I was sitting down in Penn Station one evening waiting for my next train back to Jersey, with my headphones on listening to music, when I felt a light tap on my shoulder.
I was a little startled by the tap and took off my headphones to hear the words:
"Do you have any change?"
My immediate natural response was "No." It wasn't because I didn't want to help this homeless guy. A long time ago I came to the conclusion that because you never know how homeless people use donated money, it may be best to refrain from giving them any.
However, afterwards I started to think and break down this situation. I'm always kicking myself for spending money on stuff I don't need every week. Whether it's that overpriced Snickers bar at the checkout of a CVS or the $3 dollar bottle of water at the convenience store, it always annoys me, because I know it all adds up. So if there was a way for me to ensure that a homeless guy could get something that's a necessity such as a meal, for just a few bucks, I would definitely do it.
At first I thought, "What if there was a way that customers in small restaurants could purchase 'food tickets' for cheap?" Maybe if they were walking on a street corner or in Penn Station, they could give out tickets and the homeless could redeem them for food at restaurants. I quickly realized there were a number of issues with that whole scenario, and knew I had to think of something better.
Well... What if I partnered with local soup kitchens and homeless shelters to set up a system where restaurant customers could purchase cheap and healthy meals that soup kitchen volunteers could pick up and give to the needy? Restaurant customers could win monthly prizes for participating and have the peace of mind knowing that their money will go towards purchasing a meal for someone who needs it. Soup kitchens would also be able to check how many meals are available at restaurants for pick up. We could also raise awareness about hunger and homelessness using social media through a cool app.
I had volunteered at soup kitchens in high school, and decided to talk with some volunteer directors that helped run a few soup kitchens. They absolutely loved the idea. Besides the fact that soup kitchens are always looking for food donations, one woman told me:
"It's more than just food for the homeless. It's about restoring dignity. They are human beings too. Allowing them to taste food from local restaurants, and the feeling of knowing that the local community cares -- that means a lot."
I then decided to talk to small local restaurants to gauge how interested they would be. I knew this would be a tougher sell, so I made sure to come prepared.
My selling points were:
- Restaurant owners can choose the type of meals that customers can purchase.
- Restaurants can be branded as socially responsible companies in the local community, and they will also be able to build customer loyalty.
- Restaurant owners can treat MealTics like any other sale, but know they are doing good.
- MealTics takes only 50 cents off of each purchase.
The response I got from restaurants was positive. The majority seemed very interested in participating and told me to keep them updated. They liked the systematic approach to donating meals and generally thought it was great to involve customers for such a great cause. I even got a few early commitments. Because the restaurants were small and local, it wasn't that hard to get in contact with the owners.
I then surveyed a good amount of my friends and acquaintances. From their feedback, I became more confident that I should try to get a minimum viable product out to the public.
And here we are. I have a partner, Rob Kumar, and we are looking to launch in the NYC area. There are so many factors that will play a role in our journey, but it all started from me opening my eyes to a situation while I was with a homeless guy. I'm not sure if we will ever meet again, but thanks for the inspiration and be on the lookout for my startup MealTics.
Follow Kofi Frimpong on Twitter: www.twitter.com/therealkofi