BY JOLENE KETZENBERGER
INDIANAPOLIS — What happens when you combine the fun and variety of food truck menus with a high-tech, data-driven approach to delivery? You get ClusterTruck, a new concept in food delivery, one that has completely changed the food delivery experience in downtown Indianapolis.
A lot of companies have jumped into the delivery market recently, providing carryout items from a wide variety of restaurants. Most simply connect consumers with existing restaurants and try to make the ordering and delivery process easier.
But ClusterTruck has taken a different route. Like the car service Uber, ClusterTruck customers are kept abreast of their food order’s status when they order food online or with a phone app. It’s prepared in a central kitchen and delivery is free, but customers must meet the driver on the street. Payment is handled online, and drivers simply hand a bag to customers.
ClusterTruck founder Chris Baggott says it all starts with the driver.
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“When Uber has a rush, they call all the drivers,” he said. “And everyone gets frustrated because all the drivers come, and there’s not enough work for them all. So the way we do is rapid-fire ping where it goes, driver A, driver B, driver C, driver D. Driver D takes the job, so then we stop. So now we’ve got one job and one driver locked together. Where is that driver? Is he five minutes away? Is he six minutes away? Ten minutes away? And then, algorithmically, how long does all the food take to make?”
Put that way, food delivery does, indeed, sound like a software equation, one that Baggott seems uniquely prepared to solve.
A founder of digital marketing firm ExactTarget, which sold to Salesforce for $2.5 billion, Baggott turned his attention to the food industry when his company sold in 2013. A fan of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a book by Michael Pollan, Baggott had bought land in Hancock County to raise pastured beef, pork and chicken, and his Tyner Pond Farm products were already popular with consumers when he opened The Mug, a “farm-to-curb” drive-in restaurant in Greenfield in 2014.
“I got into the food business to support the farm,” Baggott said. “When I went out and started calling on restaurants for Tyner Pond, there’s so few restaurants doing local that I would have to take business from somebody else, which I did not want to do. So that just meant the pie has to get bigger, so we started with The Mug, and that worked really well.”
The Mug’s ordering system was software-driven, not surprising given Baggott’s tech background.
“This whole idea came to me as just part of the software,” Baggott said. “We’d been talking about this for more than a year. When GrubHub went public, pieces of it came together.”
During a meeting with Indianapolis pizzeria owner Neal Brown, Baggott said, “We started talking about the idea of customer proximity.”
If you knew where customers were, Baggott explained, and you knew a pizza took seven minutes to make, then you could start making the pizza when a carryout customer was seven minutes away.
Food trucks were another part of the puzzle.
“As I was thinking about GrubHub,” he said, “that made me think about who are the best food marketers. Well, food trucks are the best food marketers, because they have to be. They move every day. So then it started to come together.”
Baggott was introduced to the already established concept of a ClusterTruck — a gathering of food trucks. The original idea, Baggott said, was to use actual food trucks, to license their recipes and prepare their food for delivery. But the ephemeral nature of food trucks made that challenging; trucks tend to come and go, and he couldn’t count on finding actual trucks that offered all the types of food a delivery business would require.
So Baggott and his ClusterTruck partners settled on a plan to make all their own recipes. Plus, they would offer some items from established restaurants, such as breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches from The Mug and burgers from Bru Burger Bar in Indianapolis, owned by partner Mike Cunningham of Cunningham Restaurant Group, who oversees food operations.