Maen Mahfoud, Founder and CEO of the food rescue tech non-profit Replate, started Replate in 2016 while a student at UCB. Maen was inspired to start Replate when he realized that food insecurity in San Francisco was similar to what he saw as a child in his native Syria. We talked to Maen about how Replate has grown from a volunteer effort to a company with a national presence.
How does Replate work?
Replate is a B to B tech nonprofit. We match surplus food from businesses to community organizations in need instantly. Our organizational partners include nonprofit shelters, soup kitchens, youth programs, and others that distribute food to the needy.
Let’s say you are an office manager at a tech or catering firm that has extra food from an event or from recurring meetings. To start using our services, you simply sign up on our web app and log in to the dashboard. You can then add pickup locations and either request on-demand pickup for a specific event or schedule recurring pickups.
Our app notifies our drivers – who we call food rescuers – about a new pickup location. As office manager, you will get a text notification with an ETA on the driver, and you also can track the driver. The driver weighs the food and enters this into the app, snaps a photo of the food, then heads to another pick-up point or to a drop-off location at one of our partner community organizations.
What is the basic business model?
We are a fee-for-service surplus food courier. Donor companies sign up for a service plan that best suits their needs – on a per pick-up basis all the way to 20 pick-ups per month or opt for an enterprise plan with unlimited pickups.
Our contract drivers make $20 per hour in all markets. We cover all of their expenses such as parking fees, tolls and food packaging.
The value proposition for our donors is a combination of corporate responsibility, employee engagement, waste management cost savings and tax deductions. Waste management savings can be significant. It’s mostly our catering and chain restaurant partners who take the charitable deduction since companies which purchase food for their employees prefer to write it off the cost as a business expense.
You became motivated to help the hungry while a student at UC Berkeley. Tell us a bit about that.
Replate started as a volunteer project. It goes back to my childhood experiences in the Middle East. On almost a daily basis, my mother would cook extra food and would have me and my brother take it to our food insecure neighbors before we could sit down for our meal at home. This experience stayed with me.
I didn’t think I would see the same kind of food insecurity when I came to this country, but I was wrong. Even in the high tech center of the world, I saw hungry people and I found this very frustrating.
So, a group of friends started to rescue food from point A and take it to needy people at point B, mostly by word of mouth. Now, I am not a very patient person, so the immediate reward of feeding hundreds of people without a great effort was great.
How did Replate evolve from that point?
As we continued, we realized the effort was growing and catching on, so we needed a way to make it sustainable, which included of course how to raise money. Early on, we talked to some behavioral psychology students at Harvard, who told us those donor companies would pay us to unload their excess food. So, based on that, we came up with our first business model – $10 per pick-up.
We used the funds to sustain our drivers and onboard more clients, which is our core functions.
What other help did you get to develop your business? Were there resources at Cal?
We got a lot of help from Cal Blueprint, a student club at UC Berkeley that develops software pro bono for nonprofits. They helped develop some of our app features, which we launched in 2017. They also helped us with some data science and other projects.
Gavin Mccormick and Hooman Yavi, who are on our board helped us incorporate and develop some of our legal documents. And Hooman connected us to the bay area law firm Cooley LLP, which provided pro-bono help on legal matters.
Was launching the app a turning point?
Yes, it really helped us establish a presence. One of the early adopters of our app was ZeroCater, a national catering company. Today, we have lots of catering clients. Their management teams helped us spread the word about our services to their clients.
Establishing a presence also helped us to raise our first grant funds from StopWaste, the Cliff Bar Family Foundation, and the Pineapple Fund.
In 2017, we also received a $300,000 Food Waste Prevention and Rescue Grant from CalRecycle, which included providing our app to other organizations for their use.
We were able to hire a Director of Operations, Katie Marchini, who has a Masters in Food Science and has worked in the food industry, which further boosted our credibility.
Stage by stage, we have grown our team and learned to manage risks to be bigger and more sustainable with time. Now we can close bigger deals and expand.
What are your expansion plans and will it change your business model?
Our three major markets are the Bay Area, LA and New York City. We have a number of emerging markets in other US cities, where we outsource the driving to companies like DoorDash.
Our model is very scalable. We think we can continue operating with two-thirds of our budget from revenues and the remainder from grants and another fundraising. Amazon, Google, and Cisco are current donors.
Our business model is evolving to help empower governments and other organizations with food recovery, including data capture and reporting for their funders and stakeholders. For example, through our CalRecycle grant, we licensed our app to Alameda County, which is using it to onboard sellers in their farmers’ markets and schools.
Have you ever had any food safety issues?
No, we have never had a problem with rescued food. Our drivers are certified in food safety and handling, and our monitoring system ensures that donated food stays fresh. We are selective about the kind and quality of food we accept. On top of that, both federal and state law protects food donors from liability.
What other information does the app provide?
Our app dashboard has an impact tab that shows the weight of the food donated, the number of greenhouse gases diverted and water saved, as well as photos of beneficiaries.
The app also has a savings estimator, where a donor can learn its potential savings on waste management costs. For example, one of our large tech catering firm clients has a daily pickup of 300 pounds of surplus food. We learned that waste management costs for this food can exceed $100 per pick-up.
Organic and solid waste management regulations are getting stricter in California – this is incentivizing restaurants and food suppliers to donate food to organizations like Replate.
Have you participated in an incubator or accelerator programs?
Yes. We are just finishing a six-month Full Circle Fund program for nonprofits, which includes grant funding. It is a really great program that helps nonprofits connect with funders and perfect your pitch. It’s helped us sharpen our sales strategy, open more locations, increase lead generation, and upsell our current clients. We received excellent mentoring from volunteers from Oracle and Dropbox.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs who are perhaps still in school?
My advice for young entrepreneurs is to not think too much about money. If you have a good idea, get out and pursue it. If you are adding value, then things will open up. Ask for help and people will be happy to help you. If you are fully engaged in your idea, you will be surprised about how things open up.
You have student employees on your team, right?
Yes, Stephanie Tang, our graphic designer, is an architecture student at Cal and has been with us for more than a year. I met her through one of the student innovation clubs.
The energy, excitement, and intelligence of the students is one of the reasons our headquarters is still in Berkeley. Students are a great resource and we encourage them to join us.
Replate’s story is so inspiring -, particularly during this holiday season. With its broadly scalable model, Replate is proving that non-profits too can thrive in our evolving food economy.
New Innovator Spotlights will appear soon, featuring the innovators and change-makers in the sustainable food and ag innovation space. If you know of someone we should be covering, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org