The Bhubaneswar-based hyperlocal food delivery startup allows users to order food from neighbouring restaurants in the city.
Like most college-goers, IIIT Bhubaneshwar students Rishav Bajoria and Shourya Pratap Singh were used to pulling all-nighters, especially while finishing a project or an assignment. And that always meant stocking up on food for the night or rushing to the college mess before the food ran out.
The trouble was that the mess food just didn’t seem to go down well with any of them and there weren’t many restaurants around from where they could order in. “Most food delivery startups were focused on tier-1 cities and really didn’t bother with college towns or smaller cities like Bhubaneshwar,” says Rishav.
Out of complete frustration, Rishav and his friends built MealRobs, a food-ordering platform, practically overnight. Started in 2016, MealRobs is an aggregator of restaurants and also contains menus listing ready-to-order meals from their partners.
Users can order food from a restaurant nearby and get an order delivered at their doorstep. “We negotiate with our restaurants on behalf of our users to offer them discounts when food is pre-ordered. Hence pre-ordered meals is one of our best-selling services,” says Rishav.
As soon as a customer places an order–either via their website or the app–this is forwarded to the kitchens, which helps them manage their respective delivery fleets more efficiently.
The platform acts as a reputation manager for restaurants and other small kitchens (snack and tiffin providers that need publicity beyond word of mouth). The team also takes feedback from customers online after an order is completed. All the data is analysed each week and forwarded to the respective restaurants to help them better understand market demand and customer preferences.
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Getting vendors and restaurants to be a part of their platform was tough, because they were wary of college students manning the business. Recalls Rishav,
“Initially, when we onboarded the first two restaurants, one of the restaurants made us visit them every day for an entire week. Then we devised a strategy of giving them a 14-day free trial to test our services.”
The team realised they were doing something right when an entire batch of college students ordered food for their graduation dinner from MealRobs–an order worth Rs 8,000 from a group of 70 students.
MealRobs, launched in March last year, claims to have clocked total sales of Rs 5 lakh, with 2,000 unique users. The team adds that as of April this year, they were delivering across 114 localities in Bhubaneswar. Soon after it started, it got seed funding of Rs 2.5 lakh, which it intends to use for further product development.
MealRobs doesn’t have its own delivery fleet and works on a hyperlocal model. It uses the delivery boys of the partner restaurants, deliberately restricting itself to aggregating orders, and charging a commission from the restaurant for the orders that come in via MealRobs. They do, however, closely monitor the customer experience.
“We keep a regular check on the quality of food and the delivery timings. Kitchens that don't maintain quality are constantly told about this, and are removed from the platform if they do not abide by the instructions,” Rishav explains.
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Many food startups in India have started with a similar backstory and a similar set of offerings. Twigly is one such. However, over the past two years, people have come to realise that food businesses are difficult to execute and precarious when it comes to maintaining customer satisfaction. According to a former food entrepreneur, the biggest challenge for a food-delivery business is the fact that the entire consumption happens in small windows, i.e. during lunch or dinner time, and on weekends.
This concentration of demand leads to problems with planning staffing and resources to be able to service peak demand on the days that bring in the highest volumes. This turns out to be a costly affair because the rest of the time the investment lies idle, not generating returns.
Optimising resources also becomes more difficult. In the window of time when demand is high, food-delivery businesses have no choice but to deliver those orders within a short time frame, or risk losing repeat business from their customers.
Despite this, while 2015 saw VCs salivating over the sector and investors flocked to put money into upcoming startups, by the end of the year, several had shut shop.
TinyOwl was one of the biggest to fail. Once lauded as the fastest-growing food delivery startup that rivalled Swiggy, which has since thrived, TinyOwl reached a rather sticky end despite raising $28 million from the likes of Matrix Partners, Nexus Venture Partners, Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal (founders of SnapDeal). Several other food startups like Dazo and SpoonJoy too closed down around the same time.
Further, food tech and hyperlocal in tier-2 cities are a different ballgame and in many ways a whole lot tougher. It is where even hyper-funded businesses like Grofers and Zomato have met their Waterloo. Currently, Chandigarh-based Jugnoo is the only one beating the odds in smaller cities and has even expanded its food delivery business menus.
In terms of focus, Rishav says that MealRobs aims to reach to over 60,000 unique users from Bhubaneswar and Cuttack by the end of this year and expand their operations across five tier-2 cities by the end of 2018.