By: Mark Adam
With one hand on the wheel and the other dialing restaurants, with menus piled on the front seat and more spilling out of the glove box, Blake Hanan ’04 figured there had to be a better way. At the time he was a pharmaceutical sales representative for Pfizer, spending most of his time scheduling catered lunches for doctors and their staffs. It was the only way to carve out a little morsel of time and get in front of the doctor so he could generate sales.
“I just thought ‘How cool would it be if you could just order all these (meals) online at any restaurant or caterer in the area at once?’” he said.
Hanan teamed up with his older brother Taylor ’02 to form Mealeo.com, a website that allows people to order food from local restaurants to pick-up or have delivered. After leaving Pfizer and spending a year planning, building the site and raising money, Blake and Taylor launched the website in July 2009. They now have 250 restaurants listed locally and 500 nationally. Mealeo has nine full-time employees who work remotely, including sales, customer service and menu web design. Restaurants sign up with Mealeo and, for each order, Mealeo receives a commission from the restaurant. What started as a solution for one man’s frustration in pharmaceutical sales has morphed into a business serving thousands of hungry college students and busy professionals.
“The thing I got from Siena more than anything is that the businesses that do the best are doing something different. And it got me thinking creatively.”
Blake manages Mealeo full-time, running the day-to-day operations, while Taylor works at a brokerage company in Connecticut. He helped Blake put up the capital to start Mealeo, and is much more than a silent partner.
“(Blake’s) more creative and thinks of ideas no one has ever thought about and I’m more of his sounding board,” said Taylor. “It’s his baby and it’s his business, and I’m there to kind of help him out and make the big decisions with him.”
So what’s the difference between ordering food on Mealeo.com and calling a restaurant from your phone?
“Have you ever called a restaurant and been put on hold? Everybody has,” Blake said. “And then when you actually do get through to a restaurant, if it’s a Friday night or a Saturday night and it’s busy, you’re going to be rushed off the phone. They just want to know what the heck you’re ordering, where it’s going and that’s it.”
Mealeo.com offers the customer a more 21st century ordering process with all participating restaurant menus on one website.The other benefit is that customers can order from traditional, cash-only businesses like pizzerias and Chinese restaurants with credit or debit cards; they can even tip online. Gone is the day of checking the couch cushions and the car cup-holders for change to pay the deliveryman.
On quiet nights Mealeo is receiving and filling hundreds of orders and on busy nights it’s in the thousands, according to Blake. He says Mealeo “pretty much owns” the Capital Region market, but it has huge competitors in other cities like New York City and south Florida. In the Big Apple, companies like Seamless.com, eat24.com and delivery.com are much bigger; they have more restaurants and deeper pockets. And it is much more expensive to advertise.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Blake said with a chuckle. “Our obstacle is that we don’t have eight bucks or 10 bucks to spend in order to acquire a customer.”
Mealeo has utilized online advertising, social media and discounts to gain new customers. But the biggest success has been Mealeo’s “A Meal for a Meal” campaign that helps to feed the hungry. For each meal that is ordered, Mealeo donates a meal to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, which is one of 200 member food banks in the hunger relief charity Feeding America. That’s not to say when a person orders a large cheese pizza that Mealeo is then donating another large cheese pizza to the food bank. The donation is monetary, and because the Regional Food Bank can provide four meals for every dollar it spends, the partnership is manageable for a local, independent company. The inspiration behind it was the book titled “Start Something that Matters” in which the author Blake Mycoskie discusses his shoe company TOMS and his “One for One” campaign. The heart of the campaign was that when a customer bought a pair of shoes, another pair of shoes was donated to impoverished children across the world. The Hanans used that model as the inspiration for how Mealeo could differentiate itself.
The Regional Food Bank “collects large donations from the food industry, food that is still perfectly good to eat but not saleable, and then (redistributes it) to food pantries, soup kitchens and other agencies that are feeding hungry people,” said Mark Quandt, executive director of the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.
Each quarter, Mealeo will send a check to the Regional Food Bank. Quandt received the first check recently, totaling more than $1,700.
“It’s tremendously beneficial because it’s consistent, regular money that you can count on,” said Quandt.
In addition to Mealeo helping the food banks fight hunger, it’s also helped generate more sales.
“If you give us a shot, you’re not just buying a meal for yourself, but you’re giving a meal to someone else, which is really, really cool,” said Blake.
Blake graduated with a degree in marketing and management and played four years on the Siena baseball team before playing two years of professional baseball in the Baltimore Orioles organization. He said that the business classes at Siena helped prepare him for this opportunity.
“The thing I got from Siena more than anything is that the businesses that do the best are doing something different. And it got me thinking creatively,” he said. Taylor also graduated from Siena College, taking advantage of the 4+1 business program with Union College. He earned his bachelor’s degree in finance from Siena and his MBA from Union.
“Siena was pretty cool,” said Taylor. “While there was a good program for finance and business, it’s more of a liberal arts school so it gave me the freedom to think the way I want to think.”
The Hanan brothers are excited about what’s on tap. They expect to unveil smart phone apps for iPhone and Droid in the coming months and are integrating PayPal into the website. They have just developed and released an animated video for the website, similar to the old UPS whiteboard commercials, which shows users how to order and how the “A Meal for a Meal” campaign works.
Although Mealeo is growing in the Capital Region, Blake Hanan still wants a piece of the big cities. And for a guy who is fascinated by business and who is enjoying the growth of his own startup company, it’s not unreasonable to think his seat at the table is ready.