EAT Bus: Does It Deliver?

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It’s hard to miss the EAT Bus during a lunch rush near the bustling intersection of Pine and Battery in San Francisco.

The reformed bus registers boldly in blood orange and garners a constant queue of people. Refitted with insulated cold racks and hot-holding cabinets, it transports lunch items at their ideal temperature from restaurants to customers. The bus parks in a different Financial District or SoMa location each weekday and serves as a lunch pickup point for customers from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm.

EAT Bus is the latest vehicle from Palo Alto-based food tech startup EAT Club, which hopes to reshape the lunch landscape for office workers in San Francisco and eventually nationwide. The mission for the lunch-delivery service is straightforward: Bringing good food to busy office workers.

EAT Club was conceived in 2010 by co-founders Kevin Yang and Rodrigo Santibanez, who met as co-presidents of the Stanford business school’s food club. The pair was underwhelmed by daily lunch options as office workers at arm’s length away from the best food in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and other major cities.

“Our catalyst for starting the business was to address the bad lunch crisis that plagued us and other office workers across the country,” Santibanez said. “It’s a shame that we relied on the terrible deli in the basement, a nearby McDonald’s, or a vending machine for sustenance every day because of convenience.”

Yang contends that even in a place like downtown Manhattan, where good food is abundant, people will wait 20 minutes for the same salads and sandwiches every day. He believes that EAT Club’s chief competition is the status quo, workers waiting in line for lunches out of habit or perceived convenience.

“Office workers in the U.S. order a billion dollars worth of lunches a year and online lunch sales account for less than one percent of that market because people still wait in line for lunches,” said Yang. “We’re working hard to disrupt that trend.”

So, in late May, the company began beta testing the EAT Bus, along with an invite-only mobile app in San Francisco to expand business from Silicon Valley to other major metropolitan areas. It removed the invite wall in late June and, after four weeks of beta testing, feels it can now meet the demand in downtown San Francisco with high-quality food and service.

EAT Club’s recent expansion effort was made possible by $5 million in Series A funding from August Capital obtained in April. To date, EAT Club has raised $6.5 million in venture capital. First Round Capital is also an investor.

Unlike the food-isolated South Bay office parks where EAT Club first filled a void, San Francisco provides a trickier market to navigate because of its reputation as a foodie city. But Yang is quick to point out that the most desirable food selections may not be near the throngs of workers that populate downtown San Francisco and other business districts.

The app serves as a mobile version — currently only for the Apple iOs — of the company’s original service and tries to be a virtual incarnation of a pop-up restaurant. The user signs up for an account, links a credit card and orders lunch.

Starting at 2 pm the prior day, customers can order lunch for the next day on the app. They receive meat and veggie options from two different restaurants, with three to four items from each restaurant. The menu provides information such as pictures and descriptions of each dish, staff explanations of why a particular dish was included, dietary restrictions (dairy, nuts, MSG, etc.), and more. Customers receive a push notification email, with a map to the bus, when the lunch is available for pickup.

Yang said that a lunch order can be expedited since the user pays through the app instead of the bus window. “We want transactions to occur online and via mobile,” he said. “If we took a monetary transaction through the bus, we would lose valuable data.”

The data Yang refers to has helped EAT Club identify customer behavior and preferences, such as how many times a week they order lunch, where they work, how much they spend and whether they are repeat clients. The company declined to disclose the volume of lunches sold.

“The food industry is very analog,” Santibanez said. “By and large, it doesn’t know who its customers are. But we know our users well by acting on reliable data that we compiled for the last two to three years.”

EAT Club currently boasts 40 partnering restaurants ranging from tricky-to-transport Shanghai Dumpling King to Bay Area top 100 haunts Bar Tartine and Nopalito. The company considers it a coup that Bar Tartine developed an EAT Club-exclusive lunch menu.

Over the next few years, EAT Club hopes that its mounting restaurant alliances and smart food choices will give the company a foothold in every major North American city.

“Before EAT Club came along, highly perishable food was undeliverable,” Yang said. “Our model not only breaks that notion, but eliminates the barrier of geography that inhibits people from getting good food.”

So how was my experience with the EAT Bus? I ordered lunch on the EAT Club app, shelled out $12.25 for a Jamin Jamon sandwich from Lunchpad that consisted of black forest ham, brie, jalapeno jam and sweet and spicy slaw on bolillo bread. The lunch also came with house-made chips and pickles from a secret family recipe. I selected this particular lunch item based on the attractive photo, clever staff review and of course the house-made chips, which could have been crispier. That said, it was not a Big Mac, either.


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