tossing off phrases like “food hackathons,” where business ideas are pitched, prototyped and presented to judges over the span of a weekend.

There’s still an open market when it comes to food.

This summer, West is working with veteran venture capitalist Derek Proudian on a restaurant concept. In June, he launched an already beloved pop-up restaurant (a temporary spot, a style of restaurant operation that’s popular in the expensive streets of San Francisco) called Cool Beans, in the city’s hip Lower Haight neighborhood.

His ultimate goal? To cater both to people on food stamps and to affluent techies. In this part of the world, there’s so much din about disruption, you might assume every industry has already been shattered. But there’s still an open market when it comes to food.

Interior of pop-up restaurant with words BEANS on a green wall

Tim West, right, congratulates Cole Bilegard, left, and Jeremy Sell of Food Forest after they won the food hack competition.

VC investment in general food products increased 22 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to data reported in The Wall Street Journal. In food-tech (food apps, online grocery stores, restaurant ordering, reviews), more than $300 million in private investment came through Q1 of 2014. Among the emerging success stories? Meal-kit delivery startup Blue Apron, which raised $50 million and boasts a reported $500 million valuation.

West’s bean-and-vegetable-focused pop-up Cool Beans — where you can order Chipotle-style bowls or whole-wheat wraps — is a first step toward his goal of redefining comfort food with responsible choices that might make us feel better than, say, rich mac ’n’ cheese or a bacon cheeseburger. Will consumers outside the Bay Area order quinoa with ginger-chili tempeh? Maybe not. But the demand for “farm-to-counter” is clearly there, and proven by growing chains like LYFE Kitchen, Veggie Grill and Tender Greens, which are all reportedly part of a booming group of healthy, sustainable, fast-casual restaurants.

He arrived in Silicon Valley with a goal: to feed Google.

Add that to VC Derek Proudian’s partnership with West, which is an impressive endorsement considering Proudian once stepped in as CEO of Elon Musk’s first company. West and Proudian now plan to open up their first permanent restaurant in the heart of San Francisco by the end of the year — with the goal of eventually creating an international chain.

West’s passion for food first emerged as a teenager. Growing up as a triplet in Bedford Hills, New York, his diet included plenty of junk food — hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs and buttery grilled-cheese sandwiches, so says his twin brother Chris. But around age 16, West began working as a stock boy at the Hudson Valley Flying Pig cafe in suburban New York. That’s when he had his defining epiphany, over a meal with the staff.

“I remember sitting there between the person who had grown my food and the person who had cooked it,” he says, “and I just had this aha moment of like: ‘Oh, food comes from people.’”

But it took something else for West to start cooking his own food. At the University of Colorado at Boulder — where he majored in “rock climbing and snowboarding and smoking weed,” jokes West — he got food poisoning from Taco Bell (not from a Doritos Locos taco) and decided it was time to start cooking his own food. He roasted a chicken one day, and neighbors down the hall smelled it and joined him. 

West transferred from Boulder to culinary school and did an externship in Big Sur, California, thinning beets in the sunshine; then he spent a few years cooking for bigwigs like Elton John and the Saudi royal family at New York’s St. Regis. Then came a nonprofit education project with cooking and farming classes, and a stint designing a permaculture garden in Massachusetts.

Silicon Valley soon beckoned West west. He’d once read an article about Google employees being served sushi on surfboards, and a lightbulb went off — there was demand for healthy, gourmet meals on a daily basis, thanks to tech money and growing corporate offices. He didn’t land a Google gig, but he did get hired as a chef at Facebook’s new Cafe 6 in 2010, helping to prep up to 17,000 meals per week.

West might end up greasing the path of food-loving millennials who’d otherwise spend their days creating another Instagram copycat.

West left Facebook the next year to launch (and eventually fail at) a slew of food startups: Grubly, a food Airbnb where people invited strangers to their home for a meal they prepared, and custom-cereal company Cerealize. “I was running around and I didn’t have a lot of support, I didn’t have a lot of mentorship — I didn’t know what I was doing at all,” West says of that time.

While Tim West may not have found his success as a food entrepreneur the first time around, the guy has a couple things going for him: charisma, and an intense desire to network. And in this land of hackathons, West might end up greasing the path of more than a few food-loving millennials who would otherwise be spending their days creating another Instagram copycat.

Imagine West as the perfect dinner-party guest: affable, charismatic and not afraid to speak his mind on the notion of food diplomacy (it’s “our greatest common denominator,” he says). 

But for now, West says he’s developing a snack food that will be “equally as delicious as Doritos, equally as convenient as Doritos, but better for you and better for the planet.” 

Nacho-flavored kale chips, anyone?

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