Coco bites into Houston. Photo courtesy of Coco

Heads up, Houston: the robots are coming.

Coco, the Los Angeles-based business that offers a remotely piloted delivery service, has hit the streets of Houston with its food-delivery bots as part of its expansion to targeted markets. Fueled by a recent funding round that garnered the company $56 million, Coco has already launched in Austin; its expansion plans also include rolling out bots in the Dallas and Miami markets soon.

Here in Houston, locals can look forward to delivery at restaurants including Brookstreet BBQ, Rustika Cafe, Ruggles Black, and Trendy Dumpling, according to the company.

Here’s how it works: Customers place a restaurant order like usual, then a Coco bot — operated by a “trained pilot” — drives to the restaurant to pick it up. The restaurant staff loads the bot as soon as the food is ready, and Coco arrives at the customer’s door within 15 minutes. Each bot is locked until it reaches the customer, so no one can tamper with your pizza or egg rolls.

The company claims that compared with traditional food-delivery methods, its bots decrease the time it takes food to reach the customer by 30 percent, and that the service has an on-time delivery rate of 97 percent.

Of course, Coco bots won’t be zipping up I-10 for a long-haul delivery; they’re meant to work at shorter distances and on mostly pedestrian paths. As the company’s website notes, “A surprisingly large portion of deliveries are done within less than 2 miles. We believe there is no reason to have a 3,000-pound car deliver a burrito over short distances.”

Coco claims to have transformed the food- and beverage-delivery landscape in its home market of LA, where, as of 2021, the company says it was successfully operating across all major Los Angeles neighborhoods.

It’s Coco’s trained pilots and commitment to “perfecting the last-mile delivery experience” that helps set it apart from competitors, according to the company and its partners.

Since the brand’s official launch in 2020, Coco claims to have experienced “unprecedented success” and has quickly overtaken brands that have been testing similar concepts for years. The company notes in press materials that Houston stood out to the brand as the perfect location to continue its rapid growth. “Coco ensures that the customer is at the forefront of their innovations and is excited to support the Houston community by partnering with local restaurants and businesses to provide a more reliable, and consumer-forward option for delivery,” Coco adds in a release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

OrangeCrate provides a locally-owned option for delivery. Courtesy of OrangeCrate

New locally owned food delivery app rolls into Houston area

orange you glad?

A new delivery app aims to give diners a locally owned alternative to the big national names. Meet OrangeCrate, an app that does things a little differently.

Unlike the national brands, each OrangeCrate affiliate is locally owned and has a specific geographic territory. Franchisee Cody Lee has brought the company to two areas of Houston, Fort Bend County and the greater Memorial area. Lee launched in Fort Bend on June 1 and will bring Memorial online August 24.

"We're just like UberEats or DoorDash, but we're locally owned and locally operated, so I have a lot of control and flexibility versus some of the bigger name brands," Lee tells CultureMap.

That flexibility starts with the cost restaurants pay to use OrangeCrate. While national operators might charge as much as 30 percent to deliver a meal, Lee says OrangeCrate's fees are typically half that, usually between 10 and 15 percent.

Customer fees start at $2.99 and go up depending on how far away from the restaurant they live. Most orders also have a $10 minimum.

In terms of control, Lee trains each driver personally and monitors them when they're working. Unlike other services, drivers may only make one delivery at once, and they're only allowed to make OrangeCrate deliveries while they're on the company's schedule.

"I can chat with them and understand if there's an issue and minimize the impact to the customer," Lee says. "There's a lot of control where I can maintain a lot of variables to ensure the customer experience."

From a user's perspective, the experience will feel familiar. Order and pay via OrangeCrate's website and app. A driver — wearing masks and gloves, of course — will arrive with a bright orange bag containing the food order.

Lee says that so far his biggest challenge has been building awareness of the brand and convincing restaurateurs that he's a viable alternative to the more familiar names. From his perspective, restaurants that promote his company can save money on delivery fees and expand their reach, which is particularly important at a time when some people don't feel comfortable eating in restaurants.

"Most people know the bigger guys," Lee says. "It's important to hear Orange Crate, and that we're a local option; we're also a cheaper option. They get the same or better service for their customers."

In Fort Bend County, Lee has started with a roster of mostly national and regional chains like Chili's, 5 Guys, and Chuy's, but he says he's trying to add as many local restaurants as possible. In the Memorial area, he hopes to launch with between 50 and 60 establishments.

"My focus is on local restaurants and earning their business," Lee says. "I will only be adding local restaurants as we go forward."

So far, Lee has seen enough growth that he's optimistic about the service's future. He's got his eyes on Galveston and The Woodlands as potential market for expansive, with Inner Loop neighborhoods in his long term plans.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Native Houstonian Sola Lawal is looking into how AI and robotics can help increase access to fresh foods in local food deserts. Photo courtesy of Nuro

Autonomous vehicle delivery service is driving access to food in Houston’s vulnerable communities

Houston Innovators Podcast Episode 42

When Silicon Valley-based artificial intelligence and robotics company Nuro was looking for a city to roll out its autonomous vehicle delivery technology, Houston checked off all the boxes.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Since rolling out its first pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, launched three more across six of Houston's ZIP codes from Bellaire to the Heights, including pizza delivery from Domino's that was announced in June 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched this summer.

Lately, Nuro's presence in Houston has expanded from these business development partnerships, and the tech company has started focusing on providing a service to the community.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, we started looking for ways we could contribute and help with the things we have — which includes a fleet of vehicles and product tools that allow that fleet to move around and do delivery."

This got Nuro in touch with the Houston Food Bank, and a partnership formed between the tech company and the nonprofit that has resulted in food deliveries across the city — including Third Ward and Acres Homes.

"That for us was eye opening as we went into those locations we started to understand and see that there really isn't any other grocery store that's in those areas," Lawal says. "It was a moment of reflection for us where we said, 'Hey, the AV works here. These are streets that are acceptable. What can we do?'"

In the future, Nuro, as Lawal explains, is moving forward these initiatives to use its AV technology to help increase access to fresh foods in Houston, as well as continuing developing the city as a leader in self-driving innovation.

"I think that autonomous vehicles are going to become an industry in the same way your standard vehicles are," Lawal says."One really strong way the Houston ecosystem and Nuro can partner is essentially building out the ancillary."

Lawal shares more about the future of AVs in Houston and the impact Nuro will continue to have on the city. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


You can order Mala Sichuan to be delivered thanks to newly launched Chowbus. Photo by Isabel Protomartir

Chicago-based food delivery app launches to serve Houstonians

introducing chowbus

A new delivery app wants to make it easier for Houstonians to access the best dishes from Chinatown. Chowbus, a nationwide service that focuses on Asian cuisines, has arrived in Houston.

Among the 80-plus restaurants available at launch, diners may use the app to order dishes from Chinatown favorites such as Mala Sichuan Bistro, Arco Seafood, and Ocean Palace as well as relative newcomers like Chengdu Taste, Chongqing Chicken Pot, and Meet Fresh. Deliveries are available from 11 am to 10 pm to points within the Houston city limits as well as to suburbs such as Pearland, Sugar Land, and Katy.

Customers pay a delivery fee that costs between $2.99 and $4.99 depending on their proximity to the restaurant, but the app does provide a bundling option that allows people to order dishes from multiple restaurants without paying an additional fee. True die-hards can subscribe to Chowbus Plus; for $9.99 per month, all deliveries over $25 are free and deliveries between $15 and $25 cost $1.99.

"We are excited to roll out our service to the Houston community," Chowbus co-founder and CEO Linxin Wen said in a statement. "The city is known for its vibrant culinary scene, which includes tons of great authentic Asian restaurants. We're proud to help Space City discover them."

Beyond helping restaurants expand their reach, Chowbus aims to be a good partner to its restaurants by providing them with analysis of best-selling dishes as well as high quality digital photography. On average, Chowbus claims to boost delivery revenue by 25-percent for restaurants on the platform.

"We're thrilled by the opportunity to partner with Chowbus," said Shanjian Li, the owner of Chongqing Chicken Pot, a Szechuan restaurant in Chinatown's Bellaire Food Street complex. "We hope this will help more Houstonians discover the flavorful dishes that we work so hard to create every day."

Based in Chicago, Chowbus has been a growth spurt. The platform now offers delivery from more than 3,000 restaurants in over 20 cities across North America such as Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, and Boston.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Wolfe & Wine Co. is using a new software to dispatch meals to hospital workers as well as new meal prep customers. Getty Images

Houston catering startup taps new tech to pivot to meal prepping during the coronavirus shutdown

innov-eat

With an abundance of Houston restaurant and business closures spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, small company leaders are forced to develop resourceful solutions to keep afloat and compensate for slowed revenue.

Founder and chef of Houston-based Wolfe & Wine Co., Daniel Wolfe, has rejigged his social-focused business model to cater single-meal orders instead of large group orders.

Wolfe & Wine Co. is a full-service, chef-driven catering company, specializing in pop-up dinners paired with specially curated wines. Launched only a few short months ago in September 2019, Wolfe was looking forward to expanding his business across the Houston metroplex in 2020, one specially-catered social gathering at a time. His plans changed in March, when COVID-19 began to ingratiate itself in pockets of Houston.

"My business model thrives on events with more than 10 people, so we pivoted our focus to meal prep," Wolfe says.

Within 72 hours in March, Wolfe lost around $70,000 worth of revenue with the cancelation of all of his upcoming catering events, then feeling the first wave of economic and logistical impacts of COVID-19. However, Wolfe faced these hurdles with innovative and community-focused solutions that have already sustained his business and benefitted thousands of Houstonians whose lives have been affected by the coronavirus.

With the help of food service supplier Ben E. Keith Co. and cloud-based delivery management software company Dispatch Science, Wolfe & Wine Co. received the financial and technological sponsorship needed to provide single meals to his customers, and to donate meals to medical staff, including the entire Houston Methodist Emergency Room and ICU departments, and Houstonians in need.

"The dispatch software that we use is similar to what UPS, FedEx and Amazon use. When you order with us, you can track where your meal is in real time…That transparency separates us from [other meal prep companies]," Wolfe says.

Since producing single-order meal prep packages for his customers, Wolfe has noted that the two biggest challenges he has faced have been altering his recipes to accommodate single servings, and striving to maintain the same high-quality, personalized customer experience that he provides at his catering events.

In various industries, not only in Houston but across the globe, there will be elements of business that are forced to restructure, to accommodate the new economic and logistical boundaries brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This virus is forcing people to innovate, forcing people stuck in their ways to change and adapt, or they'll fail," Wolfe says.

For the hospitality industry specifically, Wolfe foresees that restaurants' refined food takeout processes, along with the delivery of liquor, beer and wine, will play a huge role in their fiscal well-being after this health crisis subsides.

"Businesses that said 'we're not doing takeout' are now doing takeout because they don't have a choice," Wolfe says. "In the next few months, you're going to see a lot more offerings for takeout and delivery. You're going to see a lot more refined and better customer experiences for takeout, especially with millennials."

Sharpened takeout programs and alcohol delivery are projected to revolutionize the food and beverage industry, Wolfe says. In addition to enhanced technological components and takeout processes, community stewardship has been a main theme within the industry, Wolfe noted.

"The hospitality industry, nurses, grocery stores and others, those are the people carrying the country through this pandemic," Wolfe says. "You're not just some kid flipping a burger or stocking a box on a shelf."

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Houston innovator joins VC world to increase her social impact

Q&A

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.