There are three types of office lunches: one brought from home, one delivered, and one carried out from a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Until now, the tech startup scene has all but gobbled up consumers of the first two via delivery apps, online-only restaurants, and prepared-meal delivery. But Mary Biggins — who co-founded ClassPass in 2013 — hopes to capture the third with her one-year-old startup. And thanks to recent $15 million funding win, the fresh concept could expand and change the lunch game in cities all over the world.
MealPal is one of the first apps to let users pay a monthly fee to access meals from nearby restaurants. Formerly known as MealPass, MealPal is Biggins’ and co-founder Katie Ghelli’s unofficial spinoff of ClassPass, the subscription-based service that allows users to sign up for fitness classes under one monthly fee.
Each weekday, MealPal’s collection of local restaurants each offer one dish to users. The day before or the morning of the lunch, users select from one of the various restaurants’ meal of the day. When lunchtime arrives, the subscriber walks into the restaurant, skips the line, and picks up his or her order — there is no delivery. Theoretically, users save time by not waiting in line, and restaurants save time by not ringing them up or taking their orders.
MealPal users have a cap on the number of meals they can purchase in a given time period. This prevents people from using the app so much that they essentially get free or absurdly cheap meals, causing the business and restaurants involved to lose money. That comes from a tough lesson Biggins and ClassPass co-founder Payal Kadakia learned from their fitness app: It initially didn’t have caps, forcing the company to raise subscription fees to make up for the money lost.
MealPal can also cater to more customers than ClassPass. With the latter, class space (machines, seats, equipment) is limited. “With food, there's not such a finite limit,” Biggins says. “So, sure, maybe a restaurant couldn't make a million lunches in a day, but with good operational efficiency and good planning, restaurants could actually stretch pretty far in terms of increasing their output.”
Biggins wants restaurants to see the value in this increased efficiency and jump on board. Restaurants in high-density areas that receive large crowds during the lunch-hour rush can keep lines smaller and customers happier if they have a heads up on a portion of those orders.
“At 9:30 a.m., they know exactly how many people are coming for MealPal, and all those people from MealPal are getting the same exact same order,” Biggins says. “So, now restaurants can keep their normal line of demand going and have a separate station where one person is just mass-producing these meals that are for the MealPal clients and being able to get a lot more meals out the door during that busy time of day.”
Some restaurant owners using MealPal raved about it last year during the app’s first few months. A year later, many feel the same way. Michelle Gauthier, owner of Mulberry & Vine restaurant in New York, says she continues to be satisfied with the product.
“We still love MealPal!” Gauthier says. “The landscape of restaurants is changing and you have to be open to anything that generates revenue. It's been a win-win for us and the customer.”
The app is currently available in eight cities, and Biggins has hopes to expand. After receiving a $15 million investment in Series A funding led by Comcast Ventures, MealPal announced its first international location, in London.
Biggins wants MealPal users to have options in a walkable distance — it’s why some are calling it the “Tinder of food.” “If there aren't enough restaurants near a particular office, it's going to be really hard to have a selling value proposition for consumers,” Biggins says.
But can this work in every city? Some cities don’t have areas with as high a density of office workers as New York’s Financial District or Chicago’s Loop. MealPal also has to compete with a number of delivery startup apps, especially in cities like New York and San Francisco, where delivery culture is strong. Biggins said she’s betting on MealPal’s pricing to be the main advantage.
Says Biggins, “I think we're building a really long-term value for [restaurants]. I think that means that there's a really bright spot for how products like this can evolve.”