Maddie Purcell wants you to play with your food. In just over two years, she’s built an experience-based food business in which participants play a Chopped-like cooking competition in real life. Fyood (pronounced like feud) Kitchen has taken Portland, Maine, by storm, winning local and national business awards while growing exponentially. Participants in Fyood’s “Iron Chef meets Paint Night” events are encouraged to improvise, get creative, and trust their instincts as they create sweet and savory dishes using baskets of mystery ingredients chosen by Maddie herself.

Maddie employs four people, conducts dozens of unique events each month for groups as large as 150, and even takes time to mentor others in the Maine startup community. We sat down to chat about Maddie’s entrepreneurial journey and the tools she uses to succeed.

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What inspired you to start Fyood?
I was a big foodie! I loved cooking shows and I loved restaurants, but I didn’t feel empowered to cook creatively myself. Eventually I started playing cooking games at home – I would buy mystery ingredients for my roommate and she would buy mine, and we would give it a try. We always came up with something, and even if it was a little weird, it was cool and fun. So I began to think, on a bigger scale, maybe we don’t need fancy training to cook creatively. It’s less about knowing and more about having ideas and trying.

So that’s one side of it. Another is that I wasn’t comfortable in open-ended social situations, like going to a bar or a party, with a lot of people not having anything specific to do. I love social sports because there’s an activity associated with them. When I was experimenting with Fyood in a professional kitchen with 15 people for a birthday party, it was the most fun I’d ever had. It was so comfortable socially. I was like, “I would do this every Friday night, and I would pay for it.”

What tools or services have been most helpful to you as a food business owner?
A big one is SCORE. They’re basically free consultants. I used them the first two years as project consultants, like if I needed to make sure my financial projections were set up right or if I was working on branding, I could ask an expert for free. Another one is Google Drive. I’ve tried other tools, but I’m in Google Drive 12 hours a day.

Slack has been a game changer in terms of taking things out of the inbox and speeding them up, and also adding some culture. My team is all on Slack. It’s the best – highly recommend custom reaction buttons for best results!

For my personal organization, bullet journaling has been the solution that works for me. I actually schedule everything in analog now – I love being able to keep all my notes, meetings and ideas in one place. When I was doing everything digitally – with Google calendar, Trello, etc – it was too easy to get distracted by other digital tasks.
The pen and paper has been a real game changer.
Do you have any favorite business books?
I’ve read a ton of them. The first book that made me realize I could be an entrepreneur was The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. Growing up, I’d started things, but they’d always been small and not very profit-driven – road races, neighborhood newspapers, fundraisers. Even though I had this experience of starting things, I hadn’t realized I could do business. That book flipped a switch for me. And I’ve gotten a lot out of Ferriss’ Tribe of Mentors and Tools of Titans compilations, too. Funny title, but Parent Effectiveness Training has been helpful for me in improving my communication skills. And Zero to One was a mind-opening read. I don’t agree with several things Peter Thiel thinks, but that’s the point. I do agree with almost everything Danny Meyer says about hospitality and service business in Setting the Table.
What’s a challenge you didn’t anticipate when you started?
A big one that I’ve recently leveled up is managing my communication energy. I used to have really big ups and downs. When I was up, I could send 100 emails, go to 5 meetings, and crush it. But then a few days later I might have a down, and not feel like I could do any communication. So I really had to learn to manage by setting up systems that supported me. Creating templates for sales emails has been really helpful so I’m not reinventing the wheel every time. And learning that it’s okay to say no – even good to say no – has been a major win in terms of being able to focus on what matters most at any given time.

What’s your favorite entrepreneur moment?
There are a couple! The very first test of Fyood we did was still the most magical moment. It was in my apartment kitchen, I had 3 friends come over to cook and 3 friends come over to judge. I’d set up a pantry all over my dining room, I had a mystery basket for them, and I explained how I envisioned it. To see them immediately spring into action and start cooking was incredible.

I also won two different awards this fall: SCORE Outstanding Young Entrepreneur Small Business and the MaineBiz Next List. Both were amazing. SCORE was a national award that I received in Washington, which was very fun and glamorous-feeling, but the MaineBiz award meant even more as it was really my people. Looking at the alumni list for that award and placing myself among them really felt like a level-up for me.

Who is your mentor, and do you mentor anyone else?
Nancy Strojny is a big one. She’s my SCORE mentor, but we met 1.5 years before really working together. She’s no-nonsense yet fun at the same time, and she’s a great listener. Nancy is also a connector, so she’s very generous with introducing me to people. I went through a local accelerator program and was given a formal set of mentors for the duration, several of which have continued on in an ad hoc role. I’m grateful to be able to bounce ideas off them.

I also have an informal set of advisors in a few different places whom I think of as my personal board. One is Tristan, the founder of One Gallon Soap Company. He thinks about business and life in an elevated, honest way – he’s very values-driven. He wants to do things in a way that’s good for business, good for customers, and good for the planet. I’ve even worked a couple very part-time jobs in order to learn more from other entrepreneurs I respect, like Amanda at eighteen twenty wines and Hana and Austin at Mami

I’m a SCORE mentor for crowdfunding because there’s some things you can’t know until you launch a campaign. A mentor helped me develop a roadmap when I was launching, and I’m happy to turn around and pass it on now. I’m also starting to speak more often at conferences, on podcasts, and I’m doing some workshops. This is all in addition to coffee meetings, judging panels for pitch competitions, and networking that turns into mentoring down the road.

Despite still having tons more to learn myself, I think it’s cool how quickly you can learn enough to be able to give real knowledge back.

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