Sometimes things need to happen fast – during lunch breaks with colleagues, between two appointments, or at home with friends. Fast food is almost everywhere within reach, with the unpleasant side effect of packaging waste that can hardly be recycled. WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management graduate Dr. Tim Breker, together with his co-founders Dr. Fabian Barthel and Sven Witthöft (from right to left), asked themselves if there was no solution to this problem. Their answer was the founding of "VYTAL", a digital deposit-free system for picking up and delivering food. The packaging used in transport is not only reusable and thereby reduces CO2 emissions significantly, it is even free of charge. Additionally, every reusable tray can be returned at any VYTAL partner restaurant or delivery service. This unique system began its triumphant march from Cologne to several other German cities. Dr. Tim Breker answered five questions about the startup where he explains why more restaurants should participate in the system and what role the TV show "Die Höhle der Löwen" (“Shark Tank”) played for VYTAL.
1. Tim, our most burning question about such a successful startup is: what inspired you to start it? Do you think the critical mass in the gastronomy sector will soon be reached and force most of the restaurants to use reusable packaging?
The idea of VYTAL was born as a response to the typical office routine of management consultants: you come together as a team and work on a project and, at some point, you get hungry and order food – because it's so convenient and practical. But after the meal, the disposable packaging piles up and the trash cans overflow. This inevitably makes you question if this really has to be like this? We looked out and found a possible answer in reusable packaging. It brought up a lot of discussion about what new technologies could contribute in this context, what the effects of increased environmental awareness are, and how restaurants could respond to the ever changing preferences of their potential customers. This is how VYTAL became Germany's first digital and deposit-free reusable system with high-quality, leak-proof packaging for both takeaway and delivery meals.
After having registered in the VYTAL app or bought a VYTAL offline card, our customers can borrow free of charge freshly rinsed reusable trays from any of our partner restaurants and return them after use. Recently, many restaurants in major German cities also made it possible to conveniently pre-order food directly via app and then pick it up in the sustainable, reusable trays without waiting in line. It is also possible to order food in returnable trays from VYTAL partner restaurants via delivery services.
Our idea immediately met with great interest from customers and partners. I think it was simply the right time. It is all about putting an end to the packaging mania and breaking up the relation between convenient food consumption and non-recyclable waste. People are more aware about this today, and they want to do something about it.
2. Until now, the logic of fast food has been: buy, eat, throw away the packaging. That may not have been particularly ecological, nevertheless, it was simple. How open are restaurants to your proposal of implementing a reusable system?
We decided deliberately against a deposit system. After all, our reusable trays are supposed to be in circulation and not to remain in a cupboard. Thanks to the psychological incentives in our digital reusable system, we achieve a return rate of over 98 percent. This is more than in the German bottle deposit system. On average, our reusable trays are even returned to a VYTAL partner within only three days, and we can increase system efficiency even further. With a deposit, this would not be possible.
It is important that the employees of our partner restaurants are well trained and enthusiastic. They are the ones who approach customers and draw their attention to the VYTAL system. The more they support the idea of switching from disposable to reusable packaging to avoid unnecessary waste, the better things will go for the individual partner restaurant, for VYTAL, for waste avoidance, and, thus, for all of us.
For many of our partner restaurants, the handling of our app is also a first step towards the digitalization of business processes. Especially during the lockdown, for example, pre-ordering via the VYTAL app gives many restaurants the opportunity to attract and retain customers with a convenient take-away offer.
3. The presentation of your company definitely impressed the people and the audience of “Die Höhle der Löwen” ("Shark Tank"). Georg Kofler, one of the investors, was full of praise. What influence does it have on you when your idea is so well received in the business world? And, could you describe your cooperation with Georg Kofler?
The success of our company presentation at "Die Höhle der Löwen" really gave us a push forward: it is not like you just appear on TV and present your rather complex business idea – the preparation was already tough. The success in the show makes us proud, of course, and fuels our motivation to develop VYTAL further. What matters now is the implementation. We are convinced that Germany is simply the best place in the world to set up the most convenient and efficient operating system for reusable packaging. Quite frankly, this is because there is already so much experience with reusable systems and because many people feel it is important to do something against the pollution of the environment. Georg Kofler has recognized the potential of our business and is the partner with whom we want to enter international markets.
4. How do you see VYTAL in the future? What are your plans for evolving the business and are there still areas where even more sustainability could be achieved?
At the moment, our biggest challenge is certainly managing the rapid growth of the company. We started in 2019 with take-away food in reusable packaging, then we added pre-ordering and delivery meals. The trend towards convenience food is unbroken, and fast food is also becoming more diverse: there are countless opportunities for further development, from fresh-cut fruit and oatmeal to pizza and sushi.
Above all, we want to show that convenient food does not necessarily have to be accompanied by piles of packaging waste. In this respect, our goal clearly is to become THE global operating system for reusable packaging.
5. How did your studies at WHU encourage you to found the company? Were there key moments that inspired you?
My founder’s spirit was already awakened in my school days. I spent a year in the USA as an exchange student. In my American host family, I was able to get to know and experience the American entrepreneurial spirit, so to speak, and was fascinated by this perspective on life. So, studying at WHU was the logical next step after graduating from high school. In Vallendar, I learned my trade during my studies and, most importantly, by exchanging experiences with my fellow students and WHU alumni. This network still carries me today.