By GREGORY ZELLER //
Several different fuses lit Chris Kane’s lightbulb moment, but if there’s a recurring theme in this origin story, it’s his own munchies.
Kane, now the CEO of MunchMoney Inc., was following a fairly familiar arc – a finance and mathematics degree from James Madison University, a burgeoning career as an administrator with Hauppauge-based Gemini Hedge Fund Services.
But his stomach was rumbling, literally and figuratively. “Entrepreneurism is something I always wanted to do,” Kane told Innovate LI, while the transition from college to professional life was revealing some harsh truths – including the need to pack a lunch every day, or pay up for takeout.
“I hate bringing lunch,” Kane noted.
It was the latter, then – and eating out quickly added up. Hungry for savings on his midday meal, the math whiz started investigating loyalty programs at some of his favorite fast-casual restaurants (north of Whoppers and Big Macs, south of table service).
But they left a sour taste.
“They didn’t have any convincing value,” Kane said. “I didn’t want to download an app for each of the 15 different restaurants I might go to. And I didn’t want to wait six months or accumulate 100 points or whatever metric they were using for a reward that probably wasn’t that great.”
One day, the munchies struck again and Kane was rummaging his wallet to fund a Chipotle run – and suddenly the final piece of this creative puzzle fell into place, in the form of a nostalgic memory.
The James Madison graduate found himself longing for his old college meal plan, that no-fuss, no-muss prepaid account that eschewed cash and ensured his plate was always filled with his personal dining hall favorites.
Entrepreneurial instincts twitching, Kane dove deep into Quick Serve Restaurant industry customer-loyalty programs and learned most failed to significantly drive up business.
Save one: The loyalty program sponsored by ubiquitous coffee chain Starbucks is “massively successful,” according to Kane, who notes one key difference in the coffee king’s model.
Starbucks works on a pre-payment model (like a phone card), wherein customers load up their accounts with cash first, then enjoy the cumulative benefits of loyalty.
“So now they’re capturing this massive upfront cashflow, which is a huge advantage to them,” Kane noted. “They’re sitting on a billion dollars in cash because of their loyalty app.”
Tying these myriad strands around the extensive software-development talents of co-founders Aaron Pardes and Tony Dobbs, Kane and friends officially launched West Islip-based MunchMoney Inc. in January 2017. Its mission: to become “the college meal plan for real life,” according to the CEO, while “reinventing how people interact with fast-casual restaurants.”
That, plus “game-changing benefits for our restaurant partners,” added Kane, who along with Pardes (the chief technology officer) and Dobbs (the lead developer) is preparing for the MunchMoney app’s pilot launch in May.
Debuting on both Android and iOS devices, the app will allow users to deposit funds directly into accounts at participating restaurants – already a step beyond the typical loyalty program (and closer to that Starbucks model), Kane noted, with the user “paying up front and giving up the choice of spending that money somewhere else.”
“There’s value in that,” he said.
MunchMoney will also guarantee a 10 percent discount on the total bill every time a customer pays through the app, while giving its member restaurants the opportunity to tack on additional incentives.
“I’ve talked to some fairly large corporations, and they’re interested – but we’re such a novel thing,” the CEO noted. “They want to see our traction first.
“That’s the startup life.”
But traction they will see, according to Kane, who referenced several unique verticals and an ambitious growth strategy aimed directly at New York City.
Two of the potential vertical markets, as Kane sees them, immediately ring true: millennials (including college students, recent grads and young professionals) and their parents (apt to deposit funds on the Millennials’ behalves).
The third vertical is where Kane’s creativity (and ambition) shine: The innovator sees MunchMoney as an ideal, affordable and easily implemented employment perk for corporate environments.
“Some of the most well-regarded companies, places like Twitter and Facebook and Google, provide lunch options for their employees,” Kane said. “It’s been shown to increase employee productivity, satisfaction and retention, as well as helping with talent acquisition.”
It’s therefore no accident the growth plan is kicking off in Hauppauge, the CEO added, noting the proximity of Hauppauge Industrial Park and its 55,000 potentially hungry workers. The idea is to leverage the park and the Sexy Salad/Build a Burger benefits and then “aggressively expand west,” Kane said, focusing on office parks and college campuses in “an Island-hopping strategy straight into Manhattan.”
“Once we have the traction and the metrics, we can go to employers in the Melville corridor and Garden City and say, ‘Hey, look what MunchMoney can do for your company,’” Kane said. “Then we can target restaurants and say, ‘Hey, look at all these users that can eat at your restaurant.’”
The CEO is still learning the ropes of restaurant recruitment – when to deal with corporate, when to go through the franchisee – and his software-developing partners are constantly working up new bells and whistles (“Mobile ordering is the buzzword of the week,” Kane teased).
They’re also preparing their first patent application, to protect their unique multi-sided platform from usurpers, and working to add new restaurants to the digital fold this summer.
But for the CEO, the main focus right now is financial. Kane, who personally staked about $20,000 to get MunchMoney off the ground, said the startup is “actively seeking venture capital and seed funding,” a critical need if the tech firm is to truly restructure the fast-casual industry – and maybe even slow down Long Island’s infamous “brain drain.”
“Employers funding lunch is becoming a big benefit, especially with the Millennial generation,” Kane noted. “Retaining Millennial talent is a big issue on Long Island, and perks like a free lunch are a good tool to help Millennials make the decision to stay.”
What’s It? A loyalty-rewarding “college meal plan” for adults and fast-casual restaurants
Brought To You By: Hungry innovator Chris Kane and his software-developing friends
All In: $20,000, self-invested by Kane, for software and business development
Status: Redefining the Quick Serve Restaurant industry this May, starting in Hauppauge