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 one's for the ladies

Texas named a top state for women-led startups

A new report finds that the Lone Star State is ideal for female entrepreneurs. Photo via Getty Images

Who runs the world? According to Merchant Maverick's inaugural Best States for "Women-Led Startups'' study, Texas is a great place for women to be in charge.

The Lone Star state cracked the top 10 on the list, earning a No. 6 spot according to the small business reviews and financial services company, which based the study on eight key statistics about this growing segment of the economy. Colorado (at No. 1), Washington, Virginia, Florida, and Montana were the only states to beat out Texas on the rankings—leading the Merchant Maverick team to conclude that "the part of the country that lies west of the Mississippi is great for startups led by women entrepreneurs."

Women-led startups in Texas received $365 billion in VC funding in the last five years, the report found. This is the seventh largest total among U.S. states. Too, about 20 percent of Texans are employed at woman-led firms, which is the fifth highest percentage among states. Roughly 35 percent of employers in Texas are led by women.

A few other key findings that work in female founders' favor: The startup survival rate in Texas is nearly 80 percent. And a lack of state income tax "doesn't hurt either," the report says.

Still there are shortcomings. On a per capita basis, only 1.27 percent of Texas women run their own business. The average income for self-employed women is also relatively low ranking among states, coming in around $55,907 and landing at 31st among others.

This is not the first time Texas has been lauded as a land of opportunity for women entrepreneurs. A 2019 study named it the best state for business opportunities for women. Houston too has proven to support success for the demographic. The Bayou City was named in separate studies a best city for female entrepreneurs to start a business and to see it grow.

Still, as many findings have concluded, the realities of the pandemic loom for all startups and small business owners. The Merchant Maverick study was careful to add: "The pandemic has changed the economic landscape over the past year, and often for the worse.

"This means that not every metric may be able to accurately gauge how a state might fare amidst the pandemic," the report continues. "To help factor in COVID's impact, we included some metrics that take 2020 into account, but it will be a while until we get a full picture of the pandemic's devastation.""

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