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Excess restaurant food + hungry college students = winning social venture idea

When Don Sirivat was growing up in Chicago, he and his mom often visited the mall’s pizzeria just before it closed at night, when the owner sold pizzas at a discount.

“I remember that over and over as a kid,” said Sirivat, now a University of Miami junior who is majoring in software engineering. “And I started thinking, ‘Why don’t all restaurants do that, instead of throwing away the food?’ ”

That was the inspiration for MunchSquad, an app geared to college students that addresses three problems: Eateries and grocery stores that throw out food at day’s end; hungry, broke students; and homeless shelters that need to fill plates. 

MunchSquad puts the three together to benefit all. Students create an account on the free app with a credit card. Businesses with leftover food at the end of the day box it up and use the app to send out flash sale notices. Students pay on the app, then pick up their box. If there are any leftover boxes, local shelters can pick them up for free.

The plan for MunchSquad won second place in the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge. Judges liked that the plan attacked a big social and environmental problem — food waste — and produced a practical and feasible strategy to attack that problem with students who could save money on food.

“Munchsquad brings profit and purpose together,” said Seema Pissaris, FIU business professor and a Challenge judge. “The young startup, recognized at FIU’s annual hackathon, has already generated significant interest from both the supply and demand side of their model, indicating signs of early success.”

Co-founders are Eliana Alba, a 2017 FIU marketing graduate; and Tara Demren, an FIU junior majoring in international business. The three met at MangoHacks, FIU’s annual hackathon, in March.

Alba and Demren were partial to social entrepreneurship ideas.

“We were interested in inefficiencies that needed to be solved,” Demren said. “With the issue of food waste, we could see it was a matter of disconnected parts.”

All three have experience with startups. Demren worked as a strategy manager with a startup technology platform. Alba is adept at graphic design and worked with web design and as a marketing manager for an arts magazine. Sirivat developed CleanSwipe, an app for on-demand dry cleaning and laundry, and codeX, an online school to teach coding.

At the hackathon, the trio honed their big-picture skills instead of simply diving into the coding.

“We thought of it as a potential business,” Alba said. “We went out and talked to the users. We talked to restaurants on campus and found out how much food they throw away. We asked them what they wanted the app to look like, what would they need from it. We tried to understand the user before we decided to build.”

MunchSquad won two hackathon awards, including one for best design.

After the competition, the owner of Vicky Cafe at FIU reached out to the team members and volunteered to be their first customer if the app was built. Student feedback also was positive.

So the trio wrote a business plan.

Research showed that students are willing to buy a mystery box of items if it means cheaper food — especially at night when most eateries are closed, Demren said.

A beta launch is planned with Vicky Bakery, which has a new campus location in the Frost Museum. The app eventually will earn revenue through a small fee per transaction.

“Our expansion plans would move to grocery store bakeries,” Demren said. “Because they want to serve fresh food every morning, they have excess food.”

Overall, the team hopes to help feed people, reduce business waste and keep discarded food out of landfills.

“But big picture, I hope the story of MunchSquad and how it was created — from a hackathon — will promote entrepreneurship,” Sirivat said. “I want my peers and upcoming generations to think, ‘Wow, I can really turn my idea into a viable product, and make a difference.’ ’’