Anson Tsui and Steven Hsiao embarked on their first entrepreneurial venture while they were undergrads at UC Berkeley. As college students themselves, they had an insider’s track into the storied economy of college students’ late-night junk food cravings, so they dove into that economy headfirst by starting a fleet of food delivery services called things like Late Night Option, Pho Me Now, Munchy Munchy Hippos and Burrito Supremo.
As their fellow students studied or partied into the wee hours of the morning, Tsui and Hsiao turned munchies into money by delivering carne asada fries, cheeseburgers, pho and similar fare directly to students’ doorsteps.
“Our menu items were delicious,” Tsui told me, “but extremely unhealthy.”
The pair graduated in 2009 and continued running their food delivery business, but they felt bad about serving junk food and eventually decided to take a different approach. They started studying up on food sourcing and sustainability and soon emerged with an idea called SpoonRocket: a food delivery model based off of what they had already streamlined, but incorporating fresh and healthy ingredients instead. From there, SpoonRocket was accepted into Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley-based startup funding and incubator program that Tsui credits with changing their lives. Backed by Y Combinator and “some of the top names in [Silicon] Valley,” SpoonRocket launched in Berkeley in May of this year.
SpoonRocket’s stated mission: To revolutionize fast food by delivering gourmet meals made with the freshest ingredients for $6. To that end, in the six months since its launch, SpoonRocket has already made a splash in the East Bay food delivery market. At $6 per meal, SpoonRocket is on the map for one of the cheapest food options out there — and with free, near-instant delivery to boot, certainly among the most convenient.
Traditional fast food and pizza delivery both command enduring audiences because they’re cheap, filling, fast and highly available at all hours of the day or night. It seems a widely accepted truism that cheap, filling, fast, convenient food is mutually exclusive of healthy, high-quality food — a divide that people negotiate by prioritizing one set of qualities over the other at any given mealtime.
Unbelievably, SpoonRocket manages to corner the market on every one of the above qualities. It’s cheap, at $6 per meal. It’s filling, with portions that are satiating but not super-sized. It’s fast, with delivery times topping out at a cool 10 minutes or less (more on that later). It’s highly available, with online ordering at the click of a button and delivery anywhere in Berkeley, Emeryville and — as of November 1 — the Downtown/Lake Merritt area of Oakland between the hours of 11 a.m. and 4 a.m.
It’s healthy, high-quality and touted as gourmet, with regular menu items like polenta with wild mushroom ragout or almond-apple stuffed chicken breast with mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. Each day’s meals are created by veteran Executive Chef David B. Cramer using free-range meat from Del Monte Meat Company and in-season locally sourced produce from GreenLeaf and Taking Stock.
Add to that the extreme simplicity of SpoonRocket’s menu — there are two meal options each day, one vegetarian and the other meat — and you have a food delivery model that seems to be a veritable no-brainer for anyone who is busy and budget-conscious.
Indeed, readers’ comments on a TechCrunch article about SpoonRocket from back in July seem to reflect how bewilderingly effective SpoonRocket’s business model is — how could it possibly be sustainable, and if it is, how is it that no one has thought of this before?
“I cannot imagine what the sustainable competitive advantage is here or how it scales,” writes one commenter.
“If it can be done profitably, this could be very disruptive to fast food restaurants in general,” writes another.
Tsui says that he and Hsiao regularly get customer feedback along the lines of, “Mind blown. You guys are changing the world.” They’ve heard from pregnant women that SpoonRocket has “changed their lives” and from a customer who regularly freezes SpoonRocket meals and sends packages of them to his brother in Arizona.
“We’ve also been able to help senior citizens get acquainted with the online ordering process and they love how easy it is,” Tsui said. “And hearing the reaction of our customers from an unthinkable two-minute delivery time never gets old. It’s not a small thing we’re doing here; we’re revolutionizing fast food. That’s the challenge we set for ourselves at SpoonRocket.”
Y Combinator typically funds tech startups and web/mobile apps. From first appearances, a food delivery service like SpoonRocket seems outside of the scope of anything that might be considered tech — until you delve a bit deeper into how the operation works.
First, there’s the SpoonRocket website, the main hub from which customers place their orders. (SpoonRocket has also developed a SpoonRocket app from which customers can place orders via their phones.)
I initially encountered SpoonRocket’s website in October for the purposes of writing this article. It was a Friday afternoon around lunchtime, fittingly enough, and I was working from home. I was immediately greeted by a landing page offering me free lifetime membership to SpoonRocket as part of a special promotion to celebrate their debut; otherwise, without lifetime membership, SpoonRocket membership is $40 per year.
Free versus $40 seemed a pretty good deal, so I typed in my email address (to create an account), quickly followed by my physical address (for purposes of food delivery) and my phone number (for purposes of contacting me re: delivery). I then apparently and accidentally recommended SpoonRocket to all of my friends once I signed back into my account — not sure how it happened, suffice to say that it happened very efficiently — and I was then presented with the menu of the day.
On the screen were two large side-by-side full-color photographs, one of melty-looking macaroni and cheese and green beans, the other of two sauce-smothered Memphis BBQ pork ribs and roasted red potatoes.
My partner, who was sitting next to me, peered at my computer screen. “Should we try it for lunch?”
I looked down at myself. I was wearing pajama bottoms that couldn’t possibly pass as actual pants to be worn in public (they featured drawstrings and ducks) and was still working on my first cup of coffee. Going out for lunch would involve changing my pants, and making lunch would involve at least half an hour and possibly a trip to the grocery store. SpoonRocket it was.
I placed an order for one of each meal at 12:24 p.m. Since the system already had all of my contact information, all I needed to do was enter a credit card number and add an optional tip for the driver.
In summary: The whole process, from visiting SpoonRocket’s website for the very first time to setting up a lifetime membership account and placing my first order, had taken six minutes flat.
Perhaps even more mind-bogglingly efficient was the series of events that happened next.
At 12:31 p.m., I received a call on my phone with an automated message letting me know that my SpoonRocket order would be at the curb in less than two minutes. My partner went outside to wait for the driver.
At 12:32 p.m., he came back through the door with two containers of food stacked in his hands. “They were already at the curb when I got there,” he reported, looking slightly dazed.
The meals arrived in stackable, microwave-friendly plastic trays, so they looked far more like takeout than they did the gourmet platters pictured on the website — but they arrived warm, with plastic utensils included, complete packages ready for consumption. They were serviceably tasty, comparable to the prepared food at a higher-end grocery store — the mac and cheese was less flavorful than I would have expected, which was quickly remedied with a sprinkling of salt; the ribs were fantastically tender; and the green beans were crisp rather than overcooked as takeout veggies often are.
By 12:46 p.m., we had finished our meals and cleared them away, with the microwaveable plastic trays washed and drying for future use.
At 12:47 p.m., I received an email from SpoonRocket with the subject heading, “Thanks for your order, how was it?” I clicked on the “Rate Us” button, let them know my thoughts and returned to work.
The whole process, from placing an order to having finished eating and rated the quality of my meal, took just over 20 minutes and cost just over $12 for two people minus tip.
The lightning-fast delivery is made possible by a fleet of SpoonRocket cars that drive constantly within a limited delivery area in the East Bay, responding to incoming orders in real time. The cars are outfitted with heating units that hold up to 60 meals at a time, allowing the cars to make dozens of deliveries without needing to return to the kitchen between trips. Each car is equipped with an iPad on which has been downloaded a SpoonRocket-specific GPS app — the second technological tool, along with its streamlined online ordering platform, that makes SpoonRocket’s business model possible. The app dispatches incoming orders to drivers depending on drivers’ geographical locations, with an order going automatically to the closest available driver.
Meanwhile, the food is cooked in large batches all day long, ensuring that the cars always have food to restock when they run out. “We’re cooking throughout the day to make sure the food is as fresh as possible,” Hsiao said. “High volume means high production, so we always have cooks in the kitchen chopping, stirring, grilling and taste-testing.”
In fact, Tsui and Hsiao are looking to streamline the process even further by introducing “reloader vans,” which will meet drivers in the field whenever a driver requires a refill and thus eliminate drivers’ need to ever return to the kitchen at all. Reloader vans will also make possible SpoonRocket’s geographical expansion into San Francisco, which is ambitiously slated for December 1; it will be the reloader vans that will make trips back and forth between Berkeley and San Francisco, while SpoonRocket’s San Francisco drivers work continuously to fulfill the Financial District’s lunch and dinner crowds.
“We want to penetrate the [San Francisco] market when the timing is right — when we’ve worked out as many kinks as possible that come with being a young startup,” Tsui said. “If we can do SF, we can do L.A., New York and all the big cities. We’re right on the cusp of that.”
It’s a business that perfectly marries the intersection of food and tech, modeling a kind of easy replicability and an uber-efficient delivery that was not possible before the advent of smart phones and tablets. And since the business is continually expanding, greater demand actually means even greater efficiency, because SpoonRocket hires more drivers as demand increases, thus reducing the average geographical coverage of any one driver.
The only latency, then, is the actual time it takes a driver to get from Point A to Point B — which is often the distance of a city block.
“SpoonRocket time is similar to dog years,” Noah Hoffman says. “You know how dog years are seven years per human year? Things happen really fast at SpoonRocket, so a month is like a SpoonRocket year.”
Hoffman has been a SpoonRocket driver since mid-August. In that time, he’s tested constantly-improving versions of SpoonRocket’s GPS app and seen SpoonRocket successfully launch delivery service in Oakland — as well as been involved in other exciting developments of the business that he won’t tell me about for proprietary reasons.
Today he’s taking me on a ride-along as he works a shift behind the wheel. As with an elementary school police ride-along, I’m forced to ride in back, wedged in next to a heating unit containing heavenly-smelling mushroom fajitas and meat lasagnas; the passenger seat has been removed to allow the driver to hand meals over to customers on that side of the car.
As he drives around the neighborhood south of UC Berkeley’s campus, Hoffman tells me the story of his personal record for fastest SpoonRocket delivery ever: “I was delivering near a frat on Piedmont, and a woman pulled over next to me and said, ‘Hi, can I get some food from you, too?’ I said sure. She was gonna be heading towards the Caldecott Tunnel to Walnut Creek, and she wanted to take the food home. She already had the [SpoonRocket] app. She pulled out her phone and ordered three, and I just gave them to her right there.”
He says he’s delivered orders to people coming separately out of the same apartment building, and to people living on the same block who had unknowingly placed orders within minutes of each other. The Berkeley Police order a lot, too, and Hoffman often delivers meals directly to cops sitting in their parked cars.
“Regular customers, they just say, ‘Hey, thanks. See ya later,’” Hoffman says. “But sometimes newer customers have a sparkle in their eye – one guy, he was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me! I ordered this less than two minutes ago!’ and they’re amazed and excited. And then after they’ve ordered a few times, they’re not so impressed anymore.”
As he’s talking, a festive horn sound blasts from the iPad mounted on the dashboard, and an order pops up on the screen. According to the GPS map, the order was placed from literally a block away — our route involves rounding the corner and finding the address. Hoffman taps a button indicating that he’s en route, noting out loud that the order was already in the system for 20 seconds before he received and confirmed it. I estimate that that puts the total delivery time, from the second the order was placed to the second it arrives at the curb, at approximately two minutes.
I pound my seat in excitement as Hoffman presses down on the gas pedal. “You’re about to blow this person’s mind!”
“Nah,” Hoffman says mildly. “I’m sure they’re a regular.”
The customer, whom we both guess is a Cal student by the looks of him, is standing at the curb outside of an apartment complex. As we roll up, he reaches out and takes the order, says thanks and shuffles off towards his building, apparently nonplussed.
I feel truly crestfallen. “He was so unimpressed!”
In response, Hoffman taps the button on the iPad screen that indicates that he’s delivered the order. “And… delivered in… two minutes,” he reports.
On to the next order.
As we drive, I note that the video-game-like setup of the GPS app on the dashboard’s iPad seems to turn the whole job of delivery into a kind of virtual world, one in which it seems entirely possible that the driver might receive gold tokens at the end of a particularly fast delivery. In fact, there is no particular incentive for drivers to deliver as quickly as possible — drivers don’t work on commission, and tips are pooled communally — but it seems there’s an emotional incentive to try to beat one’s own personal record.
Not to mention that SpoonRocket’s delivery time is unmatched thus far by any other food delivery service, so drivers get to experience pride and ownership every time a customer is astounded by how quickly their food arrived.
Hoffman tells me that he’s actually bummed when a customer isn’t waiting at the curb when he shows up, because the time that he spends waiting for a customer (rather than the other way around) is then reflected in the average delivery time that is reported on the SpoonRocket website. “Sometimes a customer is like, ‘Oh, I’ll be down in a minute,’ which is a long time in SpoonRocket time,” Hoffman says.
The next order that we deliver goes to a customer at a Southside apartment building near the first. The addresses are hard to find on this particular street, and Hoffman passes the delivery address by about half a block before he realizes it.
“So we didn’t do too bad. Three and a half minutes,” Hoffman says after we’ve successfully delivered the order to another fairly nonplussed customer. As we roll away from the curb to await the next incoming order, he shrugs.
“Sometimes you can’t help it, you know? Every order can’t be the fastest one.”