Albany County

Heaping Helpings: Food ordering and delivery service firm Latham-based Mealeo has grown ‘1,000%’ in pandemic

Left: Mealeo owner Blake Hanan stands outside one of his delivery cars; Right: Mealeo “superhero” A.J. Mahar takes a delivery from Genoa Importing Co.’s deli “superhero” clerk Jason Sowek in Loudonville
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Left: Mealeo owner Blake Hanan stands outside one of his delivery cars; Right: Mealeo “superhero” A.J. Mahar takes a delivery from Genoa Importing Co.’s deli “superhero” clerk Jason Sowek in Loudonville

While life for many in the Capital Region slowed down, for Blake Hanan, founder of Mealeo, things only sped up.

The Latham-based company, which works with local restaurants to provide online ordering and delivery services, went from delivering fewer than 100 orders per day to upwards of 5,000.

“We grew 1,000% when the pandemic hit,” Hanan said.

It’s a far cry from where the company started. Hanan, a Clifton Park native, began his career playing professional baseball with the Baltimore Orioles organization. In 2006, after about two years, he retired and moved back home, eventually landing a pharmaceutical sales job with Pfizer.

It was while working for the company that he got the idea for Mealeo. Each week, he’d have to set up lunches for different doctors’ offices he was planning to meet with.

“I was spending a lot of my day doing a lot of meal coordination. I had menus on the front seat of my car and coming out of my glove box. I was supposed to be selling medicine, but I spent half my time setting up these lunches and these catered events for all these doctors’ offices,” Hanan said.

He started asking around at restaurants to see if he could prearrange any of the orders online.

“Long story short, not a single one of my restaurants, not one of their websites offered the ability to place an order online or in advance,” Hanan said.

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That was in 2007, well before DoorDash, GrubHub and Uber Eats had become household names.

Hanan thought: “I can’t be the only person who would like to sit down at my computer, and at my own leisure and my own pace, look at a menu and place the orders in advance.” He decided to create a platform himself, and did so while continuing to work for Pfizer and saving money to develop the software and website.

“It sounds simple today because it’s not new technology that you can place an order online for anything,” Hanan said. “[But] that wasn’t really happening back then. I set out to build it. I didn’t know how it would go, but I just thought, ‘If I would like the convenience of ordering online from local restaurants, there’s got to be hundreds of other people that want to do that,’ ” Hanan said.

It took about a year to create, using Hanan’s funding as well as funding from his brother. At the time, the service did not include delivery. It was solely for ordering online for pickup.

At first, getting restaurants on board was a huge hurdle.

“Their first question [was] always, ‘Well, what other restaurants are working with you?’ And the answer was a big fat zero,” Hanan said.

Mr. Fuji Sushi & Hibachi in Clifton Park was the first on the platform and other restaurants slowly came on board. Still, within the first month of business, Hanan said, the company brought in only about $300 in total sales.

“It was not looking good. It was not looking promising. Then in month two, we did $600 in sales,” Hanan said.

Things may have grown slowly, but Hanan kept working at it. Little by little people started to catch on, especially as similar national companies became more prominent.

Then in 2017, the company was met with another challenge.

“[Restaurants] started asking me, ‘Can you do our deliveries?’ ” Hanan said.

At first he simply said no. But then he started hearing the same request from more and more restaurant owners, some pointing out that GrubHub and other national platforms offered delivery services.

“I went back to the office one day to my team and I said, ‘Listen, if another restaurant asks me if we deliver I’m saying yes because I don’t want to let a restaurant down and have them go to Uber Eats or some national brand where they charge the hell out of them with fees,’ ” Hanan said. “ ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do this, but the next restaurant that says can you guys deliver, I’m saying yes.’ ”

Sure enough, another restaurant asked, and Hanan and his team figured out a way to make delivery work.

“Fast forward to today, we’re delivering for nearly 300 restaurants in the Capital Region. We have nearly 300 delivery drivers. When the pandemic hit last year, we were doing literally 3,000 to 5,000 orders a day,” Hanan said.

Similar to other platforms, Mealeo contracts with restaurants to offer online ordering and delivery, charging a certain percentage per order. If restaurants only use Mealeo, the platform doesn’t charge anything for pickup orders and may charge roughly 15% for delivery, which is lower than the national competitors, according to Hanan.

Restaurants that also use GrubHub and other platforms will be charged less than 10% for pickup and a market rate for delivery. The system is meant to reward restaurants that work exclusively with Mealeo. In turn, the company only works with local restaurants.

About three years after founding the company, Hanan had expanded into New York City, Florida and North Carolina, but found it left the business hurting back home.

“By trying to go bigger and expand, I was diluting our focus on the Capital Region. So we decided to go all Capital Region in 2010 or ‘11. Since then we haven’t provided service to a single restaurant outside of the Capital Region,” Hanan said. “We get requests from people in Colorado, California [and] we had 100 restaurants in New York City, 50 in Charlotte. … We were working with them, but I said we’re going to go regional. We’re going to grow our footprint in the region and that’s where our sole focus is going to be.”

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While Mealeo has grown over the years, 2020 took things to a new level. With New York state regulations limiting the capacity at restaurants, many people turned to pickup and delivery, using Mealeo for the first time.

“We’ve gotten a lot more customers who never even knew that online ordering was a thing,” Hanan said.

At the same time, more and more restaurants began requesting delivery and pickup service. There’s a waiting list of more than 140 local restaurants trying to get signed on to the platform, according to Hanan.

One barrier to signing them up? Finding enough drivers to meet the demand.

“We’ve got to hire them, train them, we’ve got to work with them and guide them to get on the roads. So keeping up with the demand is the hardest part,” Hanan said.

They’ve continued to hire more drivers, and many are making decent money, according to Hanan.

“We pay the drivers over $9 per delivery on average. It’s great money. The drivers make phenomenal money with this,” Hanan said. “Mealeo is a volume business, meaning we might only make a dollar or two by delivering an order, the driver gets 90% of the money and that’s how we survive. Our motto is happy drivers means happy customers and happy restaurants. So we’re fine giving the driver the majority of the revenue on an average order.”

Even though restrictions have eased in terms of restaurant capacity, Hanan doesn’t expect things to slow down for Mealeo.

“I believe that delivery and contactless ordering, contactless payment . . . all of that is here to stay,” Hanan said. “So even if delivery is not as popular as it was during the pandemic — which I think it will be because, like I said, people are figuring out they can eat in the comfort of their own home and the meal tastes the same — there’s other benefits, like earning rewards when you order.”

For information, visit mealeo.com.

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