Millennials love taking food photos. Don’t believe it? Visit any sushi restaurant and watch the smartphone-armed 20- and 30-somethings snap, tweet, and post on Instagram and Facebook pictures of their rainbow rolls, dragon rolls and sashimi. Now a trending Midwestern startup is turning those social media brags into a socially good food service.
GiftAMeal, formally FoodShare, blends three millennial stereotypes — social media obsession, do-gooder mentality, and foodie culture — into one app. Since being launched last October by two students from St. Louis’ Washington University and another from Dartmouth College, nearly 100 St. Louis-area restaurants have hopped on the GiftAMeal bandwagon in the past half-year.
Users dining at one of the restaurants featured on the app need only take a photo of their food, friends or any other visual inside the restaurant, enter the photo into the app and send the photo with a message to other friends on the app. Each time they do so, one meal is donated by the restaurant to someone in need via a partnership with Operation Food Search, a St. Louis-based food bank. If users take it a step further and post the photo on social media, another meal is gifted.
More than simply a social enterprise in itself, GiftAMeal empowers dozens of restaurants to be social enterprises, too. So far, nearly 3,000 meals have been donated.
‘REALLY GOOD FOOD BUT NOT A LOT OF CUSTOMERS’
Naturally, the concept of GiftAMeal crystallized over a meal. Andrew Glantz, a junior at Washington University, and Aidan Folbe, a freshman at Dartmouth, were interns last summer at Los Angeles-based venture capital firm Navitas Capital when they grabbed lunch one day at a small Italian spot. They immediately noticed a problem. “The restaurant had really good food but not a lot of customers,” Glantz remembers. They wondered why. The eatery had all the makings of a popular lunch spot: Delectable cuisine. Solid atmosphere. Ideal location. Yet they sat nearly alone.
As the two completed the internship and went home to St. Louis and Hanover, New Hampshire, they kept thinking about the problem and eventually came up with a solution — a way to get good but relatively unknown restaurants coveted millennial word-of-mouth while providing a meal for someone in need. “We really saw the intersection of profits and purpose as something that could be really big in terms of making an impact and a company successful,” says Glantz, now GiftAMeal’s CEO.
The duo snagged Washington University senior Jacob Mohrmann as chief marketing officer, then sunk a “significant amount of savings” into app development and launched the app with about 10 hesitant restaurants, Glantz says, mainly in St. Louis’ trendy, college student-heavy Delmar Loop. “Getting the initial restaurants to sign on was tough because we didn’t have any proof that this would work, that this would actually drive their business or that it would do anything for them besides take up their time,” he admits. But they were riding a wave of “unrealistically optimistic expectations and trust” in themselves, and when restaurant owners began talking with each other about how much they liked GiftAMeal, things began to click.
IMMEDIATE SUCCESS, SUPPORT, AND CASH
First, the team completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising $5,700 from an original ask of $2,000. Then they began cobbling together funding from business competition grants and awards, most notably a $50,000 nod in February from Capital Innovators that made GiftAMeal the first-ever undergraduate startup to become a portfolio company from the St. Louis-based accelerator. In March, GiftAMeal secured its first chain restaurant partner, Jimmy John’s; that same month the venture got another boost when it was awarded a top-three placement at the South by Southwest Student Startup Madness competition.
Lately, Glantz says, convincing restaurants to join has been significantly easier. “It’s not as much of a sales job, as opposed to providing restaurants with a tool to connect them with millennials and improve their bottom line while making a difference,” he says. Participating restaurants now number more than 95, thanks to a recent partnership with 32 St. Louis-area Applebee’s. Not to mention, the GiftAMeal roster boasts local favorites like Blueberry Hill, Kayak’s Cafe, and a scattering of options in St. Louis’ Italian neighborhood, The Hill.
There certainly is a need — perhaps even a responsibility — for such ventures. Brought into sharp relief by the Ferguson protests and riots of 2014, the line between haves and have-nots is as much a part of Missouri-based GiftAMeal as anywhere else in the United States. As reported by The Washington Post in the wake of the riots that two years ago stunned the nation, Delmar Boulevard — where the venture had its origins — is a stark example of our society’s socioeconomic extremes. Where government and nonprofits have made little improvements, there could be opportunity for social enterprise to do something.
‘A MIDWEST THING’
Opportunity, need and support are all reasons Glantz, a Los Angeles native, sees the mid-sized research university in Middle America as an ideal spot for a socially minded tech venture. He stepped on Washington University’s campus aiming to major in economics and political science at the college of arts and sciences. “I didn’t think I’d be an entrepreneur,” he recalls. But a budding interest in venture capital, entrepreneurship and business led him to apply to Olin Business School, where he now majors in leadership and strategic management.
“The great thing about St. Louis is everyone is only about three connections away from you,” Glantz notes before ticking off a list of resources, including Downtown T-Rex, TechArtista and Capital Innovators. Glantz says many within the Washington University community and the greater St. Louis entrepreneurial scene have been willing to help.
Specifically, at the university, Glantz has drawn upon lessons learned from Cliff Holekamp, a senior lecturer of entrepreneurship and director of the entrepreneurship platform at the Olin School. Glantz has also heeded the often blunt advice of Emre Toker, director of Olin’s Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
COMING SOON TO A METROPOLITAN AREA NEAR YOU
Still, early successes haven’t come easy. Glantz says he spends eight to 10 hours daily on GiftAMeal, squeezing classes and study time in when he can. “It really is something that takes up my life,” he says of the venture. But he sees the value in creating a venture as an undergrad — specifically, that he’s been able to leverage courses like Leadership and Organizations to hone skills like messaging techniques and marketing to target audiences. “It’s things like that that make being a student a lot more valuable to creating a startup,” Glantz says.
But in eyeing the budding entrepreneurial bug taking over college campuses, he still sees room for improvement at universities. “Schools don’t really know quite how to handle it yet,” Glantz says. University programs could do more to build a larger entrepreneurial infrastructure and develop programs to keep entrepreneurs from dropping out to pursue startups.
GiftAMeal’s founders are researching whether more market-specific opportunities or a nationwide platform is best to scale, with a focus on Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C. and Hanover, New Hampshire as potential future market-specific options. Whichever direction the venture takes, Glantz says, the plan is to remain humble — and hustle.
“To paraphrase Mark Cuban, to be successful, you have to work like there is someone working 24 hours a day to take everything away from you,” Glantz says.