Marcy Miller, owner of Organic Sandwich Company, was out of town on Dec. 30 when the Marshall Fire began to spread. Her husband called with the news, but she couldn’t quite envision the scope of the damage to come. 

Within a few short hours, the parking lot of her sandwich shop’s Louisville location was on fire, and her assistant manager’s vehicle was almost completely blocked by the flames. A fellow employee dove into the car through the trunk to help move it to safety. The fire was so close it melted one of her car’s doors.

Miller’s restaurant survived, but hardships for the business owner and her employees were just beginning. Lack of electricity and potable water, along with a significant post-fire cleanup effort, meant Miller wasn’t able to reopen until Jan. 10. 

When she did, Miller’s focus was not on recouping lost business, but on helping those affected by the fire.

One Organic Sandwich Company employee lost their home and belongings. Another still can’t get back into their house due to extensive smoke damage.  Miller pitched in where she could — including a shopping trip to Ramble, a local nonprofit clothing store training people with disabilities, to help support the worker who lost their home. She also offered free meals to fire victims at both the Boulder and Louisville locations of her shop. 

And Miller wasted no time contacting Nosh Boulder to see what they could do to help. The restaurant-owned food delivery service had been a vital community partner during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, offering a financially feasible delivery option for local dining establishments as indoor dining plummeted. Now, with the Boulder County community in need more than ever, it was time to step up again.

More than a delivery service

Miller is part owner in Nosh Boulder, along with 16 other restaurateurs who collectively own the homegrown alternative to corporate food delivery services like Grubhub, Uber Eats and DoorDash. With on-the-ground local staff and a business model that’s financially feasible for restaurants, the idea behind the delivery co-op is to provide Boulder with a locally owned and operated, sustainable option for delivering local food to homes and businesses. 

From marketing to management, the company radiates an ethos that is for the community, by the community. 

Coming to the aid of Marshall Fire victims was a natural response for Nosh owners and administrators. With many local restaurants eager to donate free meals to fire victims, Nosh Director of Operations Nick Graham quickly recruited volunteers to deliver free food to those who needed it. Within one week of posting a Google sign-up sheet, Graham gathered more than 250 individuals willing to help deliver meals. 

But in the end, the Boulder and Louisville communities seemed saturated with relief efforts and the need for meal delivery just wasn’t there. So Graham has reached out to the Boulder Office of Emergency Management to see where Nosh’s dispatchers and drivers can be of service next. He says the goal is “to support the existing volunteer effort, not undercut it or create a new one.”

Other Nosh restaurants have stepped up individually to aid the fire victims too. The Sink, a popular Boulder institution nearing its 100th year in business, generated $6,000 in a fundraiser for fire victims. That money was converted to gift cards to the restaurant, distributed at the Marshall Fire Free Store in Louisville. 

“It’s just the right thing to do,” says Mark Heinritz, co-owner of The Sink. “There are people without kitchens. They’re totally stressed out, and they just need a moment away from that. If we can help provide that, then we’re happy to do it.”

This isn’t the only way Nosh restaurants have contributed to the community over the past year. On the first Monday of each month, the company donates 10 percent of its proceeds to one of several philanthropy partners. On the third Monday of each month, that same percentage of revenue is donated to a local elementary school or daycare. Graham says that Give Back Mondays are on hold for the start of the year while the company organizes its finances, but he says Nosh plans to resume the program in early March. 

Philanthropic endeavors aside, Nosh also bolsters the community through its operational model. Whereas the large, national delivery companies hit restaurants with service fees upwards of 30%, Nosh’s fees amount to half of that — a margin that allows restaurant owners to profit off the exchange instead of coming out in the red. 

Currently, Nosh delivery fees are being subsidized by the City of Boulder through Feb. 28, which makes deliveries free for both restaurants and their customers. The subsidy program was originally set to expire on Dec. 31 but was extended by the City of Boulder last month.

Donovan Bender, team lead for Organic Sandwich Company, working at the shop’s Pearl Street location in Boulder on Sunday, Jan. 23. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

‘A hyperlocal business

Nosh team member and driver, Ed Weiskopf, finds satisfaction in the personal interactions of his day-to-day role. Having driven for the company for over a year, Weiskopf knows Boulder restaurant owners on a first-name basis and enjoys chatting about local happenings when he arrives for pick-ups. 

Weiskopf says his input is highly valued by Nosh leadership. Once every few months, Gleidson Gouveia, founder of Nosh, attends focus groups with a handful of drivers to hear what’s working and what’s not. For Weiskopf, this makes Nosh stand out against the corporate giants. “Big companies don’t take your input or suggestions,” he says. “You just trudge along.”

The value placed on personal interaction extends to the customer experience, too. If someone has a problem with an order, they get a real human being on the phone, as opposed to a robot on an app. The difference that makes can be stark for both customers and restaurants. 

“Food delivery is naturally a hyperlocal business,” says Samantha Dalal, a Ph.D. student in information sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “A problem with a lot of the larger business models is that they try to generalize food delivery and make it standardized across the nation, but that really doesn’t work.”

Since last summer, Dalal and research colleagues at Princeton have been engaged in a study of what makes Nosh attractive to its stakeholders. A key takeaway: As a local business, Nosh can troubleshoot problems for both restaurants and consumers much better than their national counterparts.

Dalal cites road closures as an example. Whereas Uber Eats drivers would get penalized for not delivering an order quickly enough, Nosh drivers would get on the phone with a local dispatcher who could suggest an alternative route — a fix possible only because that dispatcher has local knowledge of the community they’re serving. 

This hyperlocal focus lends itself to addressing Boulder County’s unique needs in the wake of disasters like the Marshall Fire and Covid-19 pandemic. But in order for Nosh to grow its mission to serve as a community partner, the support needs to go both ways.  

Two-way street 

Despite apparent benefits of a service like Nosh, some restaurant owners still struggle to get customers to order through the platform.

Heinritz says 75% of The Sink’s delivery orders still come through the big national companies. And he feels pressure to remain on the platforms in order not to lose business. “Because everyone else is on the big three, we kind of feel like we have to be on there too,” says Heinritz. 

Part of the problem could be customer awareness. Miller speculates that people simply may not know about Nosh as an alternative. She says another barrier is getting consumers to change their habits. “People get set in their ways and, even if they know it’s the right thing to do, it’s not always easy to switch,” Miller says. 

Dalal says a service like Nosh only works when the community buys in. While Nosh has supported restaurant owners and hungry residents through the Covid-19 pandemic and Marshall Fire, it also depends on those same communities for support. The government plays an important role, too.

“Nosh probably would not be here without the really generous subsidies from the Boulder government,” Dalal says. “It’s important to know that this type of business model needs to be subsidized by both public funding and public support from the community.” 

Back at Organic Sandwich Company, fresh off its narrow escape from the destruction of the Marshall Fire, Miller is quick to offer gratitude to her community for keeping her business afloat over the last year and more. For her, it’s a no-brainer that she would give back to the same community that has helped her store thrive. 

“We’ve been through the wringer as restaurants the past few years,” Miller says. “But we’ve felt supported. Now we’ve got to offer that support.”