By Eliana Block, for the Mitzpeh, @ElianaBlock
Mark Travis believes in retirement, so strongly that he left his job of 23 years at Corporate Benefit Partners to make sure parents have one. How? By cutting food costs racked-up by college kids.
“I spent a year reading about the $1 trillion college debt, and I just decided I had to do something,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t do anything about tuition or housing, but when I found out that almost 40 percent is not spent on housing or tuition … I realized there was something that could be done.”
Travis founded indiBULK, a wholesale food delivery service (accessible by website or app) that caters to students at this university, as well as American University. Travis’s team of ten promises a low cost alternative to grocery giants who “take advantage of students.”
“Big box stores offer prices that are artificially high on campus, and kids don’t really have time or cars,” Travis said.
Two years ago, the Bethesda, Maryland resident made it his mission to relieve students — and their parents — of the high cost of food on college campuses. He buys in bulk and divides items among individuals, who could go for a bag of Skittles, not a 30-count Skittles & Starburst Variety Pack for $23.99. He estimates each individual saves 25-30 percent with indiBULK.
Travis stores dry goods in a warehouse close to College Park, but picks up perishables from suppliers and delivers to students the same day. IndiBULK’s main supplier is Costco.
While online grocery moguls like Peapod and Amazon carry reputations for being fast and convenient, Jewish students have taken to indiBULK for its personalized touches, like having kosher meat hand-delivered to their dorms by the CEO himself.
“It’s free delivery and the guy who delivers it is the guy who runs it,” Akiva Gebler, a sophomore ecology and evolution major, said. “I think that’s pretty cool.”
Although Travis does not keep kosher and did not observe kashrut when he graduated University of Michigan in 1992, he said delivering kosher food to College Park makes him “proud.”
Travis estimated that nearly half of his 300-500 monthly customers purchase kosher food.
Gebler ordered kosher chicken from Travis this fall following a recommendation from his friend, sophomore Daniel Katz.
Katz had also heard about indiBULK from a friend last year. At the time, the virtual home-sale club didn’t offer kosher products, and Katz soon recognized the potential market at play. He left a message on Travis’s voicemail about how the campus-wide kosher food desert could prove to be a bold company move for indiBULK, and Travis called Katz the next day, met him at Maryland Hillel and asked Katz to become a brand ambassador.
“I helped at first to be that annoying Facebook aggressor,” Katz, a finance major, said. “At first the website was sketchy and people were turned off, at least in the Kedma (Orthodox) community, because they didn’t want to trust this random website when no one had used it before.”
Junior Marc Leeb, who studies supply chain management and information systems, said he was skeptical about the website but trusted Katz’s endorsement. In March 2014 indiBULK delivered its first kosher order to Leeb.
Though Katz has proven to be a successful face for the brand, both Leeb and Gebler agree that one of indiBULK’s major pitfalls is its online and app presence. Leeb said the website “could use a facelift.”
“If I had just found this website online, I probably wouldn’t have ordered there,” he said. “The word of mouth provides a lot of credibility.”
Gebler noted that indiBULK’s app, made with Como, a five-year-old Israeli brand, was slow and looked like “not much work went into it.”
Aside from Katz’s advertising, IndiBULK’s social media presence is almost nonexistent. The company’s most popular video on YouTube, titled “How indiBULK saves College Students lots of money,” was viewed 38 times. On iTunes, indiBulk’s app has no official customer rating, and has a total of 14 followers.
Justin Dekelbaum, the treasurer at Shalom Kosher, a strictly kosher market with a butcher shop in Silver Spring, Maryland, did not comment on how indiBULK would affect business.
Travis said he didn’t know his digital presence was perceived as basic, but like everything else in his company, he was open to suggestions for improvement.
“If customers are interested in giving me recommendations I’d be happy to [update the website and app] immediately,” Travis said.
The owner said the reason he loves hand-delivering packages to College Park is because it gives him an opportunity to crowdsource and find out what products students want.
Initially, students said they had to overcome the sketchiness of the little-known brand’s parking lot-meet-ups, but Katz vouched, “he’s the nicest guy in the world.”
“I could easily have someone else make the deliveries, but every time I meet with a client I ask for recommendations and suggestions, questions and concerns,” he said. “This is something anyone besides an owner wouldn’t care to get.”