When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. and lockdowns went into effect last March, it caught cities across the country by surprise. Restaurants shut down overnight with no warning, leaving walk-ins full of ingredients with no customers to serve. For the team at Truffle Shuffle, that meant they were sitting on 20 pounds of fresh truffles and boxes and boxes of truffle salt piled to the ceiling in a co-founder’s apartment.
At that time, Truffle Shuffle was a fledgling food business begun by two chefs, Jason McKinney and Tyler Vorce, and fellow hospitality pro Sarah McKinney, all of whom worked at the French Laundry together. They’d struck out on their own to source and sell fresh truffles to restaurants and markets, and had recently closed a deal to sell their Balinese truffle salt to Whole Foods. Suddenly there were no restaurants open to buy truffles, and Whole Foods put all new product integrations on pause.
As luxury ingredients go, truffles are one of fine dining’s favorite flexes. That moment when a chef enters the dining room, truffle shaver in hand, ready to rain down thinly sliced truffles onto a plate, is when you know things are about to get serious. But there are many lame truffle products in the world — looking at you, truffle oil — most of which are made using synthetic flavor compound and do not actually include any fresh truffle.
For Vorce and the McKinneys, truffles were not only a preferred ingredient, but a gateway to the business world that could potentially fund their own restaurant down the line. “We wanted to see if could teach ourselves a business,” says Jason. “If we could sell enough fresh truffles we could make enough money to own our own restaurant and learn accounting and all the aspects of running a business.”
When the chefs responded to an open casting call for the TV show Shark Tank in the beginning of 2020, pre-COVID, their business was still selling truffles and truffle products. They flew to Las Vegas and served black truffle soup to producers, competing against 5,000 other contestants to make it to the next tier, and the next, eventually scoring the coveted position of pitching the investors. By then, though, the world had changed.
No one expected the chaos of March 2020, when just about everyone had to make an entirely new business plan, from restaurants to retail to gyms and hair salons. The Battery, SF’s downtown tech-heavy private club, had to make similar adjustments, which is why they reached out to the chefs at Truffle Shuffle to ask if they would do a cooking class over Zoom for its members, similar to an in-person class they’d taught previously. “We put together a kit to sell the truffles we had on hand, and it was idea on the spot,” says Jason. “They sent an email out and within hours we had sold out.”
The chefs built more than 70 kits and then drove all over the Bay Area to deliver them personally. Though the kits sold out, more than 1,000 people had viewed and taken the class. “We saw people cooking at home and making dishes just as good as what you would get at a three-star restaurant,” says Vorce.
After that, things started moving quickly. The chefs hosted another class with chef Suzette Gresham of two-Michelin-starred Acquerello, cooking her gnocchi, then began receiving a deluge of requests for more. Eventually they had a full week of classes booked. By the time they were ready to film their episode of Shark Tank, Truffle Shuffle was a very different business, focused on virtual classes often hosted by celebrities like Snoop Dogg.
“We did a lot of research going into [Shark Tank] and we encourage anyone going into it to do a good amount of research,” says Jason. “We looked at the sharks, what they like to invest in and the close rate of the deal.” That research paid off when they enticed billionaire shark Mark Cuban to give them a $501,000 in exchange for an 18 percent stake in the company.
They’ve come a long way from the nine-person team they began with in quarantine. “We made a promise to not furlough anyone [when lockdown happened],” says Jason. “We had six employees and we just hired three more.” Now the company has more than 50 employees and four kitchen studios for filming classes at a massive Oakland location.
Notably, the team is chock full of fellow fine dining ex-pats who have swapped out the notoriously stressful kitchen environment for startup life. From former culinary gardeners to Thomas Keller Group event planners and chefs at Benu and State Bird Provisions, there is a former culinary professional at every level of the business. In an industry that has historically been challenging for career growth and quality of life, Truffle Shuffle is like an escape hatch for culinary and hospitality folks. “Our next goal is to figure out a way for other chefs to do what we did,” says Vorce.
Now that they’re under the umbrella of Mark Cuban’s investments, Truffle Shuffle has access to world-class business resources, from marketing to accounting. “We set a lot of big goals in this business and we keep hitting them. Our next biggest goal here is to create a million master chefs in their own home,” says McKinney. “We are in 75 percent of Whole Foods, we have the truffle carpaccio online. With every kit we sell we are working with Alameda County Food Bank to give love back to the community.”
As for the business model they adopted a la minute, it’s going to stick around, with no plans to reinstate in-person cooking classes. “Doing it virtually is better. Because when you do Zoom you can digitally reach out and touch someone differently than you can in person,” says Vorce. “You go in there and really be more interactive.”
They can also bring in a more diverse group of chefs, from chef Jackson Yu of SF’s Omakase to an upcoming class with Nite Yun of Nyum Bai in Oakland. “Every single person on the planet eats food,” says Vorce. “Theres endless knowledge out there and having other chefs teach what they know, that’s where we see the future of Truffle Shuffle.”