ChewTyme has launched in Houston and Atlanta to approach the fast-growing food delivery industry in a new way. Photo via Getty Images

While Ashley Loveless Cunningham has advised clients how to fix bad credit and build a healthy financial life for years, a look at her family’s own spending on food delivery came as a wake-up call.

Like a lot of busy households, they loved to order food through delivery apps, so much so that Cunningham realized it was time for a change. With the delivery charge and other fees that apps like DoorDash and GrubHub tack on, a food order can easily double in price. A $15 bowl from Chipotle that her son liked to order cost almost $40 by the time it got to the house — and that doesn’t even include a tip for the delivery driver.

“I thought, wait a minute. This is ridiculous,” she says.

She says she brainstormed, and began to look into ways to offer an alternative, not only for consumers, but for minority-owned restaurants that were struggling to keep their doors open.

So, Cunningham, whose business ventures include her financial literacy business New Credit Inc. and a perfume line, created her own app, ChewTyme.

The app launched in Houston and Atlanta last Friday, and has drawn over 3,000 consumer downloads, which Cunningham says is a “pretty good” start.

Cunningham, 40, a native of Mobile, Alabama, says she moved to Houston with her family ten months ago, drawn by the opportunity to grow their various businesses. And, the city’s vibrant food scene offered another avenue.

“Everybody moves here to open a restaurant,” she says of Houston.

Extra support on the side

Through restaurant owner clients of her credit counseling business, she learned that many were struggling to remain open. A lot of the business owners aren’t aware of the many options available to them, in business lines of credit, assuming their own personal financial credit is in good shape.

That’s where the business education side of the app comes in, where restaurateurs will gain access to “Business University,” financial guidance for their journey in the industry.

“I tell people, it’s not only about cash funding. There are other resources out there, things we need to thrive in the business space,” she says, adding that this includes mentorship and publicity services.

Many restaurant owners told her they partner with at least two or three food delivery apps already. But she thinks ChewTyme will stand out.

“A lot of people I’ve talked to, they just don’t know where to start,” she says. Her partnership with the restaurants would solve that issue, helping restaurateurs create a “full, state-of-the-art profile” that guides them every step of the way.

While she's yet to onboard her inaugural Houston restaurants, the app has begun to draw interest, Ashley says, especially from entrepreneurs who need a cheaper way to scale their business growth.

Cunningham says ChewTyme offers a competitive alternative to many third-party apps, which she says charge anywhere from a 20-22 percent commission on a restaurant’s delivery orders. The app will charge a 17 percent commission, with no monthly fee, and a flat $4.95 delivery rate to consumers, whom she plans to attract with discounts and promotions.

She hopes to initially sign up 25 restaurants in Houston and the same number in Atlanta, during the beta run of the app. As they work out the kinks, she feels confident in expansion.

Her biggest challenge moving forward is hiring quality drivers, she says.

“That really scares me. People who want to work, who have integrity. I’ve heard horror stories because people literally pick up their food and don’t deliver it,” she says.

ChewTyme is working with contracting partners who are conducting screening and background checks for potential drivers, and onboarding restaurant owners with follow-up. Interested restaurateurs or drivers can request more information on ChewTyme's website.

Tapping into a high-growth market

Third-party food delivery exploded in popularity during the pandemic, and a 2021 McKinsey report found that food delivery more than tripled since 2017. Post-pandemic, the on-demand services industry growth hasn't waned.

The Texas Restaurant Association fought for a law passed in 2021 to prevent third-party apps from adding restaurants to a delivery platform without a financial agreement or partnership, according to Christine Robbins, executive director of the association. But now that relationship seems to have settled into a profitable venture on both sides.

Taj Walker, of H-Town Restaurant Group, which owns Hugo’s, Xochi, and six other local restaurants, says the apps don’t typically charge a fee unless the restaurant takes part in an app’s ad promotion of their restaurant.

An app’s commission can range from 10 to 25 percent, he says, which their restaurants compensate for by charging 10 percent more on app orders than in-house food. The apps have become an important revenue stream for some H-Town’s more casual eateries, especially Urbe and Prego, which are popular among younger clientele, Walker says.

While Cunningham’s main goal is to uplift minority entrepreneurs and communities, the app will be available to any restaurateur who wants it.

Since being acquired by a private equity firm, Houston-based HungerRush has expanded its tech. Photo via Getty Images

Recently acquired Houston hospitality tech company continues to expand following fresh funding

tech growth

Houston-based HungerRush, which is a point-of-sale system that includes payment-processing, digital ordering, customer engagement, and delivery management, continues to spread its impact to businesses big and small.

A New York private equity firm, Corsair Capital, saw the potential for the cloud-based POS software and purchased a majority stake in HungerRush last summer. In 2022, HungerRush was on target to reach $100 million in recurring revenue according to The Deal.

HungerRush aims to serve an industry that according to the tech company, 80 percent think technology is the way to go to assist restaurants with labor shortages and other barriers. HungerRush acquired artificial intelligence text ordering app OrderAI, ordering and marketing company 9Fold LLC and Menufy.com over the past two years to grow its reach.

In the first quarter, the company introduced a comprehensive all-in-one POS system bundle designed to meet the needs of independent operators (IOs), with the overall goal of providing a tech stack to transform the experiences of both restaurant staff and customers. Their partnership with Menufy, which helps IOs drive both growth and profitability through an online website and mobile app ordering experience and currently serves over 15,000 restaurants across the US market, has helped to deliver the transformed IO experience to pizza restaurants and our offerings have quickly expanded to serve Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants as well.

One of the businesses seeing the benefits of platforms like HungerRush is Little Pop’s Pizzeria, which is a Naperville, Illinois-based pizza spot that uses the HungerRush to communicate to help the small business keep up with the large demands of the Chicagoland suburbs.The platform’s help has led to substantial business growth.

“Thanks to having 5,000 loyalty program customers stored in HungerRush, we were able to quickly communicate the new curbside pickup and no contact delivery options,” says HungerRush user Mike Nelson of Little Pop’s Pizzeria. “Getting the word out through email and Facebook has increased our business by 75 percent.”

HungerRush continues to flourish in a crowded marketspace, which Chief Revenue Officer Olivier Thierry attributes to the platform’s accessibility to the audience and variety of features.

“While speaking to small business restaurant owners, we continued to hear the unique challenges they faced around having to navigate multiple delivery app interfaces, labor scheduling solutions, and other tools – resulting in many ending the month under their goal quotas, “ Thierry says. “Our tech tools arm our IOs to be able to manage omnichannel ordering, inventory, loyalty programs, and labor scheduling - but most importantly, support them where they need it the most to be successful in today’s digital world.”
Crityk's main goal is to be a marketing asset to restaurants. Getty Images

Restaurant-driven app focuses on Houston's food scene

order up

One night, Sumit Sikka was on a quest to find the best Moscow Mule in Santa Monica. He couldn't find anything helpful online, and when he finally did get a good recommendation, he was already done for the night.

It was through this experience that Sikka knew he wanted to make a restaurant finder app, but he wanted to do something different from Yelp or Google Reviews. On those platforms, a restaurant can get crushed by a bad review that provides false information. So, when he started getting the ball rolling on Crityk, he realized he needed to give the restaurants a voice.

"That was kind of the first big pivot," Sikka says. "First, we had an app based on user content. Then we pivoted to have content curated by the restaurant. For the first time ever, the restaurant gets to create their own profile."

The app launched on November 18 and has over 700 restaurant profiles live. There are 250 here in Houston, and 25 are clients, meaning they pay Crityk and have exclusive marketing opportunities, like promoting events — something most restaurants struggle to engage customers with.

"Restaurants do so much marketing, but they do the majority of it inside the restaurant," Sikka says. "Who's not going into your restaurant and not seeing that?"

Crityk users can log into the app and find different restaurant events around town to attend. Users can upload images of food from different restaurants. They rate the specific menu item, rather than the restaurant as a whole. Then, restaurants can link that photo to the specific menu item. Instead of comments on the picture, users can engage with hashtags. Any comments a user might have would go directly to the establishment to be resolved.

Another priority for Crityk is to have photos of every menu item the restaurant offers as well as complete dietary information. It's becoming more and more important for diners to know about vegan, gluten-free, etc. options before getting to the restaurant only to be disappointed with the selection.

Investing in Houston
While the idea came about in California, Sikka, who has a sister who lives in The Woodlands, took a trip to Houston to feel out consumer interest in the app. He hosted an event with a local restaurant and some influencers. The app kind of just exploded in town, Sikka says.

"I packed up some of my bags and decided to try here in Houston," Sikka says." It's a lot easier to get to decision makers here in Houston than in LA."

The development team is still based in India, and Crityk's co-founder, John Kegel, is still based in California. However, Sikka works out of Station Houston, something he says has been an extremely valuable. He says he's made some valuable connections through both Station and the Texas Restaurant Association.

"I think Houston is a phenomenal city to get started in. It's a big city, but it has the feeling of a small city."

Second course?
Still under two months old, the app has a lot of improvements and expansions in the works. Sikka says he wants to double the number of restaurant profiles to 500 by summer. He'd also like to grow the number of paying clients on the site, which would include more restaurants with a full photo menu on the app for users to browse.

Made for foodies

Screenshot via the Crityk app

Crityk is a free smartphone app that connects users to other users and to restaurants directly.

Vinegar Hill will be divided into a restaurant and a bar. Courtesy of Vinegar Hill

Former restaurant reemerges as showcase for up-and-coming Houston chefs

Chef incubator

A new concept aims to give chefs on the rise a space to get their feet wet. Vinegar Hill Houston will serve three distinct roles when it opens in November: A co-working space by day, a bar by night, and an incubator for the next generation of culinary talent by design.

Axelrad owner Adam Brackman and chef Monica Pope have taken over the original location of Beaver's and are turning it into the new concept. Vinegar Hill's name is taken from a nickname for the area now known as the Old Sixth Ward. The co-working aspect will provide people who have been working at coffee shops with a more comfortable environment that better suits their needs. Design changes to the space will separate the restaurant from the bar. General manager Shawn Busch will work with the space's bar manager to maintain Beaver's reputation for innovative cocktails, but it's the incubator that's the most intriguing aspect.

Described as a chefs-in-residency program, the incubator will provide chefs with the opportunity to refine their concepts before committing to a brick and mortar. Pope will offer participants mentorship based on her experience operating restaurants such as t'afia and Sparrow Bar + Cookshop.

"I'm passionate about working with entrepreneurs," Brackman tells CultureMap. "At Axelrad we have regular pop-ups. It's been neat to see these entrepreneurs go from ideas to buying food trucks, seeing these people grow and flourish. It's kind of the next step in that process."

Chefs will create two menus during this residency. The first is a dinner menu for a 30-seat area within the space that will require reservations. In addition, the chef will offer a menu of casual bar bites designed to be served in the bar area and on the patio. Residencies will typically last for three months, but Brackman also sees the potential for chefs from out of town to use Vinegar Hill for a week or two as a way to market themselves to Houstonians prior to opening here.

At a time when chefs might be considering a stand in one of Houston's new food halls, Brackman sees the setup at Vinegar Hill as an alternative for the person who wants a less permanent arrangement.

"This will be more of their own private restaurant within a bar that will give them a full kitchen to work with and be creative with their own menu and have more of a captive audience," he says. "They can do things like have wine and beer pairings. It's going to be more intimate than a food hall experience."

Evelyn Garcia, a one-time Chopped champion who has earned a devoted following for her Southeast Asian-inspired pop-ups, will take the first turn in Vinegar Hill's kitchen. "The opportunity to take my craft from a tent and portable stoves into a full kitchen and dining room to showcase what I am capable of is a thrilling opportunity," said Garcia in a statement.

"We would like to seek out the next person. We have a couple in mind," Brackman says. "The perfect candidate is someone who wants their next move to be opening a brick and mortar. We want to help them through a bit of mentorship and even crowd funding."

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.