Instead of turning to Uber, Lyft, DoorDash or Grubhub, these college students started their own food delivery businesses to make money and show their entrepreneurial expertise to potential employers.
Two met a demand created by the COVID-19 pandemic, while two others started their delivery businesses before 2020. They all saw a need on or around their campuses that wasn’t being filled.
Here’s what they did.
4 Successful Examples of How to Start a Food Delivery Business
1. Deliver Produce from Farms to Kitchens
Will Gentry and Gray Carlton devised a way to help local farms get produce safely to consumers during the pandemic and make money for themselves with their new business, Lexington Harvest Haul.
The seniors at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., started thinking about their future enterprise last summer.
“There are a lot of farms that surround us, and we were noticing there wasn’t a great way for them to sell their stuff except at a farmers market once a week,” Carlton said. “We started brainstorming, thinking of what would be a good way to get their products to people. We came up with a system where we take orders based on what the farmers anticipate they’ll have each week.”
The students started by talking to various farmers at the farmers market to see if they would be interested in having their products delivered.
“They were extremely excited right off the bat. I was kind of surprised,” Gentry said. “I figured they were going to be set in their ways. But they are always looking for more sales avenues.”
The boys started a Facebook page, built a following in the community and collected more than 100 emails.
Here’s how the food delivery business works:
Customers place their orders on a website, Lexharvesthaul.com, by a weekly deadline. Carlton and Gentry go to five farms every Tuesday to buy all the produce, then sort the goods to assemble each customer’s order and deliver it all the same day.
“We don’t hold any inventory. It’s really unique,” Carlton said. They charge a $7.50 delivery fee, plus a markup of around 18% of the total order.
“Another benefit of what we do is customers can order from several different places and have it all come in the same package,” Gentry said.
So, a customer can order butternut squash from Sunflower Flats Farm, free range chicken from Hearthstone Farm, pimento cheese from Mountain View Farm, maple ginger cheesecake from Abundant Life Kitchen and Pink Lady apples from Dickie Brothers Orchard on one website, pay in one transaction and get it all brought to their doorstep for one delivery fee plus the markup.
Lexington Harvest Haul takes orders on a website powered by Shopify, which offers free templates for e-commerce sites, then charges $29 a month. The domain name cost $10.
In order to set up a bank account for the business, Gentry and Carlton paid $300 to form an LLC.
I figured they were going to be set in their ways. But they are always looking for more sales avenues.
“We also wanted some protection (from possible lawsuits) because we were handling food. Not that either of us has too much to protect,” Carlton said with a laugh. “Having an LLC allowed us to plug into the local business community and open a membership in the chamber of commerce. That’s beneficial because there’s a pretty strong small business community in Lexington.”
They hope to sell the business to other students or someone in the Lexington community when they graduate in May.
“Sometimes I do think about how we could build a bigger business out of it,” Gentry said. “I try not to let myself go down that rabbit hole and make sure we get it right the first time.”
2. Deliver Food from Dining Hall to Dorm
BC GET was created when a Boston College student realized how much he and his friends dreaded going out in the cold to pick up food from the campus dining hall.
J.B. Bruggeman got the idea to charge a fee to deliver dining hall takeout and soon partnered with fellow student Jack Antico.
At first, there was very little technology involved. Students could order takeout from the dining hall, then text Bruggeman and he would go get the client’s student ID card then go pick up the food, swipe the card to pay for it, deliver the food, return the card and get paid around $5 via Venmo. After a proof of concept was established, Antico got involved.
“Then there was an issue with the dining hall because you aren’t technically allowed to swipe someone else’s card,” Antico said. “I went to (Boston College) and said we proved there is a demand for this.” So, the college added a delivery option to the app students could already use to order food to-go.
As the demand grew, Bruggeman and Antico contracted with “getters,” who would receive a group email when a delivery order was placed. The first taker delivered the food and made $3.50. Antico and Bruggeman put the remaining $1.50 back into the business; they also delivered hundreds of orders themselves.
They marketed their meal delivery service in various ways, from a $150 banner hanging on a Boston College parking garage to a stunt in the middle of campus.
“I set up kind of a dorm room on the main quad and called it the Day of GET. J.B. lived in a tent, we had a TV set up outside,” Antico said. “We delivered all the meals to J.B. for 24 hours to showcase how useful the service could be. People walked by and wanted to know more about it.”
At its peak, BC GET had about 25 orders a day. Getters could make around $500 a semester. The founders made more, of course, though Antico declined to say how much. The two students ended their business partnership after a couple years when they each had different business interests and Boston College revamped its dining program.
We proved there is a demand for this.
The delivery business, however, must have looked impressive to potential employers. Bruggeman now works as a product manager for Facebook, and Antico, a BC senior, scored an internship at national grocery delivery business Shipt last summer and now owns a web development business.
3. Deliver Groceries to Homes — Without the Big Apps
When Manhattan College in the Bronx halted in-person classes because of COVID-19, Joseph Chionchio moved home to Bay Shore, Long Island. Soon, his mother told him about friends and neighbors who were waiting up to two weeks to get groceries delivered using the most popular apps.
“I saw a clear-cut opportunity right there. I started an Instagram page and made some posts saying I’d shop and deliver groceries,” Chionchio said.
At first, customers emailed him their grocery lists, but soon he set up a website where they could submit orders. He delivered during a timeframe he set each day around his online classes.
Chionchio named his new venture Smart Shop Delivery and spread the word on Facebook, along with asking local restaurants and influencers to post about his effort to help people who were having trouble getting groceries.
Most customers paid via Venmo, but if they were older and hesitant to use an app or share credit card information Chionchio smartly allowed cash and checks. He also accepted handwritten grocery lists. By taking a little extra time for these customers, he reached a market that wasn’t being served at all.
He charged a 15% fee based on the grocery bill for his delivery services.
“I made a lot of traction after a couple weeks,” he said. “Once I got six orders a day, I hired five drivers.” They were all friends or friends’ siblings.
Soon a local TV station did a story on the 21-year-old finance major, then New York’s Newsday newspaper covered the student entrepreneur, too.
“Once Newsday hit, the demand went up like crazy. I hired about 50 drivers,” Chionchio said. He also hired two administrative assistants to help process orders and verify drivers’ insurance and licenses.
Then Fox business anchor Neil Cavuto featured an interview with Chionchio.
“That was national,” he said, and demand went up even more. “We stopped advertising for a while. We were still in the process of building the infrastructure, and I was still in school.”
At this point, he also teamed up with friend John Kelly, who also graduated from Manhattan College and is currently working on his MBA there.
I saw a clear-cut opportunity right there. I started an Instagram page and made some posts saying I’d shop and deliver groceries.
In April three apps — one for drivers, one for customers and one for retailers — will be available for Android and iPhone users. The customer app is called Smartshopcustomer.
Smart Shop Delivery has partnered with a small chain of grocery stores, Fresh by Nature, a coffee shop and a meat market. Customers in the Long Island area can place their orders on the app for those retailers, but still get groceries delivered from other retailers as well.
Chionchio continues to run the growing company as he pursues a master’s degree in financial engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.
4. Deliver Food From Campus Gates to Dorm Rooms
Anthony Zhang created a business offering the second and final leg of food delivery at the University of Southern California. When he was a freshman in 2013, gates around the University Park campus near downtown Los Angeles were locked at 9 p.m. Students ordering a pizza, burrito or sandwich had to leave their dorm and meet the delivery person at the gate.
One night a friend of Zhang’s said he’d pay someone $10 to go get his Chipotle burrito once it arrived on the edge of campus. Zhang took him up on it.
He started doing the same for other friends, posted flyers around campus offering his late-night on-campus delivery, and his business, EnvoyNow, was born.
“It just had my phone number on there and said to text me. I got swarmed with orders the first weekend that I did it,” he recounted to the Los Angeles Business Journal in December. He hired other friends to start delivering and make $50 to $100 a night.
At first the orders were all texts to Zhang who passed them on to other delivery people. Then a computer science student who was a frequent customer built an app for the business.
Zhang skipped class one day to go see Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban and Survivor producer Mark Burnett speak on campus. At the end of the presentation, they took impromptu business pitches from the audience. On the spot, Burnett invested $100,000 for a 10 % stake in EnvoyNow.
Zhang received a lot of publicity and soon the Thiel Fellowship offered him a $100,000 grant. The fellowship is a two-year program for young people who want to quit or skip college to work on a business. He left USC in 2015 and expanded EnvoyNow to 22 campuses, according to a recent interview with Medium.com.
It just had my phone number on there and said to text me. I got swarmed with orders the first weekend that I did it
A year later Zhang suffered a diving accident in a Las Vegas swimming pool and was paralyzed from the neck down. After several months of rehab, in 2017 he sold EnvoyNow to JoyRun Inc., which was acquired by Walmart Inc. in 2020.
Since then, Zhang launched and sold another company that rates venture capital investors and now has started Vinovest, which gives retail investors a way to invest in fine wine.
Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance reporter and editor in St. Petersburg, Fla., and author of Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps and Lessons Learned.