Hungry Berkshires students want food: Mother of one of them says, ‘Gopher it’More Info
Salisbury, Conn. — It goes without saying that denizens of the Berkshires are accustomed to technological deprivation. After all, from Uber to gigabit broadband service, most of us live in a different world from that of our cohorts in Boston and New York. Fortunately, one entrepreneur sees an opening.
A frequent complaint, especially among younger palates, is the absence of online food delivery services such as GrubHub, Seamless and Uber Eats. Hungry diners in the Berkshires who want meal deliveries to their homes or offices are at the mercy of the few establishments that actually offer their own delivery (note: there aren’t that many of them and they tend not to remain open later in the evening, which is not exactly a great fit for the young and the nocturnal).
Kim Widener lived most her adult life in New Jersey but, after a divorce, she moved to New York City and her youngest son went off to Indian Mountain School in Lakeville, where Widener eventually wound up moving herself.
“My son was always calling me to bring food,” Widener said in an interview. “But I didn’t really think much about it at the time. The business just sort of evolved, so that’s what it was based on.”
And so MealGopher was born. Widener knew that starting a GrubHub-style service in places like Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and Litchfield County, Connecticut, would be daunting. The area simply lacks the critical mass of empty stomachs needed to make an urban and suburban business model viable.
But there was one segment of the market to serve that just might make it work: the boarding schools such as Indian Mountain, Hotchkiss and Berkshire School that dot the area. Widener had already set up another business, the Berkshire Valet, which caters to part-time residents, and so meal delivery to boarding-school students seemed like a natural extension.
“So you have all these restaurants and all these hungry kids and the challenge was to connect the two,” Widener recalled. “And technology was the only way I could see to do it.”
One might think a meal delivery service is a business you could set up on a shoestring, but such is not the case. Paying a developer to design and code an app for mobile devices is not cheap, though Widener did not say how much she had to pay her developer in Pakistan.
Experts say custom app development can run anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars for a small operation to $1 million, though the latter figure is more typical for large corporations. In Widener’s case, she wanted MealGopher to be available for both the iPhone and for devices using Android, Google’s mobile operating system. Appinventiv.com estimates the cost of developing a food-ordering app like UberEats or Grubhub at between $30,000 and $40,000.
Then there is the matter of hiring drivers (Widener has four of them who use their own vehicles, including herself). They’re paid hourly to deliver during two windows, typically one in the early evening and another not long before bedtime. In addition, Widener and her team had to harken back to their younger days. They had to play by school rules.
“There are challenges, but there are also built-in advantages that the boarding schools have that make it easier,” Widener explained. “They have very precise delivery times.”
Orders must be placed on the app by 4 p.m. for delivery that evening. Typically deliveries take place before study hall, between 7:15 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., and after study hall, not later than 10 p.m. This can create problems, though Widener says they’re not insurmountable.
“So the kids have to sort of plan ahead, which is a little bit of a challenge because they can’t be super impulsive, calling up half an hour before delivery,” Widener said. “There is a learning curve. They have to plan ahead.”
Soon the MealGopher app, which is tied to the customer’s credit or debit card, will allow students to track their orders so that they don’t feel compelled to text Widener to ask her when the food will arrive.
So far, Berkshire School in Sheffield is the only school she is servicing. Berkshire started taking deliveries the second week of January. But Widener has plans to bring others on board soon, including Hotchkiss School, Salisbury School and Bard College at Simon’s Rock.
For dessert, there’s Hello Cookie! That’s Widener’s own dessert concept on the MealGopher app. It’s basically a giant personal pizza-sized cookie with a positive message on it. She says it’s locally sourced, made from “farm-fresh” ingredients in the Hudson Valley.
Widener says she didn’t consciously decide that her service would be based on a mobile app strictly for marketing purposes. After all, it would have been possible to offer ordering in advance through a website or even by a simple telephone call. She says she was just trying to come up with a model that served everyone well.
But there are also the aforementioned technological challenges in this region. Most of these boarding schools have poor cell phone service (Salisbury School, perched high on a hill, is the exception). But over the years, the schools have all worked hard to expand their wi-fi networks to blanket their campuses, so student use of the app is no longer the problem it would have been, say, 10 years ago.
Widener’s staff, she says, is enthusiastic: “They’re really excited about being involved in a startup, so they’re always texting me, calling me with ideas … This past Sunday, I gave them the day off and told them I’ll deliver on my own and they logged into the admin panel and saw there were lots of orders. Both of them just, on their own, said, ‘Do you want me to come and help you?'”
And it always helps when customers are happy. Kristina Splawn, associate dean of students at Berkshire School, told The Edge the school averages between 10 and 17 orders per day. She expects that number to rise once students get into the habit of ordering hours before delivery.
“For the teenage mind, that can be quite a challenge,” Splawn said.
But downloads of the app have been brisk on the Berkshire campus. The school has about 400 students. As of this week, 330 of them have downloaded and installed MealGopher on their mobile devices, Splawn said.
“The kids are excited about it and it’s a great service,” Splawn added. “Kim’s been great working with us. I don’t think it would work if there wasn’t this level of communication with the owner.”
As for her business model, Widener said she did not want to cook food and deliver it and actually compete with the existing restaurants since they typically operate on slim margins. Widener says, unlike Grubhub and its competitors, MealGopher is “structured for groups of people.” She’d also like to expand into servicing health care facilities such as Fairview and Sharon hospitals.
“You need scale,” she explained. “It’s so hard in this area. That’s why GrubHub isn’t here.”
Nationally, online meal delivery services have grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years and are predicted to continue to do so. Online food delivery sales in the U.S. are expected to rise from $17 billion last year to $24 billion in 2023, according to the Motley Fool.
And the generational trend bodes well for future growth. A recent Acosta and Technomic survey found that 77 percent of millennials ordered a food delivery over the past three months, compared with 51 percent of the general population. And 44 percent of consumers in the so-called millennial generation ordered meals from a third-party food delivery service such as Grubhub, compared to just 20 percent of all U.S. diners.
Asked how sustainable she thinks MealGopher can be, Widener replied, “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think there was an opportunity for it to grow. Our tagline is always ‘Gopher It.'”