SiliconBeachClearly: Our Interview With TRUFFL Founder, Raphael Farasat
The members-only group of food lovers TRUFFL celebrated its first birthday May 11. In honor of the occasion, we caught up with its well-traveled founder to learn about his inspiration for TRUFFL, tips on how to get into the club, and where he hangs out in L.A.
When we heard about the new members-only TRUFFL lifestyle society, our interest was piqued. A private club for creative people who are personally vested in making L.A. more of a community? Check. An application process that didn’t require income verification or questions about your family lineage (so East Coast). Better yet.
Communal dinners featuring some of the best chefs in the city? Great! A partnership with mixology pioneers Apartment A? Another plus. Live music events in intimate settings featuring cool bands before they hit it big? Sweet!
Surely there had to be a catch. So, we applied and we got in — no velvet rope shaming required. And what we saw continued to impress us. We trekked deep into the heart of DTLA and entered the converted, warehouse-style loft that Apartment A calls home. On the agenda for the night was innovative yet rustic Italian cooking by Freddy Vargas of Scarpetta.
The talented chef went over the top to impress his guests. Billed as a multi-course meal, there were no less than 20 stellar dishes served throughout. And if you think he does a great job executing Chef/Owner Scott Conant’s recipes, he’s even more impressive when he’s cooking from his heart. Clearly, somebody should invest in this guy and get him his own place stat.
But it wasn’t just the food that made the experience stand out. The crowd was comprised of food lovers, and everyone was actively engaged in conversation. It was very … Italian. We met a fashion blogger, a rep from KCRW’s “Good Food,” a WeHo gallery owner, an up-and-coming screenwriter who just finished in episode for <Family Guy, and a bartender/comedian combo. And that was just our end of the table. Hosting about 25 people in total, the room was constantly abuzz with chatter and conviviality.
In the aftermath, we chatted with TRUFFL founder Raphael Farasat, an L.A. native who backpacked around Asia, South America, and Central America for about a year after business school. Inspired by his travel experiences, he returned home to pursue a JD/MBA and to found this unique community.
SBC: What was the inspiration for TRUFFL? How do you describe the TRUFFL concept and experiences to people who’ve never heard of it?
Raphael: TRUFFL was inspired by personal travel, personal frustration, and a desire to connect a community of creatives, artists, and entrepreneurs over unique experiences.
I think many people have the experience of traveling to a new place and the excitement of finding new and hidden things. Particularly in dense cities like New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo, simply walking around can lead to stumbling upon hidden, unique, and exceptional things.
But returning home often means returning to one’s routine, and from my vantage point, we often don’t treat our own city with that sense of exploration as we do others we visit. So from this perspective, the inspiration for TRUFFL was to deliver that sense of discovery, the uncovering of hidden places and experiences, and bringing the best aspects of travel to you in your own city, in the form of packaged events.
We also felt that Los Angeles, in particular, was an exciting city to start TRUFFL. L.A. is a sprawling city where many people tend to stay in their own neighborhoods. It’s also a city in which great things can take a lot of time to research and find.
SBC: Tell me about the application process to become a member. I see that there’s no question about income. What are you looking for in members?
Raphael: We have an application on our website that requests career information, social media assets, and an optional essay. You’re right, there is no income level and that’s intentional. Our aim isn’t to be an elitist group of wealthy people but rather focus on bringing together individuals who are doing compelling things with their careers and driving their city culturally.
Whether they’ve chosen the arts, entrepreneurship, technology, media, or hospitality, we hope to attract dynamic and interesting people that have something to add to the community. I think this type of focus is appealing to our members because hopefully at every event they’ll be exposed to people from different walks of life that share a common ethos and interests.
SBC: Describe the types of partners you work with and the relationships you are seeking to build. How important are buzzwords like “sustainable,” “artisanal,” and “boutique?”
Raphael: TRUFFL is a platform that depends on great partners to create each event and unique experience. Aside from having fun and meeting compelling people, I think our members, and most people, appreciate connecting directly with chefs, artists, and entertainers. So we are really focused on selecting partners that are passionate about their craft and comfortable speaking about it.
For example, we usually have our chefs cook food that they have a personal connection to and ask them to describe their food, backgrounds, and inspirations. When we work with musicians, we ask them to invite their friends and family, to help make sure each concert has the feel of a community gathering.
I think those buzzwords are all relevant, but the most important thing to us is, “Do we find these partners compelling personally?” and “Do we feel like they’ll be able to connect with our audience on a personal level?”
SBC: As an entrepreneur, what challenges have you faced in founding this company? Do you come from a start-up background?
Raphael: I was lucky enough to have exceptional partners from the start, with their own infrastructures. The first is Levity Entertainment Group — owners of the Improv Comedy Clubs and the television production company behind shows like Iron Chef. The second is Adam Fleischman, the entrepreneur behind restaurant brands Umami Burger and 800 Degrees. We were able to use the corporate infrastructure and resources of these established groups to reduce our operating costs and hit the ground running from day one.
The biggest challenge in starting a business like TRUFFL is building a community and customer acquisition. Because we’re so focused on quality control, in terms of our member base, the primary means of customer acquisition has been referrals from other members. This makes us extremely focused on execution and delivering a unique experience at every event to make sure each guest becomes an evangelist for our platform.
SBC: How do you see TRUFFL growing? What’s the timeframe? What types of entrepreneurial challenges do you think you’ll face as you evolve it? In other words, what keeps you up at night?
Raphael: I see us focused on growing in Los Angeles and building a reputation and strong following in this city before moving on to build TRUFFL chapters in other major cities. We’re really excited about TRUFFL in the travel context because members will have the opportunity to visit other cities and experience local, authentic, and intimate dining, musical, and artistic events. I think those are the most memorable ways to experience any city.
SBC: How important is digital content and social media to your TRUFFL business plan/strategy?
Raphael: It’s been essential. I think any time your business is focused on building community, making sure that people feel a personal connection to a brand is important. We have an online magazine, called The Journal that features our members and exciting projects they are working on, along with spotlighting innovators from across industries that we partner with.
We have pieces that we hope are relevant to our members like a video guide on how to brew coffee from the World Champion Barista, a guide on how to make bucatini carbonara from Superba Snack Bar’s chef Jason Neroni and studio visits with local musicians like Active Child. Social media has also been helpful in driving awareness about our community and driving transactions for specific events.
Along with directly communicating with our audience through content and social media, we’ve been extremely focused on branding from day one. I think that focus goes a long way in helping customers feel something about our community beyond just being a marketplace where they transact. Of course, your product needs to be great but, particularly with a lifestyle-focused company, I think start-ups need to be just as focused on strong branding from the start.
SBC: What are your favorite places in L.A.?
Raphael: I love hiking at Solstice Canyon in Malibu and Runyon Canyon in Hollywood. Some of my favorite restaurants are Jitlada, Bestia, Angelini Osteria, Nozawa Bar, Giorgio Baldi, Gjelina Take Away, and MB Post. For coffee, I love Handsome Coffee, Coffee Commissary, and Spring for Coffee.