Sophie Sajnani is a young leader in the tech industry. During the pandemic, she heard about how Uber Eats and other food apps were taking a large cut of the restaurant's profits and how that was hurting restaurants. On that same day, she launched Bellevue Bites, a free and promotional platform that chairs deals from local restaurants when customers ordered directly from them rather than through a third party app. She has since hosted Five Food Crawls in two cooking classes in the US and Canada to raise over $15,000 for restaurants and other important causes. As she enters her last year of high school, she continues to explore how technology can be used for social good. Sophie, welcome to Lost in the Supermarket.
Sophie: Thank you so much, Phil. Thank you for having me.
Phil: So, you know, I've gotta say, you know, you're a high school student, you obviously have eaten out a lot. What gave you the passion to help these restaurateurs?
Sophie: Yeah, I think it really started in March of 2020. So, you know, we saw a lot of these local restaurants really struggling along from packing to close down and switching out to only takeout. And so being someone who was a foodie and loves supporting local businesses and restaurants, how I try to think about what I could do and I had a little bit of computer science experience at the time and I all had a lot of free time on my hands. So with that I started drafting up some ideas and ways to help and Bellevue Bites somehow came to light from, from that drafting and just brainstorming up ways to help.
Phil: So helping is one thing, running a business is another thing. So, you know, as you started this business, what are some of the obstacles and things that you discovered that you said, oh my gosh, I never thought I had to worry about this?
Sophie: Oh goodness. Yeah, it's definitely a lot. I think because I had started it in my freshman year of high school and that was obviously like, everything's switching or remote. And it was my first year of high school. I definitely had, like I said, a lot of free time on my hands, but I think having not had any experience in the restaurant or food industry before was definitely challenging. And I literally would have to cold call restaurants, pitch them my idea. And I think also just having the age, being a little bit of a behringer at, for first I kind of had to prove myself and get credibility. so that was definitely challenging at first. But I sometimes, you know, you have to push yourself and put yourself out there and start developing relationships.
Phil: So, you know, what I want you to do is I, I want you to pitch me. I own Phil's Diner. you heard about me, you heard that I had great food. Why should I go into business with you?
Sophie: Yeah. So if, I know you had kind of given a little bit of a summary about Bellvue Bites, but the nice thing about the website is that restaurants usually pay a lot of money to Uber Eats in these third party food apps. And the reason they do that is because the convenience fee surcharge, some restaurants will pay up to $35,000 a year, which is almost amounting to their rent. So the nice thing about having deals and being a part of Bellevue Bites is A) you encourage people to order directly from the restaurant, right? That extra incentive, that 10 to 15% off that they get, encourages them to avoid those third party apps. And then B) those deals that you're offering are mutually less of those convenience between you to rather otherwise be paying. So win-win both for the restaurants and the customers, that also just allows you to reach new customers and reach new people that you might not have been able to before.
Phil: So during the pandemic, there were a lot of states, that capped fees for GrubHub and Uber Eats to 15%. Now those are disappearing that the pandemic is over and in some cases they're going back up to 30%. So I'm assuming that you're having a lot of restaurants call you, and say, Hey, we want to be part of Bellevue Bites.
Sophie: Yeah, definitely. There hasn't been much on legislation work to reapprove those permanent fee caps. So a lot of the major cities are seeing when those restaurants still struggling and now also with other economic issues of our time besides just the pandemic restaurants are just struggling even more and the hefty fees are not helping them at all. so hopefully we can start transitioning back to the fee caps and start a sort of start controlling some of these monopoly businesses, that are, that are rolling the food industry. But I think just taking these small steps to sort of disrupt that, that that's the right direction.
Phil: So you have it on a website now. I know you're developing an app, so people can do it from their phone. I guess the logical question that I've gotta ask you is how, how are you making money?
Sophie: Well, no money here. There is no money made. When I had started this, like I mentioned, I really started it because I wanted to support local businesses and I wanted there to be a way for me to help and contribute to my community. And we're registered nonprofit, so all the money we raised from our events go straight back to restaurants and there's no advertising on our website. So it truly is a direct restaurant to restaurant nonprofit. And yeah, no, no money is made, at least on my end.
Phil: So, you know, you're a a computer geek, you started coding, you know, I guess when you were in middle school. So you built the entire website yourself.
Sophie: Yeah, that's correct. So that was another one of the challenging parts and they had asked what some of the challenging aspects of it. And that definitely was another, another part that was tough because again, being first year in high school, I had had that computer science experience, but it wasn't to the level where I could completely develop a platform by myself. So I had to teach myself a lot and do a lot of self-learning to complete the website. But once I did, I just started spreading the word and sharing it with ever and I knew to help, you know, get the word out there and get the community involved.
Phil: So, you know, you're gonna graduate high school this year, you're going off to college. Do you know where you're going yet?
Sophie: I don't. I just kind of got done with the college application process, which is very stressful. But hopefully still on the west coast, but we'll see.
Phil: Okay. What do you wanna do with your life? You've done something meaningful, you obviously have a passion for the food world. I would hate to lose you to somebody like Microsoft or somebody else. What do you want to do when you grow up?
Sophie: I definitely want to continue contributing to the tech industry, but I wanna do it in a way that contributes to social good and improves lives. Whether that there's so many, I think intersections with tech, you can explore tech in the food industry, explore tech in the healthcare industry. So I definitely want to use my skills to help improve lives and to create a better future. I don't know quite what that will look like yet, but I'm hoping to study computer science in college to help get those skills of prepare myself.
Phil: So where would you like to see Bellevue Bites in a year from now, five years from now?
Sophie: I definitely just wanna see it continue to expand and reach other cities. And I think one thing about Bellevue violates is even if these cities start imposing these permanent fee caps, I think restaurants will always need our support. They always need our communities to support them. So I think continuing to do that through events have been a way where we've been able to establish and collaborate and be part of the community. So I think continuing to do that and expanding our outreach.
Phil: What did you hear from either a, a consumer, a user of Bellevue Bites or a restaurant that really made you proud that you said I did this. This is cool.
Sophie: Oh gosh, there's so many. I feel like stories and interactions I've had with restaurant owners, but one that comes to mind is I had worked with the owner of a cinnamon roll shop for an event and she had actually actually heard about the website before I even reached out to work with the event. And she was saying that the website was something she had never thought of and it was super outside of the box. But I think that idea of thinking outside of the box is definitely stuck with me. And I'm definitely a problem solver type, so if there's a problem I try to think about creating solutions. So I think that really touched me. That made me feel really proud about the work we've done and are doing.
Phil: Well. Sophie, you should be very proud of yourself. You've accomplished a lot. You know, keep it up. Let's keep in touch and whatever we can do to help, you know, we're here to help you. And thank you for joining us on Lost in the Supermarket.
Sophie: Thank you so much, Phil, for having me.