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

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes entrepreneur and author Jay Steinfeld, Clemmie Pierce Martin of Houston Exponential, and Matthew Costello of Voyager Portal. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from startup development to software — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jay Steinfeld, author of Lead From The Core

Blinds.com founder Jay Steinfeld has released his new book last week. Photos courtesy of Jay Steinfeld

After Blinds.com successfully exited to Home Depot, founder Jay Steinfeld started thinking about what he wanted to do next. The entrepreneur is now on the boards of five companies and has taught at Rice University before publishing his new book, "Lead From The Core."

"The book was originally written so that the people at Blinds.com would know what got us to where we were and would use it as the foundation for continuing what that success was all about. As I began teaching and expanding my influence throughout the community nationally, I realized that there were many entrepreneurs who could learn from the same success, the techniques, the strategies," Steinfeld says. Click here to read the full interview.

Clemmie Pierce Martin, director of marketing and strategy at Houston Exponential

Clemmie Pierce Martin will oversee marketing and strategy for Houston Exponential. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston Exponential has made another new hire. Clemmie Pierce Martin has joined Houston Exponential as director of marketing and strategy. The nonprofit helps spur the growth of Houston’s innovation ecosystem.

She most recently was director of strategic partnerships and products at Houston-based startup Goodfair, which operates an online thrift store. Before that, she was head of client success at Austin-based startup Mesa Cloud, which offers a platform for tracking student progress.

Martin, who grew up in Houston and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and Houston’s The Kinkaid School, says her new employer “sees the potential in Houston and our startup ecosystem that I’ve always felt was underserved and underrepresented nationally. I couldn’t be more excited to join a team that is working tirelessly to make sure that for founders and startups anywhere in the world, Houston is not just a choice but rather the clear choice of venue.” Click here to read more.

Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Matthew Costello Voyager

Matthew Costello is the\u00a0CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal. Photo courtesy of Voyager

Voyager Portal, a software-as-a-service platform, closed an $8.4 million series A investment round this week. The round was led by Phaze Ventures, a VC fund based in the Middle East, and included new investors — ScOp Venture Capital, Waybury Capital and Flexport. Additionally, all of Voyager's existing investors contributed to this round.

“Voyager Portal was created to significantly reduce cost, risk, and complexity when transporting bulk materials around the world,” says Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager, in the release. “The last two years have demonstrated just how critical shipping bulk commodities is to global markets – freight rates have increased and port congestion is at an all-time high – accelerating the demand for Voyager’s solution.” Click here to read more.

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