Head of Wolt Estonia: We offer a service no one needs

The architect of food delivery service Wolt’s Baltic businesses Liis Ristal.

PHOTO: Konstantin Sednev

The architect of food delivery service Wolt’s Baltic businesses Liis Ristal tells Postimees in an interview about her first big mistake as an executive, whether Wolt Estonia has its own style and why no one really needs the service it offers.

Ristal starts by talking about how she ended up managing Wolt. There were 400 other candidates, eight long interviews, three complicated home assignments and a 120-slide presentation on how she would develop the company. “When I had gone through that gauntlet, I told the owners to stop this nonsense and give me a contract because I’m effectively already working for you,” Ristal recalls, laughing. Her motivation was high as she had a clear idea of what a modern food delivery service should be.

Wolt is active in 23 countries. What have you done in Estonia that exists nowhere else?

My first condition was that I do not want to build another pizza delivery company but rather a lifestyle firm that offers food I myself like to eat: salads, ramen etc. The key to our success in the Baltic countries is that we don’t just deliver food, we offer people added value, we give them time.

The whole idea of a food courier is to save time. What’s so special about it?

Before Wolt, people believed that the idea of a food courier was to deliver pizza. But we have always wanted to be more than just another transport company.

At Wolt, every market reflects the local team. We are given the app and software from the head office in Helsinki, but the rest is up to us. We offer people excellent customer service, help restaurants market themselves better and be visible, engage in real partnerships.

We must create added value because everyone at Wolt constantly feels we are offering a service no one needs. Working while knowing that no one needs you, that you still need to create your market and demand, you make more of an effort.

What do you mean when you say no one needs you?

Food is simply so available. While the coronavirus emergency situation changed things and people were forced to eat at home, there is no shortage of food. We have 24-hour supermarkets and food is sold in every kiosk and gas station at all hours. People still cook a lot at home in Estonia, unlike in Western Europe or Asia. Everyone has a friend they can call and count on to feed them. Realistically speaking, we are not needed. And we never forget it. That is why we must offer more than just food.

You see the inner workings of restaurants close up. How hard has the crisis been on them?

Restaurants are still struggling, especially in Tallinn where they depend on tourists. You can walk into any restaurant today and always find empty tables because there simply aren’t any tourists.

Talk about restrictions returning tell people not to go to restaurants.

How many have closed shop?

A few places here and there. At the same time, restaurants open and go out of business all the time. Our platform has seen one hundred new restaurants since the coronavirus crisis began.

It seemed in spring that demand for food delivery services was skyrocketing. How many new clients did you get?

I cannot tell you off the top of my head. The number of clients grew more in some weeks than others. But we are still small. I mean the entire food delivery market in Estonia that is only taking baby steps. There are a lot of people who have never had food delivered. In South Korea, a person orders in ten times a year on average. We have a long way to go yet.

Did people find their way back to restaurants in the summer and made use of Wolt less often?

I would say our business stabilized in summer in terms of the volumes achieved in spring. The daily number of orders is closely tied to the weather. If the weather is what it is now (the rain outside almost drowns out Liis Ristal – ed.), we see the number of orders explode. People simply do not want to leave their homes or offices then.

How fierce is the competition on the food delivery market?

There are more than ten companies delivering food to people in one form or another. What else is there to say in a situation where Swedbank radio ads are urging people to start their own delivery companies.

You are not looking to oust or acquire your competitors?

Competition is welcome. I remember how difficult it was to be the only one on the market educating clients. Things are easier now because the service is familiar.

How often could Estonians ideally order in?

I wish to dispel this notion that I have to be hardworking and cook all the time. I want ordering in to be a natural part of people’s lifestyle. I often hear people say they have made it a matter of principle to cook themselves. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, you don’t always have to do it.

You said before the interview that food home delivery is seeing innovation. Such as?

One new trend is called cloud kitchen or dark kitchen that could be explained as virtual kitchens. These are restaurants where you cannot eat, that often do not even have seating for customers. They only cook delivery. There are three or four such restaurants in Tallinn. This allows a restaurant to offer several different brands and cuisines, such as sushi, Indian and Georgian. I believe it is a major future trend.

Will Wolt run a restaurant in the future?

Definitely not. We are concentrating on our own services that include marketing, transport, logistics and making it all work together. We have a long road ahead of us still.

Any other new trends?

Clients are tipping couriers more. They also leave candy out for them and pictures drawn by kids. I believe it is gratitude for the opportunity to stay home and stay safe.

Wolt took in 100 million euros in investments during the crisis. How much of it has reached the Estonian branch?

The money is still in the bank. It is our buffer for a potential economic crisis.

We still have money left from the previous investment round to realize expansion plans for this year and the next. Our financials are solid.

Wolt Estonia has been turning a modest profit for the past two years.

I believe that business is about making money and not sitting around, waiting for it to be handed to you! An executive manager is not hired to make excuses – that we have a tiny and shabby market. The CEO’s task is to make the company profitable and keep it that way. And if they cannot do that, there are other lines of work!

You have successfully launched Wolt Estonia. When will the owners promote you?

My goal is to grow the Estonian and Baltic markets. I’m not looking for a promotion. And I would not like to live anywhere else but Estonia because of the quality of life here you cannot get anywhere else. Or if you can, it costs a fortune.

The other thing is that I’m not really an ambitious person. I love to work, set goals and achieve results with my team. But the kind of social functions I attend or who likes my Facebook pictures makes no difference to me whatsoever. I have never made it a goal to climb the career ladder. I have no personal ambition, while the company’s ambition is off the scale. That’s enough for me.

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