Healthcare costs are continuously rising in America, and more and more people are diagnosed with chronic conditions. To improve health outcomes, Renee Cherkezian, co-founder of Epicured, is on a mission to connect the clinical and culinary worlds to harness the natural healing power of food. Epicured heals patients with evidence-based meals prepared by Michelin-star chefs. We sat down with Cherkezian to discuss her journey from managing operating rooms as a registered nurse, to becoming a trained chef and creating a healthcare company.
You began your career as a registered nurse, and today you are the co-founder of Epicured. Tell us about your journey and how it led you to create Epicured.
My greatest passions in life are food, cooking and helping people. I graduated from Georgetown University in 2003 and started working as a nurse. The following year, I attended graduate school for anesthesia and then shifted to managing operating rooms and ambulatory surgery centers. In 2008, a friend was diagnosed with cancer and, during the course of his treatment, was placed on a restrictive diet. He had difficulty finding food that tasted good and met his nutritional needs.
Nutrition is an integral part of the physical recovery, but also has an emotional and psychological impact. It’s part of our social lives and is a fundamental part of our daily routine. I knew that there were other medical conditions that require restrictive diets too. I asked myself, “How can I give people back what was taken from them and liberate them from these restrictions without compromising quality of food or flavor?” And that was the impetus behind Epicured.
I needed to figure out how to put my two passions together. So, I started honing my culinary skills. I’d finish my shift in the ORs at 7PM, go directly to David Burke and work there until midnight – that was a cycle for months. I quit my job and moved to Paris in the middle of the recession, where I attended the Sorbonne and also studied at the Ritz Escoffier. I returned to New York a year later and started managing 20 operating rooms at Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Tell us about that next step and how you connected with your business partner, Rich Bennett.
Rich and I have known each other for over 20 years now. We met freshman year of college, and he’s been one of my best friends since then. My career path was more medicine and food; his career path was tailored toward finance and operations. We were both at a juncture in our careers. I had this passion to create something where we could use food as medicine to treat or to address chronic disease.
Over 27% of the US population suffer from a digestive disorder that is best treated through food. Digestive disorders, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), can be treated with a low FODMAP diet. There’s a huge untapped market opportunity. We were at dinner when I shared this idea with him, and we both were excited about bringing this vision to life. We talked through various business models for months, then signed on the dotted line in December 2015, raised our first dollar in February 2016, and that’s how Epicured was born.
How important was choosing the right partner to grow Epicured?
There were three main reasons why we partnered. Number one, we trusted and respected each other – that is fundamental and critical to the start and the growth of a company. Two, we both were determined to find ways to improve health outcomes, and three, we had very complimentary skillsets, but also a mutual understanding of the healthcare system. We were able to showcase our expertise in our respective spaces and then synergistically execute.
There’s nothing more important than having strong health and well-being, yet the cost of healthcare is going up as more people are diagnosed with chronic conditions every day. How do you think Epicured is going to be part of the solution that helps populations be healthier?
I believe in multiple ways, but there are two core factors. Number one is education surrounding food as medicine. Seventy percent of major chronic diseases can be addressed by nutrition. That tells you the impact that food has on the state of health. It can either do harm, or it can do good. To me, it’s extremely baffling how right now, and specifically within the past 20 years, improper diets are literally killing our nation. We’ve seen disease rates go up, obesity and diabetes. It is important to identify the high-quality ingredients, and then integrate them into your daily life.
Second, it’s important to increase accessibility to the right foods so people can feel better. We’re working with clinicians and hospitals because they reinforce the importance of nutrition and help make eating right part of patients’ routines. The food that we provide is evidence-based, so clinicians feel good prescribing it to their patients.
You have used the Latin phrase “cura personalis” to describe the framework for your mission. Can you expand on that?
“Cura personalis” is a Latin term for treating or caring for the whole person. Epicured’s mission is to help people as a whole – to help people eat better, feel better and live better using the power of food to fuel a better life. Food is medicine. We’re producing food with our customers, our patients, in mind. There’s a lot of empathy that goes in to what we’re doing, and we understand their struggles. It’s about bringing people back to feeling good again; not just their stomachs but their mindsets. If you don’t look at somebody as a whole, you’re going to miss a big part.
As Director of Products and Health Sciences, tell us why you are proud of the food you create.
We focus on science-backed solutions; we don’t pay attention to fad diets. I look at every single ingredient and sub-ingredient in any product that we source. As a company, we want to provide the cleanest products because it is part of our mission to care for the whole person. We want our food to help patients heal, but we also want the food to be delicious. All our meals are made by Michelin-star chefs!
With over a decade of experience in the medical field, how has it been transitioning into the business world?
It has been an incredible journey. I want to create a major impact on the healthcare system at a larger scale. I am used to interacting with patients face-to-face. I come from the hospital environment, where there is always a quick feedback loop and where you see the results. On the business side, you don’t get that same interaction. You’re doing a lot, wondering, “Is it working? Am I helping people?”
The testimonials, to me, are so encouraging. They show how Epicured is making a difference in the lives of those struggling with chronic conditions.
What advice do you have for other women who have passions but are unsure how to incorporate them into their careers?
To be an entrepreneur, you first need to identify an opportunity and then identify how your skillset and passion combined can be applied. Then you find other resources to build your dream and allow your vision to come to fruition. Don’t feel like you have to have every skillset to be an entrepreneur.
I knew going into business that I wasn’t an expert in finance, but I understood the science, I understood the food and I understood the need in the market. Ultimately, if you have an undying passion and believe in your idea, you can find a way to make it work and bring your idea to life.
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