Naomi MacKenzie and
Anastasia Hofmann combat food
waste in commercial kitchens

Journalist: Olivia Kinghorst | Photographer: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Bigger, better, stronger – December 2023

Waste often goes unnoticed, but Anastasia Hofmann and Naomi MacKenzie thought otherwise. The co-founders of KITRO (a play on Kitchen and Hero) noticed an urgent problem: 2.8 million tonnes of food are wasted in Switzerland every year. The duo decided to tap into their ​​hospitality background and build a device to measure and combat food waste. Today, KITRO can be found in commercial kitchens around the world from hotels to hospitals.

You’re both shocked by what goes into our rubbish bins. When did you have this lightbulb moment?

Hofmann: During our time in the hotel and catering industry, we’ve always been shocked at how much food goes to waste. But it wasn’t until our final year at the EHL Hospitality Business School that food waste really came to the forefront of our minds. At the time, the university was seeking sustainable ideas for the hospitality sector by 2025. This prompted us to dive deeper into potential solutions for measuring and monitoring food waste in ​​commercial kitchens. We eventually won CHF 3,000 for our idea. That’s when we came up with the idea of founding KITRO and developing a business plan for it.

From hospitality school to startup founders. What did this transition look like?

MacKenzie: There are certain people who set out to be entrepreneurs and to build their own company. For us, the process was more organic. We were both interested in sustainable issues, the catering industry, digital solutions and creating social impact. Plus we had a strong business background from our education at EHL. We also have a similar work ethic and we share the same values: resource efficiency, quality, forward-thinking, candour and impact.

“For us, the process was more organic”

What were your first memories of trying to get KITRO off the ground? How has the company grown since then?

MacKenzie: As you often hear from start-ups, we’ve made sacrifices to get to where we are today. When we started in 2017 ​​​​we didn’t have any resources, savings or any big investors backing us. We even relied on friends and siblings to offer us a place to sleep – we didn’t have an apartment for nearly a year! Nor did we have the technical background required to build a product to measure food waste. We relied on early support from Kickstart Accelerator ​​ – one of Europe’s largest start-up accelerators – to run a pilot and test our idea at Coop, for example.​​

“At the moment, we are saving over 200 kilos of food on average per month. That’s the equivalent of 445 meals in a canteen every month.”

Hofmann: ​​Today, we have a team of over 15 staff and a product on the market. There are two parts to our business: the hardware and the software. The KITRO device is a scale, above which a camera is located. You put the waste bin on the scale, the camera looks directly into the bin, takes a picture and the algorithms detect which foods are being thrown away. Every waste bin in a commercial kitchen can be placed on the scale. ​​​​Every time food is thrown away, our artificial intelligence (AI) software captures and records the waste. When our clients then log into their KITRO dashboard, they receive a detailed analysis of their food waste – for example, the amount of food thrown away in kilos, or in costs.

With such limited resources, how did you secure your first client?

MacKenzie: It’s a funny story. At the beginning, we didn’t have the resources to build our own product for KITRO. Instead, we wrote down our business idea​​​​ on a piece of A4. We showed​ ​this paper to potential customers and asked if we could measure their food waste. The Swiss burger chain Holy Cow! wanted to manage their food costs and saw the potential of o​​​​​​ur waste management device. That’s how they became our first client. It was also the same day that we decided to quit our jobs and focus entirely on building our business.

Did the wheels start turning then?

Hofmann: It certainly wasn’t easy getting our company established at the start. Many potential customers had never actually dealt with the problem of food waste, and some didn’t even perceive it as a real problem. But this just isn’t true – if you have food in your kitchen, some of it is inevitably thrown away. However, awareness of food waste has increased a lot over time. Nowadays, our customers include major hotel chains such as Hyatt Hotels Corporation in the EMEA region and the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues in Geneva. KITRO can also be seen in office canteens at UBS and Electrolux, and at universities such as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne.

What stage is the company at right now?

Hofmann: We are currently in the early growth stage. We have found that the product and the market are a good fit, because clients renew their contracts and we get a lot of inbound leads without doing any paid marketing. Most of our business at the moment actually comes from referrals. For example, as soon as one hotel or canteen is satisfied with KITRO, ​​​​they recommend us to the next establishment by word of mouth, and the cycle continues.

What has been the main stumbling block in KITRO’s growth journey?

MacKenzie: The Corona pandemic, without a doubt. We started our company in 2017 before the pandemic. The pandemic had a negative impact on the hospitality industry, with hotels and canteens closed or barely operating. This had a negative impact on KITRO as well because our clients (such as hotels) are in the hospitality industry. We were ready to commercialise and bring our product to the market when the entire industry suddenly shut down. With hindsight, it was perhaps good timing. It gave us a unique opportunity to sit down and reflect, which is a luxury that most startups don’t have. ​​​We asked ourselves how we wanted to expand our business and how we could create an effective customer success journey. This allowed us to build a good foundation for further growth.

In Switzerland, two-thirds of all the food waste that is produced can be avoided. How much food has KITRO saved exactly?

Hofmann: Since we started, we’ve been able to save over 530 tonnes of avoidable food waste. We make a distinction between avoidable and unavoidable waste. Unavoidable waste includes eggshells, peelings, bones and everything else you can’t eat. However, we only focus on avoidable food waste. At the moment, we are saving over 200 kilos of food on average per month per client in Switzerland and abroad. This is equivalent to 445 meals per month. Based on data collected by the KITRO devices, we help our customers to take concrete, data-driven actions to reduce their food waste.

“To us, sustainable growth not only means progress, but it also means growing while keeping our values close at heart.”

You’re a Swiss startup with global ambitions. How present is KITRO on the international stage?

MacKenzie: Our devices are already being used in many countries across Europe, in Australia and more recently in the Americas and UAE. So far, KITRO has managed to grow internationally by word of mouth and customer referrals. Especially the larger international hotel groups that we are working with; these have gained us a lot of visibility. They create awareness of KITRO and recommend us to other hotels by word of mouth.

What comes to mind when you picture the issue of food waste in ten years’ time?

MacKenzie: We believe there will be more regulations and standards, especially when it comes to reporting food waste figures. The EU is currently working on these food waste monitoring regulations, which are expected to come into force by 2025. At the moment, these are still too vague. Hopefully, there will be clearer regulations requiring restaurants to report their food waste in the future. Then we could set a benchmark for our own clients. For example, a restaurant or hotel that is wasting less food than a set amount would be considered a high performer.

What has been the most memorable milestone for you in KITRO’s growth story?

Hofmann: One of the highlights at the beginning was certainly the validation we received from outsiders, whether that was our first client or our investors. It’s a special feeling when someone really believes in your product. It makes you realise that your idea can work and gives you the motivation to push on.

MacKenzie: It’s a milestone to see so many talented colleagues coming to work every day. Everybody on our team is an extraordinarily talented person who could find a job elsewhere, but they choose to work at KITRO. That is both a milestone and a highlight.

“It’s a special feeling when someone really believes in your product.”

KITRO is a Lausanne-based startup with an office in Zurich, whose aim is to monitor and mitigate food waste in the hospitality and food service industry. Its AI-driven device captures and identifies waste and can be found in commercial kitchens worldwide. Its customers range from office canteens to luxury hotels. KITRO’s customers can reduce up to 60% of their edible food waste.

Naomi MacKenzie (30) grew up in Texas and Switzerland. She studied hospitality management at the EHL Hospitality Business School in Lausanne and co-founded KITRO in 2017. She is also a trainer and startup coach at Venturelab for Swiss high-tech startups, was listed among Switzerland’s 100 Digital Shapers in 2020 and 2021 and was a finalist for the SEF.WomenAward in 2023.

Anastasia Hofmann (30) grew up in Thurgau and Basel and also studied international hospitality management at the EHL Hospitality Business School in Lausanne. She has worked in Europe and the US and co-founded KITRO in 2017. She’s also a startup coach and entrepreneurship teacher for Rhino Ventures and Venturelab. She was nominated for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology Awards in 2019 and was a finalist for the SEF.WomenAward in 2023.