- Chris Acker, executive director of U.V.E.R., picks up a delivery order at Boloco Modern Mexican in Hanover, N.H., on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. U.V.E.R., or the Upper Valley Eateries and Retail Consumer Cooperative Society, Inc., is working with area restaurants to create a local alternative to major food delivery companies like Grubhub and Uber Eats. (Valley News / Report For America – Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to email@example.com. Alex Driehaus» Buy this Image
HANOVER — After nearly a year and no profits to show for it, an Upper Valley delivery co-op has gone out of business.
The Upper Valley Eateries and Retail Consumer Cooperative Society, better known as UVER, was started by three Hanover restaurant owners who were tired of losing money to national delivery services like GrubHub, DoorDash and Uber Eats.
“I think it was a great idea and a lot of good intention here, but it ended up being, as a result of timing, and just some peculiarities in our region, it ended up being very hard to execute,” said Jarett Berke, owner of Lou’s Restaurant & Bakery, who launched UVER along with Boloco’s John Pepper, and Nigel Leeming, of Murphy’s on the Green. “I absolutely think something like this can exist, but they say that for a business to succeed it needs to be a good idea, it needs to be well funded and it needs to be well executed. I think we had a good idea, I think we did a pretty good job of executing it, but we were not well funded.”
In order to be successful, Berke said they needed to have 30 restaurants sign up and 1,000 people become members by purchasing a $25 share.
“Despite a lot of effort we were only able to get 15 restaurants to sign on and we had assumed the college would be a big part of our … membership and really the students never got onto the system,” Berke said.
Part of that was the delivery fee, which was $6 to start and grew the farther away the driver had to go.
“It had to be because the distances were far and we wanted insure our drivers were fairly compensated,” Berke said. If a student wanted to purchase a burrito from Boloco, for example, they may be spending more on delivery and tip than the food itself. “We found a lot more success with local families but it wasn’t enough to get UVER to break even.”
The cooperative never turned a profit, losing money each month. For each $6 delivery fee, the co-op got $2 and drivers earned $4, with mileage for longer trips. At the time of its closing, UVER had a dozen drivers on call. Of those, five or six regularly took deliveries.
The trio put “many tens of thousands of investment into it to try to get it to a point to break even and we just couldn’t get there,” Berke said. Pepper, Berke and Leeming also have businesses and families of their own to support. “I think we were close. I really do.”
Over the months, they tried setting different delivery rates, among other changes, in an effort to make the business profitable. In May, UVER’s sole full-time employee, executive director Chris Acker, resigned. That played into their decision to shut down.
Funding was the main challenge. UVER simply did not have the startup money it needed to really make a go of it.
“Even with steady growth and amazing local support over this time, we were unable to maintain the financial stability required to hire much-needed staffing. In the end, it came down to a shortage of capacity,” Acker wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, my requests for support could not be met due to our financial position and it was no longer sustainable for me to continue.”
While they had been in talks with the Hanover Co-op to take on deliveries, that never came to fruition.
Additionally, they were never able to recruit a pizzeria, Pepper said, which could have led to more customers.
“As a local co-op we really relied on what I call the irrational support by the local community as opposed to yet again being another one of these tech companies that raises millions of dollars to buy awareness and buy customers,” Pepper said. “We needed it to work organically and by word of mouth. It quite frankly wasn’t good enough to be able to do that.”
Boloco continued employing its own drivers throughout UVER’s lifespan.
During any given shift, there are usually two drivers working, Pepper said. While he had talked to them about becoming drivers for UVER, there wasn’t much interest.
“Our delivery drivers make a ton of money, and to move into more of a contract delivery situation, our drivers just won’t do it,” Pepper said. “There’s something still missing in the model for the worker, for the actual delivery driver. There needs to be some kind of compensation they can count on. At the same time the benefit is you get to make your own hours so how do we combine the two?”
Another challenge was the timing. Coming out of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants have had to cut back hours due to staff shortages at a time when more people felt comfortable eating out again.
“You kind of have this perfect storm where we started this delivery business during the pandemic when it would have been very useful,” Berke said. “When we kind of hit our stride and were up and running, people were going out to eat again and restaurants were struggling to have a full staff.”
Even if UVER was able to bring restaurants additional customers, there’s a chance “that they may not even want them because they can’t even seat the people in their dining room,” Berke said.
Tracy Hutchins, executive director of the Upper Valley Business Alliance, agreed that timing and finances played a part. She lauded the founders for establishing the business as a coop and remaining community focused.
“I think this was the best idea and the timing may have been off,” said Hutchins, who was also a member of UVE.’s board. “If there was a way to maybe gather some investment and try it again, it could be successful. And honestly I think the Upper Valley is probably the prime location for it just because there is such a commitment to shopping locally and supporting local. I think it could take off in a future time.”
Pepper, Acker and Berke agreed. “UVER was really close to getting this right,” Acker wrote in an email. “I’d be interested to see if more funding from the beginning could give a locally owned delivery service a better shot.”