Bay Area startup pioneers zero waste restaurant delivery with reusable containers

ByDan Ashley and Jennifer Olney KGO logo
Thursday, July 30, 2020
Bay Area startup pioneers zero waste food delivery
A big demand for restaurant takeout and delivery during the pandemic is creating a lot of trash, so a Bay Area startup called Dispatch Goods is now offering delivery with zero waste. They bring the food to your door, then pick up the dirty dishes later.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The huge demand for restaurant takeout and delivery during the novel coronavirus pandemic is creating a serious side effect for the environment. Most takeout food comes with a lot of trash and it's ending up on streets, in waterways and piling up in landfills.

As part of ABC7's focus on Building a Better Bay Area we are introducing you to a local entrepreneur who is changing up her workplace to help put the brakes on an epidemic of waste.

Lindsey Hoell is a business school student and an entrepreneur, but she would not be where is today if she were not also a surfer.

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Hoell and her husband were hiking to remote beaches to surf when they first saw the long reach of plastic pollution.

"The sand looked like it was all rainbow colored. I picked up a handful of the sand and I realized it was all micro-plastics and this is just what was washing up from the ocean. That's when it clicked to me that this isn't a small problem, this is an enormous problem" Hoell said.

That started Hoell on a crusade to cut waste and led her to work with the Surfrider Foundation helping restaurants switch to more sustainable practices, including eliminating trash.

They were making progress but Hoell found a major obstacle. "There was not a good (zero waste) solution for restaurants that did a high volume of takeout and delivery. So I decided I was going to go back to school and help figure out how to help solve this problem."

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Hoell got accepted to the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley. She connected with a team and joined the SkyDeck Accelerator program which helped her launch a zero waste business called Dispatch Goods.

Dispatch Goods partnered with a few San Francisco employers including Yelp, then recruited San Francisco restaurants to put takeout lunches in reusable containers. After employees ate the food, they put the dirty dishes in containers at their offices. Dispatch Goods would pick up the dishes, clean them and take them back to restaurants to be used again.

"What we found was there was a huge demand for this. Things were happening super quickly, and then right when we were launching with some big companies in March obviously the pandemic hit" Hoell recalled.

Suddenly offices were empty and most takeout food was being delivered to people's homes. Hoell and her team were devastated, but within a few days they started to reinvent their business, still focusing on zero waste, but with a new plan to deliver prepared meals in reusable containers straight to your door.

The new business required a lot of experimenting and some complicated choreography to figure out how to move food and reusable dishes to and from homes, but still keep delivery costs down.

"It's really difficult when you are a small business and cash is tight. So Dispatch Goods is providing a solution for us to do something that is sustainable where the cost is not all a burden for us" said Wendy Kawada with Kasa Indian Eatery, one of Dispatch Goods restaurant partners.

CORONAVIRUS IMPACT: Survey shows Bay Area restaurants lost money from takeout, delivery

A new report conducted by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association puts it concretely that many Bay Area restaurants have suffered major financial losses from the shelter-in-place order.

This is how the Dispatch Goods system works: Customers order from a range of popular restaurants on Dispatch Goods' website or app. You can order from multiple restaurants at the same time. The food is delivered twice a week and although the meals are fully cooked, they arrive cold.

"It's confusing at first. Nobody is used to ordering restaurant food cold with the anticipation of reheating it. But once people do it, they're like - oh this is great" Hoell said.

You heat and eat the food, then save the dishes. "We just give them a quick rinse, throw them in a bag and then forget about it" said customer Joe Grasso who has used Dispatch Goods multiple times.

Then on the next delivery day, you put out your bag full of dishes for pick up at the same time your next order arrives. If you do not order again, Dispatch Goods will still pick up your dishes for free.

"The whole system is zero waste. It's a reusable thermal bag, reusable restaurant bags and all the containers are stainless steel or glass" according to Hoell.

The dirty dishes and bags are taken to a commercial kitchen where they are washed, packed in sealed containers, then delivered back to restaurants to be used again.

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Customer Stephanie Ciancio was very enthusiastic, "I found it was a really good fit for this concern. I was feeling over the piles of plastic takeout containers."

The International Solid Waste Association estimates that since the start of the pandemic single-use plastic products have increased more than 250%. Most cannot be easily recycled, so the Dispatch Goods team is hoping for more than just a successful business, they want to lead a movement for change away from single-use containers.

"We are just really excited to have other collaborators, other companies, as well as our customers that are just really cheering us on" said Maia Tekle, a Dispatch Goods co-founder.

There is so much demand for zero waste takeout Dispatch Goods is already expanding its service.

Starting the week of August 3, some of Dispatch Goods partner restaurants will offer reusable containers as an option for customers who pick up their takeout food themselves. If a customer chooses reusable containers, Dispatch Goods will then pick up the dirty dishes at the customer's home on specified days, just like it does for delivery customers.

Dispatch Goods only delivers in San Francisco right now, but has plans to start delivery in parts of the East Bay soon.

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