Betting on bots

Houston farmers market food truck introduces AI technology, plans to expand

The Grit Grocery truck at Market Square. Photo by Philip Emerson

Grit Grocery, a farmers market food truck with a mission to make fresh foods accessible, is taking that accessibility one step further.

Facebook users can now interact with Grit with just a few taps on Facebook Messenger. The tool launched this month.

"Most people would develop a mobile app, but this is our alternative to an app," one of Grit's founders, Dustin Windham, says. "There's a lot of research around app fatigue — people don't want to download yet another app — but over a billion people already have access to Facebook Messenger."

Users can use the chat bot to see where the truck is, the hours, and order meal kits.

"You interact via text message, which is really the future we feel of business-customer communication," Windham says.

In addition to this new tool, Grit plans on bringing a second truck to Houston by January. The second truck will help the grocer enter new neighborhoods around Houston. With the expansion, he hopes to hit the Heights and Acres Homes — a lower income community that's been identified as needing affordable and accessible groceries.

"We partner with the city with the Complete Communities initiative. They've identified five pilot neighborhoods — low income, food desert areas," Windham says. "Our goal is to get a truck in each of those neighborhoods."

Grit is already in three Houston neighborhoods — Downtown, EaDo, and the Museum District — once or twice a week. The second truck is just the first of many plans for growth, Windham says.

"The goal is to flesh it out and expand," Windham says. "[We want to have] at least 10 different trucks in 20 to 30 neighborhoods to prove that it works and take this to other Texas cities, then across the southern U.S. — fast growing cities that have challenges like Houston."

Grit's bread and butter is making easy, accessible, and locally sourced meals at an affordable price. The meal kits have been a big success for the truck — fresh ingredients ready to cook or assemble for just around $15 or less for two servings. While several meal delivery companies like Blue Apron are doing something similar, Grit provides local, fresh foods without a pricey subscription plan that comes with a lot of packaging. With Grit, you can pick up dinner for tonight, as well as any other snacks or groceries you'll need.

The original idea for Grit came when Windham was in the Peace Corps and living in Azerbaijan. He shopped more frequently and bought smaller volumes and cooked everything from scratch.

"It was eye opening to see this different way of eating," Windham says. "I got back to the United States after living abroad for two years with the knowledge of how to eat healthier, but it was difficult to do. These big box stores are designed for buying large volumes of food every week or every two weeks."

Grit operates on a much smaller scale.

"Another thing is the typical grocery store has 30,000 products. We have about 300," Michael Powell, one of the other founders, told CultureMap. "You can step up and see everything we have to offer. Simplifying the process, I think that's where we have something to offer."

Grit Grocery first opened in April and was founded by Windham, Jamal Ansari, and Emily Jaschke, head of communications. Windham and Ansari, both Rice University MBAs, had been working on the idea for Grit a few years prior to launch. Powell, who has a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology and has done extensive research into the way people shop for groceries, joined the team last year.

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Building Houston

 
 

"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

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