Rolla native AJ Shrestha was determined to start his own business years before he worked as a banker in San Francisco.
Last month, he moved back to Missouri with his food startup KwikDish, an online service that allows users to order lunch for pickup from local restaurants and cooks.
“Our hope is to turn Broadway into a giant cafeteria with healthy, local, fresh food,” Shrestha said, referring to the downtown Columbia street populated with local eateries.
KwikDish offers users a list of meals to pre-order and pick up at restaurants. The menu is posted online at 4 p.m. every day, and users have until 10 a.m. the next day to order. At that point, KwikDish sends the restaurants a final list of customers with order details and pick-up times.
“People don’t hang out in a restaurant. Instead, they get food delivered back home,” Shrestha said. “For the restaurants, it is not a good long-term solution.”
He hopes the pick-up method brings local restaurants an opportunity to sell additional items, as well as to show a personal touch with customers.
The price of a lunch meal ranges between $6 and $9. Users buy meal credits in bulk, choosing from three plans that include different numbers of meals and range in price from $32 to $90, before tax.
“The value on the customer side is saving money and time,” Shrestha said. “(The) price is attractive, and you tell (restaurants) when you are coming, so you don’t have to wait in long lines.”
KwikDish generates revenue by charging a fee of 8 to 10 percent of each transaction. Shrestha said the startup will rely on volume, rather than high margins, to be profitable.
Ever the entrepreneur
“Business has always been in my blood,” Shrestha said. “Ever since I was little, I would have some kind of business that I was running.”
When Shrestha was 15 years old, he started his first business, a game room in Rolla where kids could play sports and video games.
In college, he founded his own web development company, Snowlion Web, and hired young programmers to build websites.
After graduating from Missouri University of Science and Technology with a bachelor’s of electrical and computer engineering and a master’s of electrical engineering, Shrestha embarked on a career in engineering.
“Even as an engineer, I have always seen myself as a guy who loves to build products,” Shrestha said. “I love to make sure the customers see a value for it.”
Driven by his entrepreneurial spirit, he decided to shift gears and learn the language of business. He earned another master’s, in quantitative finance, from Georgia Tech and went on to work for Regions Bank, Raymond James and Deutsche Bank.
“I said to myself that … I will (work in banking) for about five years and after that I am going to do my own thing,” he said.
This year marks the fifth year since he made that pledge. Shrestha gave up his job at Deutsche Bank in February and jumped into entrepreneurship, launching KwikDish with three other co-founders: his wife, Alena Bloshakova, and two friends, Mahesh Dass and Carlos Solortano.
Before Shrestha left his job, he had already recruited a team of 15 people, predominantly engineers and bankers he has worked with. Two of them are full-time employees.
In the competitive arena of food-delivery startups, even well-funded players like Zesty have struggled to stay in business.
Shrestha acknowledged the risk of jumping into such a competitive industry, but he added that “what really matters is the concept of local.”
Jennifer Goggin, a food-tech entrepreneur and strategic advisor for food-tech startups, said people want to support local farms and restaurants not only for the quality food, but also to keep money in the local economy.
“The question is, can you move them to actually act upon their desire to support the local restaurants?” Goggin said.
In Columbia, more than 30 local restaurants have agreed to put their menus on KwikDish. That group includes Sake Japanese Bistro, India’s House and The Grind Coffee House.
“It is hard in the beginning. (This is) a new face and a new idea from people who are not from the city,” Shrestha said. “But what we are trying to do is really concentrating on helping the local restaurants, and they do appreciate that.”
Issam Yanis of Coffee Zone, a coffee shop and Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Columbia, welcomed the idea because of its “local” emphasis. This is the first time Coffee Zone has joined a food platform.
“I like the idea,” Yannis said. “There are so many similar projects, but it seems this is the most attractive one I have heard of recently.”
He hopes to attract more traffic to Coffee Zone and gain visibility through KwikDish, because his shop is further from the University of Missouri campus than some other coffee shops.
Sonny Sindh, general manager of India’s House, and Indian restaurant in downtown Columbia, has similar expectations. He hopes KwikDish will give his restaurant “more public exposure.”
So far, about 100 customers have registered for KwikDish’s pick-up service. Shrestha said the startup will be more active with marketing as more MU students return to Columbia for the fall semester.
Eye toward expansion
While KwikDish has launched in Columbia and Jefferson City, Shrestha has his sights set on cities like St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield. But launching in those cities will require more investment.
“The idea is that if you go to Jefferson City for the weekend, you can use the meal plan on KwikDish (to) find something that you know would be a good price point and … local,” said Dass, another of the KwikDish co-founders.
The startup plans to expand to Atlanta and Chicago by the end of the year, the team said. Dass said they have been in touch with angel investors and venture capitalists.
“For every customer we bring in, as long as they stay on or they increase the number of meals they have … that’s all suggesting they are appreciating our platform,” Shrestha said. “The numbers will tell the story.”