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

4/2/13Follow @gthuang

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 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 or call him at 617-252-7323. 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.