A Sandwich, a Startup, and Soon, a Lawsuit? The Crunchbutton Story

It all started with a sandwich. As great stories often do.

Judd Rosenblatt was a senior at Yale. There is a popular food item among Yalies, called the Wenzel, consisting of a chicken cutlet sub with cheese, mayo, and hot sauce, made by a New Haven eatery. Rosenblatt and his partners made a mobile Web app, called One Button Wenzel, that allowed students to order the sandwich for delivery with one smartphone click. The result: $60,000 worth of Wenzels sold.

Last August, Rosenblatt relocated to Providence, RI, to take part in the Betaspring startup accelerator, along with his co-founders David Klumpp and Devin Smith. Their startup, called Crunchbutton, is now up and running in New Haven, Providence, and Washington, DC, with more cities in the works (such as Boston).

The idea has grown beyond a simple sandwich—but not that much. As Rosenblatt puts it, people tend to choose the same one or two items whenever they call a particular restaurant for delivery or take-out. And restaurants tend to have a few popular items that they make particularly well. Why not match up supply and demand with a smart button that makes ordering super-simple?

“This puts the emphasis on top food from top restaurants,” Rosenblatt says. “You know when you place an order on Crunchbutton, what you get is going to be good.”

And, the laziness of today’s youth aside, how can you not like a company whose Twitter profile consisted of “Food ordering, easy as shit”? (Now it’s “Push a button. Get food.”)

Enter Brown University. Having graduated from Betaspring, Crunchbutton replicated its Yale model by setting up a delivery service for Brown students to order the popular “Spicy With” sandwich from Jo’s, a campus eatery operated by Brown Dining Services. The effort was a hit, generating buzz among students. At the same time, Crunchbutton was working with other restaurants around Providence.

Then, on December 6, Crunchbutton received a “cease and desist” letter from Brown’s associate counsel, Edward von Gerichten. The letter, addressed to Rosenblatt, said in part: “Through Crunchbutton you are engaging in various activities that are trading upon the good name/reputation of Brown University, using its facilities and goods for personal private gain and without authorization, and holding out Crunchbutton in such a manner so as to create confusion in the minds of the community that there is a business relationship between Brown University and Crunchbutton when in fact no such relationship exists.”

The letter went on to demand that Crunchbutton stop listing Jo’s on its website; stop offering delivery service from any Brown dining establishment; stop collecting student ID numbers (for payment purposes); destroy any retained ID numbers; and stop using Brown facilities for any marketing or promotional activities.

Rosenblatt says he complied with these demands. On Dec. 12, he wrote an e-mail back to von Gerichten, saying as much. But the lawyer wrote back the next day, saying he still saw Brown’s product listed on Crunchbutton’s Web page and that there were indications that the campus delivery service would resume (as well as a “defamatory” statement involving liver damage). Rosenblatt wrote back disputing that there was any indication that delivery of “Spicy With” would continue, and apologizing for what he called a joke (which he said was “made in poor taste”).

Meanwhile, in late February, Crunchbutton started working with a Providence restaurant, off campus, to sell and deliver the equivalent of a “Spicy With” sandwich— “except much fresher and tastier,” says Rosenblatt.

The startup has heard nothing more from Brown directly. But Rosenblatt says the same Brown lawyer started “harassing Betaspring” on March 18 with e-mails and phone calls to the accelerator’s partners and office manager; Rosenblatt says his interpretation was that the university was “preparing to serve us” with a lawsuit.

“Brown purports to support innovation,” he says, “when in fact they are a big bureaucracy that does the opposite.”

An e-mail to Brown’s von Gerichten seeking comment was not returned as of this morning. (I’ll update this post if I hear back.)

Now it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the startup will … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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