Chowly is raising $5.8 million to help restaurants manage on-demand delivery orders

Chowly, a point-of-sale system for restaurants, has raised nearly $4.7 million, according to an SEC filing. The company is targeting a total raise of $5.8 million.

The round is led by MATH Venture Partners with participation from Valor Equity, Chicago Ventures, Hyde Park Venture Partners and others. Chowly had previously raised just $700,000 from MATH Venture Partners, Domenick Montanile and others.

Chowly aims to help restaurants better manage the influx of delivery orders they receive from a variety of services, such as Grubhub, Delivery.com and Chownow.

In May, Square launched a point-of-sale system for restaurants that integrates on-demand delivery platform Caviar. Down the road, Square said it envisions third-party applications from companies like Postmates, UberEats and DoorDash.

Instacart hires its first Chief Communications Officer, Dani Dudeck

Instacart, the grocery delivery platform valued at $4.2 billion, has today announced that it has hired its first Chief Communications Officer in Dani Dudeck.

Dudeck has been in the communications world for the past 15 years, serving as VP of Global Communications at MySpace for four years and moving to Zynga as CCO in 2010. At Zynga, Dudeck oversaw corporate and consumer reputation of the brand before and after its IPO, helping the company through both tremendous periods of growth and a rapidly changing mobile gaming landscape.

Dudeck joins Instacart at an equally interesting time for the company. Though Instacart is showing no signs of slowing down — the company recently raised $200 million in funding — the industry as a whole is seeing growing interest from incumbents and behemoth tech companies alike.

Amazon last year acquired Whole Foods for nearly $14 billion, signaling the e-commerce giant’s intention to get into the grocery business. Plus, Target acquired Shipt for $550 million in December. Meanwhile, Walmart has partnered with DoorDash and Postmates for grocery delivery after a short-lived partnership with Uber and Lyft.

In other words, the industry is at a tipping point. Instacart not only needs to out-maneuver the increasingly competitive space, but continue to tell its story to both consumers and potential shoppers/employees alike.

Dudeck plans to hit the ground running after having been an Instacart customer since 2013.

Here’s what Dudeck had to say in a prepared statement:

We’ve been an Instacart family for years and as a mom it’s been a game changer for me. Our home is powered by Instacart because over the years, I saw how the products helped me better manage our household rhythm. Whether I’m doing a fast diaper delivery or fresh groceries for our weekly shopping, I love feeling like I can be in two places at once while getting to spend more time with my family. After getting to know the internal team, I was blown away by the strength of Instacart’s business and the unique culture they’ve created. By building on that success, we have a compelling opportunity to grow Instacart into a beloved, household name and turn Express into a must-have membership for families and busy people everywhere. I’m excited to join the management team and partner with them to accelerate their ambitious plans for future growth.

Hydrate, intoxicate, caffeinate, repeat: Meet the startups pouring the future

These days, it seems like everyone with extra cash has some kind of pricey drinking habit. It might be fine wine, craft beer or cocktails. Or it could come in the form of coconut water, cold-pressed juice or the latest frothy caffeinated concoction.

No matter what your preference, startups and their backers likely have you covered.

In a follow-up to our story earlier this month about food startups gobbling up venture funding, Crunchbase News is taking a look at beverage companies guzzling capital. We found that while drinkables receive a smaller portion of funding than edibles, it’s still a sector that draws hundreds of millions of dollars in annual investment.

Where are investors pouring all that money? Some unlikely places. For instance, it appears the largest funding recipient so far this year is a China-based chain called Hey Tea that’s well known for a specialty called cheese tea. (An unfortunately named, slightly salty iced drink that a Crunchbase News team sampling determined was actually pretty tasty.)

Besides cheese tea, we found startups are also raising millions to bottle deep ocean water, customize instant coffee and make your party punch more portable.

Bottom line: So long as there are profit margins to squeeze out, the quest continues for new ways to get you drunk, hydrated or caffeinated. Below, we look at what’s trending on all these fronts.

Hydrate

Venture investors and startup entrepreneurs are betting there are highly scalable businesses to be built in doling out more exotic varieties of water, coconut-based beverages and other drinks to hydrate calorie-conscious consumers.

An analysis of Crunchbase data unearthed at least a dozen companies developing new varieties of water and fitness drinks that have raised funding in recent quarters.

Funding data reveals that investors still see the potential for significant returns from coconut water. The largest round in the hydration category went to Harmless Harvest, a seller of fair trade, organic coconut water and probiotic drinks that recently raised $30 million. The funding comes as the sector is on a tear, with the U.S. spending alone on coconut water projected to reach $2 billion next year.

We also saw a couple of deals involving startups offering alternatives to bottled or tap water. The most heavily capitalized one to receive funding in the past couple of years appears to be FloWater, a Denver-based startup that provides pure water refill stations and has raised about $8 million to date. Meanwhile, bottled water is still generating attention, too, as evidenced by the $5.5 million round late last year for Kona Deep, a bottler of deep ocean water.

Intoxicate

You may need water to survive, but if you’re looking to secure venture capital, it helps to throw in a bit of alcohol.

Since last year, venture investors have poured more than $300 million into an assortment of companies providing alcoholic beverages, drinking gadgetry and services to connect consumers with booze. Crunchbase News highlighted about a dozen that raised sizable rounds, along with one hangover cure startup.

Some of the larger funding rounds are for companies that don’t make alcohol; instead, these startups offer easier ways to select and buy it. These include Vivino, a popular wine rating app, as well as Drizly and Saucey, two ordering and delivery services.

There are emerging brands in the mix, too, including BeatBox Beverages, a purveyor of party punch in portable packages; Milestone Brands, a producer of organic tequilas and other spirits; and Plum, which has a gadget for dispensing good wine by the glass.

Caffeinate

If too much drinking makes you sleepy, let caffeine come to the rescue. Venture investors, known to be heavy consumers of caffeine, also seem to like investing in the stuff.

Using Crunchbase data, we highlighted more than a dozen companies in the coffee and tea space that have secured good-sized rounds in roughly the past year. They range from fast-growing chains, like China’s Hey Tea, to packaged drinks, like non-dairy blended drink maker Willow Cup, to instant beverage innovators, like Sudden Coffee. We even found a blockchain company in the mix, Crypto N Kafe, which aims to connect coffee farmers and consumers directly.

It’s not a bad area for exits, either. The most recent significant exit was Blue Bottle Coffee, a venture-backed brand known for really, really strong brews that sold a majority stake to Nestlé last September at a valuation of over $700 million.

Nourish

One additional beverage category in which we saw a high level of activity was in meal-replacement and nutrition drinks. Overall, we found at least a half-dozen companies developing nutritional drinks that have raised funding in recent quarters.

In this sector, probably the best-known startup name is Soylent, which has raised over $70 million for a line of drinks marketed to consumers who don’t have the time or inclination to sit down for a traditional meal. We also found a potential rival, meal-replacement beverage maker Ample, which secured angel funding last month.

The biggest round in the past couple of months for the space, however, went to REBBL, a startup that raised $20 million in May for its line of bottled drinks featuring health-promoting herbs, protein and coconut.

Mix it all up: Caffeinated, full and buzzed

Beverage investments, like everything else, aren’t always a home run for VCs. The demise of juicer startup Juicero last year offers a cautionary tale that large rounds don’t always translate into compelling business models.

That said, beverage purveyors don’t have to worry much about demand drying up. People will always be thirsty. And while we typically quench our thirst with simple tap or filtered water, where’s the fun (or the massive exit potential) in that?

Methodology

Our analysis focused primarily on companies that have secured funding in the past year; however, we also included some rounds outside those parameters that were exceptionally large or noteworthy in other ways.

VCs serve up a large helping of cash to startups disrupting food

Here is what your daily menu might look like if recently funded startups have their way.

You’ll start the day with a nice, lightly caffeinated cup of cheese tea. Chase away your hangover with a cold bottle of liver-boosting supplement. Then slice up a few strawberries, fresh-picked from the corner shipping container.

Lunch is full of options. Perhaps a tuna sandwich made with a plant-based, tuna-free fish. Or, if you’re feeling more carnivorous, grab a grilled chicken breast fresh from the lab that cultured its cells, while crunching on a side of mushroom chips. And for extra protein, how about a brownie?

Dinner might be a pizza so good you send your compliments to the chef — only to discover the chef is a robot. For dessert, have some gummy bears. They’re high in fiber with almost no sugar.

Sound terrifying? Tasty? Intriguing? If you checked tasty and intriguing, then here is some good news: The concoctions highlighted above are all products available (or under development) at food and beverage startups that have raised venture and seed funding this past year.

These aren’t small servings of capital, either. A Crunchbase News analysis of venture funding for the food and beverage category found that startups in the space gobbled up more than $3 billion globally in disclosed investment over the past 12 months. That includes a broad mix of supersize deals, tiny seed rounds and everything in-between.

Spending several hours looking at all these funding rounds leaves one with a distinct sense that eating habits are undergoing a great deal of flux. And while we can’t predict what the menu of the future will really hold, we can highlight some of the trends. For this initial installment in our two-part series, we’ll start with foods. Next week, we’ll zero in on beverages.

Chickenless nuggets and fishless tuna

For protein lovers disenchanted with commercial livestock farming, the future looks good. At least eight startups developing plant-based and alternative proteins closed rounds in the past year, focused on everything from lab meat to fishless fish to fast-food nuggets.

New investments add momentum to what was already a pretty hot space. To date, more than $600 million in known funding has gone to what we’ve dubbed the “alt-meat” sector, according to Crunchbase data. Actual investment levels may be quite a bit higher since strategic investors don’t always reveal round size.

In recent months, we’ve seen particularly strong interest in the lab-grown meat space. At least three startups in this area — Memphis Meats, SuperMeat and Wild Type — raised multi-million dollar rounds this year. That could be a signal that investors have grown comfortable with the concept, and now it’s more a matter of who will be early to market with a tasty and affordable finished product.

Makers of meatless versions of common meat dishes are also attracting capital. Two of the top funding recipients in our data set include Seattle Food Tech, which is working to cost-effectively mass-produce meatless chicken nuggets, and Good Catch, which wants to hook consumers on fishless seafoods. While we haven’t sampled their wares, it does seem like they have chosen some suitable dishes to riff on. After all, in terms of taste, both chicken nuggets and tuna salad are somewhat removed from their original animal protein sources, making it seemingly easier to sneak in a veggie substitute.

Robot chefs

Another trend we saw catching on with investors is robot chefs. Modern cooking is already a gadget-driven process, so it’s not surprising investors see this as an area ripe for broad adoption.

Pizza, the perennial takeout favorite, seems to be a popular area for future takeover by robots, with at least two companies securing rounds in recent months. Silicon Valley-based Zume, which raised $48 million last year, uses robots for tasks like spreading sauce and moving pies in and out of the oven. France’s EKIM, meanwhile, recently opened what it describes as a fully autonomous restaurant staffed by pizza robots cooking as customers watch.

Salad, pizza’s healthier companion side dish, is also getting roboticized. Just this week, Chowbotics, a developer of robots for food service whose lineup includes Sally the salad robot, announced an $11 million Series A round.

Those aren’t the only players. We’ve put together a more complete list of recently launched or funded robot food startups here.

Beyond sugar

Sugar substitutes aren’t exactly a new area of innovation. Diet Rite, often credited as the original diet soda, hit the market in 1958. Since then, we’ve had 60 years of mass-marketing for low-calorie sweeteners, from aspartame to stevia.

It’s not over. In recent quarters, we’ve seen a raft of funding rounds for startups developing new ways to reduce or eliminate sugar in many of the foods we’ve come to love. On the dessert and candy front, Siren Snacks and SmartSweets are looking to turn favorite indulgences like brownies and gummy bears into healthy snack options.

The quest for good-for-you sugar also continues. The latest funding recipient in this space appears to be Bonumuse, which is working to commercialize two rare sugars, Tagatose and Allulose, as lower-calorie and potentially healthier substitutes for table sugar. We’ve compiled a list of more sugar-reduction-related startups here.

Where is it all headed?

It’s tough to tell which early-stage food startups will take off and which will wind up in the scrap bin. But looking in aggregate at what they’re cooking up, it looks like the meal of the future will be high in protein, low in sugar and prepared by a robot.

Munchery shuts down operations in LA, New York and Seattle

Munchery, the on-demand food delivery startup, has shut down its operations in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, the company announced on its blog today. That means the teams from those cities are also being let go.

“We recognize the impact this will have on the members of our team in those regions,” Munchery CEO James Beriker wrote on the company blog. “Our teams in each city have built their businesses from scratch and worked tirelessly to serve our customers and their communities. I am grateful for their unwavering commitment to Munchery’s mission and success. I truly wish that the outcome would have been different.”

With LA, New York and Seattle off the table, Munchery says it’s going to focus more on its business in San Francisco, its first and largest market. This shift in operations will also enable Munchery to “achieve profitability on the near term, and build a long-term, sustainable business.”

The last couple of years for Munchery has not gone very well, between scathing reports of the company wasting an average of 16 percent of the food it makes, laying off 30 employees and burning through most of the money it raised.

During that time, Munchery tried a number of different strategies. Munchery, which began as a ready-to-heat meal delivery service, in 2015 started delivering meal recipes and ingredients for people who want to cook. Then, Munchery launched an $8.95 a month subscription plan for people who order several times a month. In late 2016, Munchery opened up a shop inside a San Francisco BART station to try to bring in new business.

But it’s not just Munchery that has struggled. The on-demand food delivery business is tough in general. Over the last couple of years, a number of companies have shuttered due to the now well-known fact that the on-demand business is tough when it comes to margins. The most recent casualty was Sprig, which shut down last May, after raising $56.7 million in funding. Other casualties include Maple, Spoonrocket and India’s Ola.

Munchery has raised more than $120 million in capital from Menlo Ventures, Sherpa Capital and others. In March, the company was reportedly seeking $15 million in funding to help keep its head above water.

I’ve reached out to Munchery and will update this story if I hear back.

How did Thumbtack win the on-demand services market?

Earlier today, the services marketplace Thumbtack held a small conference for 300 of its best gig economy workers at an event space in San Francisco.

For the nearly ten-year-old company the event was designed to introduce some new features and a redesign of its brand that had softly launched earlier in the week. On hand, in addition to the services professionals who’d paid their way from locations across the U.S. were the company’s top executives.

It’s the latest step in the long journey that Thumbtack took to become one of the last companies standing with a consumer facing marketplace for services.

Back in 2008, as the global financial crisis was only just beginning to tear at the fabric of the U.S. economy, entrepreneurs at companies like Thumbtack andTaskRabbit were already hard at work on potential patches.

This was the beginning of what’s now known as the gig economy. In addition to Thumbtack and TaskRabbit, young companies like Handy, Zaarly, and several others — all began by trying to build better marketplaces for buyers and sellers of services. Their timing, it turns out, was prescient.

In snowy Boston during the winter of 2008, Kevin Busque and his wife Leah were building RunMyErrand, the marketplace service that would become TaskRabbit, as a way to avoid schlepping through snow to pick up dog food .

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Marco Zappacosta, a young entrepreneur whose parents were the founders of Logitech, and a crew of co-founders including were building Thumbtack, a professional services marketplace from a home office they shared.

As these entrepreneurs built their businesses in northern California (amid the early years of a technology renaissance fostered by patrons made rich from returns on investments in companies like Google and Salesforce.com), the rest of America was stumbling.

In the two years between 2008 and 2010 the unemployment rate in America doubled, rising from 5% to 10%. Professional services workers were hit especially hard as banks, insurance companies, realtors, contractors, developers and retailers all retrenched — laying off staff as the economy collapsed under the weight of terrible loans and a speculative real estate market.

Things weren’t easy for Thumbtack’s founders at the outset in the days before its $1.3 billion valuation and last hundred plus million dollar round of funding. “One of the things that really struck us about the team, was just how lean they were. At the time they were operating out of a house, they were still cooking meals together,” said Cyan Banister, one of the company’s earliest investors and a partner at the multi-billion dollar venture firm, Founders Fund.

“The only thing they really ever spent money on, was food… It was one of these things where they weren’t extravagant, they were extremely purposeful about every dollar that they spent,” Banister said. “They basically slept at work, and were your typical startup story of being under the couch. Every time I met with them, the story was, in the very early stages was about the same for the first couple years, which was, we’re scraping Craigslist, we’re starting to get some traction.”

The idea of powering a Craigslist replacement with more of a marketplace model was something that appealed to Thumbtack’s earliest investor and champion, the serial entrepreneur and angel investor Jason Calcanis.

Thumbtack chief executive Marco Zappacosta

“I remember like it was yesterday when Marco showed me Thumbtack and I looked at this and I said, ‘So, why are you building this?’ And he said, ‘Well, if you go on Craigslist, you know, it’s like a crap shoot. You post, you don’t know. You read a post… you know… you don’t know how good the person is. There’re no reviews.'” Calcanis said. “He had made a directory. It wasn’t the current workflow you see in the app — that came in year three I think. But for the first three years, he built a directory. And he showed me the directory pages where he had a photo of the person, the services provided, the bio.”

The first three years were spent developing a list of vendors that the company had verified with a mailing address, a license, and a certificate of insurance for people who needed some kind of service. Those three features were all Calcanis needed to validate the deal and pull the trigger on an initial investment.

“That’s when I figured out my personal thesis of angel investing,” Calcanis said.

“Some people are market based; some people want to invest in certain demographics or psychographics; immigrant kids or Stanford kids, whatever. Mine is just, ‘Can you make a really interesting product and are your decisions about that product considered?’ And when we discuss those decisions, do I feel like you’re the person who should build this product for the world And it’s just like there’s a big sign above Marco’s head that just says ‘Winner! Winner! Winner!'”

Indeed, it looks like Zappacosta and his company are now running what may be their victory lap in their tenth year as a private company. Thumbtack will be profitable by 2019 and has rolled out a host of new products in the last six months.

Their thesis, which flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day, was to build a product which offered listings of any service a potential customer could want in any geography across the U.S. Other companies like Handy and TaskRabbit focused on the home, but on Thumbtack (like any good community message board) users could see postings for anything from repairman to reiki lessons and magicians to musicians alongside the home repair services that now make up the bulk of its listings.

“It’s funny, we had business plans and documents that we wrote and if you look back, the vision that we outlined then, is very similar to the vision we have today. We honestly looked around and we said, ‘We want to solve a problem that impacts a huge number of people. The local services base is super inefficient. It’s really difficult for customers to find trustworthy, reliable people who are available for the right price,'” said Sander Daniels, a co-founder at the company. 

“For pros, their number one concern is, ‘Where do I put money in my pocket next? How do I put food on the table for my family next?’ We said, ‘There is a real human problem here. If we can connect these people to technology and then, look around, there are these global marketplace for products: Amazon, Ebay, Alibaba, why can’t there be a global marketplace for services?’ It sounded crazy to say it at the time and it still sounds crazy to say, but that is what the dream was.”

Daniels acknowledges that the company changed the direction of its product, the ways it makes money, and pivoted to address issues as they arose, but the vision remained constant. 

Meanwhile, other startups in the market have shifted their focus. Indeed as Handy has shifted to more of a professional services model rather than working directly with consumers and TaskRabbit has been acquired by Ikea, Thumbtack has doubled down on its independence and upgrading its marketplace with automation tools to make matching service providers with customers that much easier.

Late last year the company launched an automated tool serving up job requests to its customers — the service providers that pay the company a fee for leads generated by people searching for services on the company’s app or website.

Thumbtack processes about $1 billion a year in business for its service providers in roughly 1,000 professional categories.

Now, the matching feature is getting an upgrade on the consumer side. Earlier this month the company unveiled Instant Results — a new look for its website and mobile app — that uses all of the data from its 200,000 services professionals to match with the 30 professionals that best correspond to a request for services. It’s among the highest number of professionals listed on any site, according to Zappacosta. The next largest competitor, Yelp, has around 115,000 listings a year. Thumbtack’s professionals are active in a 90 day period.

Filtering by price, location, tools and schedule, anyone in the U.S. can find a service professional for their needs. It’s the culmination of work processing nine years and 25 million requests for services from all of its different categories of jobs.

It’s a long way from the first version of Thumbtack, which had a “buy” tab and a “sell” tab; with the “buy” side to hire local services and the “sell” to offer them.

“From the very early days… the design was to iterate beyond the traditional model of business listing directors. In that, for the consumer to tell us what they were looking for and we would, then, find the right people to connect them to,” said Daniels. “That functionality, the request for quote functionality, was built in from v.1 of the product. If you tried to use it then, it wouldn’t work. There were no businesses on the platform to connect you with. I’m sure there were a million bugs, the UI and UX were a disaster, of course. That was the original version, what I remember of it at least.”

It may have been a disaster, but it was compelling enough to get the company its $1.2 million angel round — enough to barely develop the product. That million dollar investment had to last the company through the nuclear winter of America’s recession years, when venture capital — along with every other investment class — pulled back.

“We were pounding the pavement trying to find somebody to give us money for a Series A round,” Daniels said. “That was a very hard period of the company’s life when we almost went out of business, because nobody would give us money.”

That was a pre-revenue period for the company, which experimented with four revenue streams before settling on the one that worked the best. In the beginning the service was free, and it slowly transitioned to a commission model. Then, eventually, the company moved to a subscription model where service providers would pay the company a certain amount for leads generated off of Thumbtack.

“We weren’t able to close the loop,” Daniels said. “To make commissions work, you have to know who does the job, when, for how much. There are a few possible ways to collect all that information, but the best one, I think, is probably by hosting payments through your platform. We actually built payments into the platform in 2011 or 2012. We had significant transaction volume going through it, but we then decided to rip it out 18 months later, 24 months later, because, I think we had kind of abandoned the hope of making commissions work at that time.”

While Thumbtack was struggling to make its bones, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest were raking in cash. The founders thought that they could also access markets in the same way, but investors weren’t interested in a consumer facing business that required transactions — not advertising — to work. User generated content and social media were the rage, but aside from Uber and Lyft the jury was still out on the marketplace model.

“For our company that was not a Facebook or a Twitter or Pinterest, at that time, at least, that we needed revenue to show that we’re going to be able to monetize this,” Daniels said. “We had figured out a way to sign up pros at enormous scale and consumers were coming online, too. That was showing real promise. We said, ‘Man, we’re a hot ticket, we’re going to be able to raise real money.’ Then, for many reasons, our inexperience, our lack of revenue model, probably a bunch of stuff, people were reluctant to give us money.”

The company didn’t focus on revenue models until the fall of 2011, according to Daniels. Then after receiving rejection after rejection the company’s founders began to worry. “We’re like, ‘Oh, shit.’ November of 2009 we start running these tests, to start making money, because we might not be able to raise money here. We need to figure out how to raise cash to pay the bills, soon,” Daniels recalled. 

The experience of almost running into the wall put the fear of god into the company. They managed to scrape out an investment from Javelin, but the founders were convinced that they needed to find the right revenue number to make the business work with or without a capital infusion. After a bunch of deliberations, they finally settled on $350,000 as the magic number to remain a going concern.

“That was the metric that we were shooting towards,” said Daniels. “It was during that period that we iterated aggressively through these revenue models, and, ultimately, landed on a paper quote. At the end of that period then Sequoia invested, and suddenly, pros supply and consumer demand and revenue model all came together and like, ‘Oh shit.'”

Finding the right business model was one thing that saved the company from withering on the vine, but another choice was the one that seemed the least logical — the idea that the company should focus on more than just home repairs and services.

The company’s home category had lots of competition with companies who had mastered the art of listing for services on Google and getting results. According to Daniels, the company couldn’t compete at all in the home categories initially.

“It turned out, randomly … we had no idea about this … there was not a similarly well developed or mature events industry,” Daniels said. “We outperformed in events. It was this strategic decision, too, that, on all these 1,000 categories, but it was random, that over the last five years we are the, if not the, certainly one of the leading events service providers in the country. It just happened to be that we … I don’t want to say stumbled into it … but we found these pockets that were less competitive and we could compete in and build a business on.”

The focus on geographical and services breadth — rather than looking at building a business in a single category or in a single geography meant that Zappacosta and company took longer to get their legs under them, but that they had a much wider stance and a much bigger base to tap as they began to grow.

“Because of naivete and this dreamy ambition that we’re going to do it all. It was really nothing more strategic or complicated than that,” said Daniels. “When we chose to go broad, we were wandering the wilderness. We had never done anything like this before.”

From the company’s perspective, there were two things that the outside world (and potential investors) didn’t grasp about its approach. The first was that a perfect product may have been more competitive in a single category, but a good enough product was better than the terrible user experiences that were then on the market. “You can build a big company on this good enough product, which you can then refine over the course of time to be greater and greater,” said Daniels.

The second misunderstanding is that the breadth of the company let it scale the product that being in one category would have never allowed Thumbtack to do. Cross selling and upselling from carpet cleaners to moving services to house cleaners to bounce house rentals for parties — allowed for more repeat use.

More repeat use meant more jobs for services employees at a time when unemployment was still running historically high. Even in 2011, unemployment remained stubbornly high. It wasn’t until 2013 that the jobless numbers began their steady decline.

There’s a question about whether these gig economy jobs can keep up with the changing times. Now, as unemployment has returned to its pre-recession levels, will people want to continue working in roles that don’t offer health insurance or retirement benefits? The answer seems to be “yes” as the Thumbtack platform continues to grow and Uber and Lyft show no signs of slowing down.

“At the time, and it still remains one of my biggest passions, I was interested in how software could create new meaningful ways of working,” said Banister of the Thumbtack deal. “That’s the criteria I was looking for, which is, does this shift how people find work? Because I do believe that we can create jobs and we can create new types of jobs that never existed before with the platforms that we have today.”

From dorm room to Starbucks, Rip Van Wafels is bringing Euro-inspired snack to the masses

Rip Pruisken waffled in college (we got that pun safely out of the way for now). He was a student in the Ivy League at Brown University, and had focused on academics for much of his life. His parents were physicists, and “I thought I would study some sort of cookie-cutter path of studying something that I would use post-college,” he explained. “I didn’t really consider entrepreneurship to be a viable option because I was still in that frame of mind.“

It was during a study trip to Italy that he had an epiphany. He was inside an Italian bookstore looking through business books when he suddenly realized that he had discovered a new passion. “If you can build stuff at a profit, you can build more stuff, and how cool is that? That was my aha moment,” he said.

Being an entrepreneur was one thing, but it wasn’t clear what Pruisken should sell. He had grown up in Amsterdam, where he used to eat stroopwafel, a snack composed of two thin waffle pastries melded together with a syrup center. During his freshman year, he had brought over a large quantity of them to school, and “all of my friends devoured them.” Remembering their popularity, “I literally started making them in my dorm in college, and started selling them on campus” during his junior year.

Selling ‘Van Wafels’ at Brown University

That was 2010. Today, Rip Van Wafels can be found in 12,000 Starbucks locations, and is a popular snack at tech companies, with some larger companies going through tens of thousands of units a week.

Their popularity comes from the intersection of a number of food trends. The snacks are made with natural ingredients and are healthy, with low calorie counts and limited sugar. Perhaps most importantly, they taste great, with different flavors that are designed to strike different moods (a chocolate wafel can work as dessert, while the strawberry wafel feels more like breakfast). The company currently produces eight flavors.

While the startup food company has had tremendous success, none of this was planned a decade ago when Pruisken got started. He worked with co-founder and co-CEO Marco De Leon, who was two years behind Pruisken at Brown University and was a good friend from Brazil looking for a change of pace from his Morgan Stanley internship.

They spent two years on campus trying to improve product marketing and the quality of the snack, which in hindsight was an important iteration process with what would become the company’s core consumer: well-educated and health-conscious tech workers.

The two stumbled into their market and stumbled into their name. “It started as Rip Wafel,” Pruisken explained, “and we got a cease and desist letter from Van’s,” which makes frozen food waffles among other products. A professor suggested Rip van Winkle, and that inspired the company’s current name. Pruisken himself was so enamored with the brand he changed his own name — Abhishek, which he had grown up with in Amsterdam — to Rip.

After much work, the two founders discovered that a tech company was particularly enjoying the snacks. “We realized we found this insight that one of our customers in the northeast was a tech company, and we talked to them and they said that it was the perfect treat that was an alternative to a candy bar,” he explained. So Pruisken borrowed the couch of his brother and started going door-to-door selling these Euro snacks to every tech company he could find, eventually 80 of them in one summer.

As he sold wafels, the same pattern would hold up. An order for one case would become two cases, and then 10 and then 20 of them. Eventually, word-of-mouth and distributor partnerships got the snack into the mini-kitchens of dozens of tech companies in San Francisco, as well as in Peet’s Coffee, Whole Foods, and ultimately Starbucks.

Pruisken believes the company’s success has come from iterating on the snack much as a software engineer might fiddle with JavaScript. “We have been reinventing our product every two years,” he said. “We are trying to make our product healthier while providing this very indulgent taste.” That includes experimenting with new ingredients like tapioca syrup and chickpea powder that can provide better nutrition at reduced sugar levels.

He sees the future of the company much the same way. “You can only cut the cycle time down by so much even if you do everything in-house. There are certain components you need to source like certain ingredients or packaging foam,” Pruisken explained. “The way to get ahead is to plan way ahead. So work on the things you want to launch in two years right now.” That includes a number of new flavors, as well as potentially adding products that touch on the brain-enhancing nootropics space.

Ultimately, Pruisken wants to redefine the category of packaged foods. “Convenient foods have been associated with cheaper, lower qualities and generally unhealthy foods in the US,” he said. “I think it would be great if that was elevated not just in the food space but broader.” From a foreign food in a Brown University dorm room to redefining the products on every grocery store shelf, stumbling has paid off for Rip Van, which is taking over the world one wafel at a time.

Don’t just stir; Stircle

Although I do my best to minimize the trash produced by my lifestyle (blog posts notwithstanding), one I can’t really control, at least without carrying a spoon on my person at all times, is the necessity of using a disposable stick to stir my coffee. That could all change with the Stircle, a little platform that spins your drink around to mix it.

Now, of course this is ridiculous. And there are other things to worry about. But honestly, the scale of waste here is pretty amazing. Design house Amron Experimental says that 400 million stir sticks are used every day, and I have no reason to doubt that. My native Seattle probably accounts for a quarter of that.

So you need to get the sugar (or agave nectar) and cream (or almond milk) mixed in your iced americano. Instead of reaching for a stick and stirring vigorously for 10 or 15 seconds, you could instead place your cup in the Stircle (first noticed by New Atlas and a few other design blogs), which would presumably be built into the fixins table at your coffee shop.

Around and around and around she goes, where she stops, nobody… oh. There.

Once you put your cup on the Stircle, it starts spinning — first one way, then the other, and so on, agitating your drink and achieving the goal of an evenly mixed beverage without using a wood or plastic stirrer. It’s electric, but I can imagine one being powered by a lever or button that compresses a spring. That would make it even greener.

The video shows that it probably gets that sugar and other low-lying mixers up into the upper strata of the drink, so I think we’re set there. And it looks as though it will take a lot of different sizes, including reusable tumblers. It clearly needs a cup with a lid, since otherwise the circling liquid will fly out in every direction, which means you have to be taking your coffee to go. That leaves out pretty much every time I go out for coffee in my neighborhood, where it’s served (to stay) in a mug or tall glass.

But a solution doesn’t have to fix everything to be clever or useful. This would be great at an airport, for instance, where I imagine every order is to go. Maybe they’ll put it in a bar, too, for extra smooth stirring of martinis.

Actually, I know that people in labs use automatic magnetic stirrers to do their coffee. This would be a way to do that without appropriating lab property. Those things are pretty cool too, though.

You might remember Amron from one of their many previous clever designs; I happen to remember the Keybrid and Split Ring Key, both of which I used for a while. I’ll be honest, I don’t expect to see a Stircle in my neighborhood cafe any time soon, but I sure hope they show up in Starbucks stores around the world. We’re going to run out of those stirrer things sooner or later.

Square acquires corporate catering startup Zesty

Square has acquired elements of corporate catering startup Zesty . Square, which already owns on-demand food delivery service Caviar, plans to use Zesty’s assets to strengthen Caviar’s corporate ordering business, Caviar for Teams.

Neither company disclosed financial terms of the deal, but the plan is for Caviar and Zesty to operate independently in the short term.

“Restaurants turn to Caviar to reach more diners and grow their businesses,” Square Caviar Lead Gokul Rajaram said in a press release. “Expanding our corporate catering product with Zesty enables us to offer our restaurant partners another way to boost sales through higher-margin, large-format catering orders,” said Rajaram, Caviar Lead at Square. “Caviar is thriving, and we’re excited to supercharge its success with Zesty and double down on an area with great opportunity to drive more growth for our business.”

Since its acquisition of Caviar in 2014, Square has acquired OrderAhead’s pickup business to launch Caviar Pickup and Entrees On-Trays to expand its footprint in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.

Zesty currently partners with about 150 restaurants in San Francisco, which is the only city in which it operates. Some of Zesty’s customers include Snap, Splunk and TechCrunch. Zesty, which first launched in 2013 under a different name, had previously raised $20.7 million in venture funding.

“Adding Zesty’s offerings, like sophisticated menu-planning tools and algorithms, white-glove catering services, and nutrition and allergen customization, will help us expand our catering offering and even better serve companies of all sizes,” the Caviar team wrote on Medium. “Plus, it provides our restaurant partners with more opportunities to reach new corporate customers.”

Postmates launching pickup feature

Postmates, the startup that offers on-demand delivery for anything in your city, now lets people order ahead for pickup. This comes about one year after Square’s Caviar expanded into pickups, following the acquisition of OrderAhead’s pickup business.

Postmates started testing Pickup in San Francisco earlier this week, and plans to officially launch it in the next couple of weeks, a Postmates spokesperson told TechCrunch. Currently, there are over 200 merchants participating in Pickup, including my personal favorite, Papalote.

“The idea around pickup is around expanding the retail experience to our merchants,” the spokesperson said. “It’s giving those merchants another tool to expand the reach.”

After the official launch in San Francisco, Postmates plans to expand Pickup to New York and Los Angeles within the next couple of months.

This update comes after Postmates in November shipped a revamped version of its app, which added a grocery service and scheduled deliveries to the platform.

Postmates’ pickup functionality comes on the heels of news it may be teaming up with DoorDash in an effort to better compete against Uber, GrubHub and Amazon, Recode reported earlier today. Postmates declined to comment on the rumor to TechCrunch.

To date, Postmates is doing three million deliveries a month with a gross merchandise volume of $1.2 billion.