Q&A with REEF Technology’s Ari Ojalvo: Challenging the conventional path

By Nancy Dahlberg

'Overnight, our neighborhoods became our whole world and REEF’s vision of connecting the world to your block mattered more than ever’

Building on the “15-minute city” concept in urban redevelopment, REEF Technology  is reimagining the common parking lot to achieve smart, sustainable urban living. It transforms underutilized urban spaces into neighborhood hubs that connect people to locally curated goods, services and experiences, all within easy reach.

The fast-growing Miami-based tech company, led by Ari Ojalvo, started with connections to food and delivery services. The company runs more than 100 REEF Neighborhood Kitchens in North American cities; there are already 13 of these kitchens in Miami, each typically holding four to six restaurants including local favorites like Michelle Bernstein’s and Michael Schwartz’s brands, Della Bowls, Ms Cheezious and Burger-Fi. Cutting out the usual brick and mortar overhead and staffing issues, the kitchens provide a turnkey, zero capital investment solution for restaurateurs looking to grow their businesses, REEF said.

In this 15-minute city, the doctor is always in because REEF’s neighborhood hubs can also offer everything from COVID testing to flu shots and checkups. They also can include micro-mobility stations for bike and scooter shares as well as last-mile delivery services, electric vehicle charging stations, vertical farming and on-demand wellness.

With access to over 5,000 parking lots and garages as its infrastructure and a team of 15,000 people, REEF is the largest operator of mobility, logistics hubs and neighborhood kitchens in the United States.

In the Miami market alone, REEF has more than 350 open jobs right now.

This week, the company and its REEF Neighborhood Kitchens unit  announced a $1 million NBRHD Restaurant Development Program, which aims to help 100 local restaurants scale their delivery business. Restaurants can apply here.

To fund its huge mission, REEF Technology scored a $700 million investment from SoftBank, Mubadala Capital and other investors in November. At the same time, with Oaktree Capital Management’s infrastructure arm, REEF launched a $300 million fund, called Neighborhood Property Group, to acquire more strategic real estate assets. REEF is also one of Florida’s rare unicorns, private companies valued at more an $1 billion.

I reached out to Ari Ojalvo, REEF founder and CEO, to learn more about the proptech, smart cities-focused unicorn in our midst, his big vision, Miami job growth and what’s ahead for 2021 (Hint: There could be a “holistic” REEF Neighborhood Park in our future.)

What role does healthcare and wellness play in your model and vision for REEF and how is that part of the business playing out?

Great question. With our existing real estate footprint, logistics expertise and in-house business success teams, we have all the ingredients to build a more sustainable, accessible healthcare model for our neighborhoods. We’ve all seen the long lines for COVID testing clinics and the congestion at primary care facilities treating everything in the medical handbook. No one should have to travel an hour plus in traffic, including time off work, to get the care they need. We want to be able to bridge that gap and provide access to essential healthcare services fast and dependably.

Our network allows healthcare providers to create modular micro-campuses to bring healthcare to patients’ residential blocks. By managing operations, design and logistics, our healthcare partners can focus on what’s most important – their exceptional medical services. Interested parties can learn more on the website (here) and we believe the sky’s the limit on what we can accomplish with our partners.

What are some of the products and services you brought on in 2020?

We’re extremely proud of our partnership with Carbon Health. When COVID hit, we mobilized quickly to establish a plan to launch pop-up COVID-19 testing clinics across major cities. With access to over 5,000 parking lots and garages, we could prioritize urban and suburban communities that had limited healthcare access points and testing gaps. Our hope is that these clinics have the potential to expand to more comprehensive healthcare offerings with both virtual and in-person care.

Beyond healthcare, we’re also expanding in the retail space. Our new partnership with wellness.global enables us to fulfill and distribute their health and wellness products on demand in Miami with 2-hour and same day delivery. Our retail partners, much like kitchens, can scale and reach more customers with our last-mile fulfilment capabilities. Typically, those market expansion strategies come at a cost to investors and the end-user.

In our hometown of Miami, we’re thrilled to partner with beloved local heroes such as Chef Michelle Bernstein and Chef Michael Schwartz and to propel the growth of fast-casual brands such as Burger-Fi, based out of South Florida, and artisanal grilled cheese favorite, Ms. Cheezious. Della Bowls was also an early adopter of our platform – Della Heiman launched the plant-based brand in a food truck, and it’s proved to be a popular delivery menu with Miami foodies.

How has COVID impacted your work this year, good or bad?

We had already started building our proximity-as-a-service model before the pandemic, which includes our Neighborhood Kitchens platform. Overnight, our neighborhoods became our whole world and REEF’s vision of connecting the world to your block mattered more than ever. REEF had already been dreaming about where we eat, how we get around and how we shop. COVID unblocked critical barriers that propelled to cities commit to many changes that we hope are permanent – opening up streets, enabling delivery and fulfillment at a local level. Our teams fired on all cylinders from kitchens to parking to logistics, all to create access to essential services within a biking or walking distance from where you live.

One of the biggest shockwaves was felt within the restaurant industry. The uncertainty and struggles continue to this day with the National Restaurant Association estimating a quarter billion-dollar loss in restaurant sales by end of 2020. However, people need to eat and there’s a strong appetite to support their local businesses. Contact-free, delivery-only and digital brands boomed as a result. We deployed our Neighborhood Kitchens platform at a tremendous speed – essentially condensing a whole year’s worth of planned growth in just a few months.

REEF Neighborhood Kitchens challenges the conventional path to grow a business. Food entrepreneurs no longer have to sink costs into brick-and-mortar restaurants. They can treat their business with an e-commerce lens, meeting consumers where they are. We’re also experimenting with new delivery mechanisms to reduce road congestion and encourage more eco-friendly options like e-cargo bikes. You can read more about our partnership with DHL on our website (here) where we’re using low-power electric-assist cycles for deliveries in Miami.

We also launched a “Calling All Restaurants” initiative to help local restaurants discover REEF, understand our volume revenue-share model and learn how to stabilize their business. Our talented team partners on menu development, hiring and training staff, managing inventory, customer service, facilities oversight, marketing and PR support, and access to partner couriers. Post COVID, these businesses can continue leveraging the Neighborhood Kitchens platform to expand quickly to new neighborhoods or cities even as business returns to their brick-and-mortar locations.

What does your recent funding round enable you to do?

Our $1 billion funding allows us to accomplish a number of important initiatives. First, there’s a dedicated $300 million partnership with Oaktree under our real estate arm, The Neighborhood Property Group. We’ll continue to develop our Neighborhoods platform across a variety of sectors such as restaurants, mobility, logistics and healthcare. This will enable us to help build the vision of a 15-minute city, where locals can access products, services and experiences within easy reach and accessibility.

We’ll also be growing our Neighborhood Kitchens footprint. We currently operate 100+ Neighborhood Kitchens in 20+ cities, partnering with everyone from established franchises to small mom and pop shops.

Last but not least, in a year where many sectors have had to made tough personnel decisions, REEF has over 850+ open jobs on our careers portal nationally and globally. We’re investing in our talent and filling brand-new roles as we build our ecosystem and create Neighborhood Hubs that will be of lasting value to our communities.

 What are one or two of your goals for 2021?

Our overarching goal is to help build more accessible, equitable and sustainable cities and that can be realized in a myriad of ways. We hope to launch a holistic REEF Neighborhood Park in 2021. This will be a dynamic and experiential place where all the essential businesses and services of a community can thrive – from retail to culinary, urban innovation, and more. We’re excited to share more on this front in the coming months.

In order to accomplish this, we’re focused on nurturing our civic partnerships and relationships with government officials and growing our urban innovation and design expertise. These public -private partnerships are instrumental in driving big lasting change.

Please tell me about recent growth of the Miami team. What do you project for 2021?

Miami is our hometown and we’re growing rapidly. We have 350+ open roles in the Miami market alone that we’ll be adding to for 2021. These roles are across specialties such as parking, engineering, real estate, business development, culinary operations, fulfillment and more. We’ll continue to invest in our business here and a primary focus for 2021 will be how we can continue to play a dynamic role in the future of Miami as a thriving tech hub. We’ll be happy to share more on that as our ideas develop.

I know you've always had a big vision but when did your vision for the REEF of today come into view for you? 

REEF is more the product of observation and execution than the product of a vision. Part of this stems from growing up in Turkey where traffic is notoriously bad, and it can take hours just to get across town. When I was young, local delivery businesses would use neighborhood parking lots to stop and distribute their goods – to avoid blocking the street and causing congestion. These transportation versus pedestrian problems have been around for a long time. Cities were built around cars rather than to serve the people.

More recently on a trip to New York City, I was walking down the street and saw a police car, with sirens on, stuck behind two double parked delivery vehicles. It’s clear, now more than ever, that while we move most of the warehouses out of our cities – the congestion caused by the number of delivery trucks needed to get us our goods and services is one we need to solve for. That’s where REEF comes in – from sustainable cargo bikes to last block fulfillment, we’re reimagining our city blocks from neighborhood to neighborhood. We can bring the world to our block in a way that’s better for the environment, the community and our economy. 

Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter and email her at ndahlbergbiz@gmail.com

Photos provided by REEF Technology

 

Nancy Dahlberg
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