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

4/2/13Follow @gthuang

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be hauled into court. One of Crunchbutton’s Boston-area angel investors, Semyon Dukach (who met the company through Betaspring), says, “I am not aware of a single illegal thing they did. I haven’t seen anything improper. This is a total misunderstanding of what they do.”

To be fair, Dukach has started giving out a $10,000 “Troublemaker Award” to young people this year, and he’s a former MIT Blackjack team leader, so he’s drawn to controversy (and thumbing one’s nose at the establishment).

As Dukach sees it, Brown is shooting itself in the foot when it comes to promoting entrepreneurship and the local economy.

“Lo and behold, here they are [Crunchbutton] on a path to creating jobs around food delivery, restaurants, and startups, and what do they get? Threat of legal action,“ he says. “On some level, Brown wants to work with Providence and attract a startup ecosystem. But they’re trying to protect some narrow interest. Crunchbutton can’t even get through to them. What do we do? We thought this would be a really welcoming place. They easily could have gone to the West Coast. This wouldn’t happen in Palo Alto or MIT.”

Indeed, if Brown tries to impede the startup with a lawsuit, that would send a very different message from the one its students tend to get.

“Brown really encourages entrepreneurship,” says Cliff Weitzman, a Brown freshman who does Crunchbutton marketing on the side (he’s a double major and has his own startup too). “The administration is so accommodating. It really makes it a priority to make life for students amazing.” At the same time, he says, “Students really like Crunchbutton. It has that entrepreneurship air about it—students can feel that.” (Something’s got to give here.)

The bigger idea in all of this is that consumers want choices, but they also seem to want simplicity and smart curation. Too many choices, as anyone with a smartphone or Web connection will attest, can be overwhelming.

Crunchbutton is still in early days, but it seems to have hit upon a good market for digital simplicity. Rosenblatt admits his service is “pretty addicting for repeat users because they only have to push a single button.” (The company takes a cut of each order from participating restaurants; the idea is to bring them more business.)

And so the startup forges on. One intriguing idea down the road: a refrigerator magnet that has a “crunchbutton” on it that you press to get your favorite foods delivered. A more immediate advance, already live, is a user interface that lets people recommend restaurants in any city, not just Providence, New Haven, or Washington, DC. The five-person Crunchbutton team has gotten good at signing up eateries over the phone, Rosenblatt says—a product of the founders’ experience selling ads to support Yale’s humor magazine.

On the tactical side, his company bears a slight resemblance to another addictive, Ivy League campus-based startup that found fairer fruit away from home. But whether Crunchbutton, and others like it, follow Facebook’s path out of New England remains to be seen.

“The next step is expanding to the top places across the country,” Rosenblatt says.

And if Brown doesn’t want Crunchbutton on campus, well, Stanford probably wouldn’t object.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • Jerry Jeff

    I interact with a lot of universities these days and my experience is that they guard the use of their names and logos very strictly. If you think these guys could operate by re-selling (for example) Stata Center Sushi with no interference from MIT I think you’re wrong. But hey, prove otherwise and I’ll buy some. Food delivery is super popular in some parts of the world, so there’s probably a big opportunity in US cities. But the key will be to have willing partners and not try to piggyback on a recognizable name without getting permission.

  • Anthony Hopkins

    Wow, check out the site–pretty cool concept, no wonder it works.

    Seems like the university is trampling all over these guys, not understanding they’re a startup. I know Ivy League schools well, and they’re as bureaucratic as they come.

  • Rick Ross

    I am a Betaspring alum. The ultimate irony is that Brown funds Betaspring — so in effect they’re basically suing themselves.

  • Rick Ross

    I am a Betaspring alum. The ultimate irony is that Brown funds Betaspring — so in effect they’re basically suing themselves.

  • Andy

    What I don’t understand is the responsibility for the food’s quality/safety. A listed Chinese place pays it’s own drivers to ensure the order is delivered in a way that represents the best interests of the restaurant. There’s no guarantee with Crunchbutton; if your order is cold, wrong, or damaged/tampered with, Crunchbutton assumes no culpability and tells you to call the restaurant.

    • Ian

      The store is still responsible for the delivery. Crunchbutton is simply calling in the order for you.

    • Ian

      The store is still responsible for the delivery. Crunchbutton is simply calling in the order for you.

    • nynetguy

      Crunchbutton neither delivers nor prepares the food. All they supply is a streamlined (though technically unnecessary) middle-man with which to place the order. The purpose is to simplify the ordering process thereby getting people to order more frequently. This, in turn, generates more money for the partnering restaurant as well as Crunchbutton so it’s a “win-win”. Think of it like the Amazon “One-Click” option. In 2006 Amazon released a study which contended that for every 100ms they could speed up the ordering process they generated an incremental 1% in revenue. That’s huge.

  • voxnulla

    Fuckers with lawyers. If the next great purge involves them…collateral damage.

    • nynetguy

      Does that apply to lawyers who help you or just those who do things you don’t like? If the former then you’re ridiculously idiotic. If the latter then you’re ridiculously hopeless.

      • Craig

        Most lawyers do neither. They are a symptom of a broken system.

  • Chicopo

    What a shame for the Brown University!!! The University should be pround that these students are innovatives, entrepreneurs and create a succesful business! Universities produce millions of jobless graduates, hugely indebted!!! Brown’s associate counsel, Edward von Gerichten …. YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE!

  • nynetguy

    I was on Brown’s side up until they started harassing the Crunchbutton for using a replacement service. If the “Spice With” sandwich cam from their own stores then they had every right, stupid as it was, to demand Crunchbutton stopped carrying them. That’s fully their right. But to continue to harass because they switched to a competitor providing a similar sandwich is just stupid and vindictive.

  • Truthspew

    Like it or not, Brown is a business that will protect anything to do with it’s name come hell or high water.

    That said, I think the University is overreacting here. It’s fairly ridiculous that they’d even sent a cease and desist.