GiftAMeal helps restaurants fight hunger—and make new fans

The startup turns customers’ food photos into food donations. It says the feel-good transaction makes guests more loyal.
GiftAMeal users can trigger a meal donation by taking a picture of their food. / Photo courtesy of GiftAMeal

Giving back has always been important for Andrew Glantz. 

In high school, the entrepreneur helped raise more than $350,000 for an organization called Jr. Variety, and as a student at Washington University in St. Louis, he co-owned a campus nonprofit that redistributed donated goods.

But during a college internship at a venture capital firm, Glantz was exposed to the idea that running a socially conscious business didn't have to be a one-way street: Companies could make a difference while also making money.

The lesson led the young business student to come up with GiftAMeal, a service that would use the ubiquitous food selfie to benefit both restaurants and food pantries.

It would work like this: A customer takes a picture of their meal at a partner restaurant and uploads it to GiftAMeal. GiftAMeal makes a donation to a food bank on their behalf. Restaurants pay a monthly fee to participate.

The idea was that restaurants and customers could join forces to fight hunger, in turn forming an emotional bond that would encourage customers to come back.

GiftAMeal app

GiftAMeal users can quadruple their donation by posting to multiple social media apps. / Photo courtesy of GiftAMeal

Glantz launched GiftAMeal in St. Louis in 2014, while he was still in school. Over the next six years, it signed up a couple hundred restaurants and donated hundreds of thousands of meals in the city, raising nearly $800,000 from investors and earning dozens of accolades along the way.

This year, the company went national, signing agreements with franchisees of Andy’s Frozen Custard, Red Robin, TGI Fridays and more across 27 states. In July, it donated its 1 millionth meal. It hopes to expand to all 50 states in 2023.

“Restaurants are really excited about it,” Glantz said. “I think that restaurants want to be involved in their communities, and restaurants at their core are kind of at the center of their communities.”

GiftAMeal’s biggest customer, 130-unit Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, was looking to do just that when it started using the app about six months ago. It had considered partnering with national charities like St. Jude’s and Feeding America, “but being in these small to mid-size communities, we really wanted to have more of a local presence,” said VP of Marketing Dan Sokolik. 

With GiftAMeal, “we can accomplish that but still manage it through one source.”

GiftAMeal volunteering

Andrew Glantz, left, volunteers with others at Operation Food Search in St. Louis. / Photo courtesy of GiftAMeal

When a customer posts a photo to GiftAMeal, the company donates 25 cents to a local food bank—enough to cover the distribution of 1.2 pounds of food. The money is drawn from monthly restaurant fees, which start at $79 for single-unit operators.

For each additional social media platform a guest shares a photo to, GiftAMeal donates another 25 cents. About 40% of users post to multiple feeds, Glantz said.

The social media element has the added perk of generating publicity for the restaurant. And users tend to form an allegiance with restaurants on the app. They visit 39% more frequently on average, spend 20% more per visit and tip 32% more than the standard customer, the company has found.

Glantz attributes that to younger consumers’ desire to support socially aware businesses.

“Customers are attributing the give-back both to themselves and the restaurant,” he said.

Lee’s, a legacy brand with an older clientele, saw GiftAMeal as a good way to tap into a more youthful audience.

“All the research out there shows how millennials and Gen Zs care more about their community and helping people than the boomers and Gen X,” Sokolik said. “That was a huge appeal to us.”

Though the chain currently has no way of tracking the behavior of GiftAMeal users, he said guest engagement in the program has grown each month. Lee’s promotes GiftAMeal on table tents and point-of-purchase materials and plans to put callouts on cups next year.

GiftAMeal app

Customers can use the app to track their donations and find other restaurants that offer GiftAMeal. / Photo courtesy of GiftAMeal

And while the per-meal donation may seem small, the money can add up quickly for food banks. At St. Louis-based Operation Food Search, GiftAMeal is one of its largest monthly donors, said Director of Communication Jocelyn Fundoukos.

“Recurring donations are really kind of a secret weapon in fundraising,” she said. “The consistency far outweighs the benefit of a burst of a donation.”

The aid has been especially helpful for Operation Food Search this year, as donations fell to their lowest level since 2011. 

“It just makes so much sense when you’re having a meal and you want to share the gift of that meal with others,” Fundoukos said. “It’s such an easy way to do it.” 

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