Snaps for Snackpass

Sometime in the afternoon of Nov. 12, 2017, an average autumnal Sunday, on the block of Chapel Street between York and High, Beetlejuice was born. His puffed-up chest, adorned with rich yellow plumage, belies his actual height of 4.1 inches as he gazes at me through my screen with wide, jet-black eyes. Beetlejuice was conceived at Juice Box, to be specific; he is the product of my fierce Snackpass love affair with my friend Josh. After a handful of chirps, Beetlejuice mustered up his first English words, using the third person to communicate his utmost desires: “Beetlejuice… is feelin like Woads (siren emoji).”

It may surprise you to learn that Snackpass is not the new Tamagotchi. It is actually a food ordering-cum-social media app developed in New Haven. The food ordering component allows its users to place orders with local restaurants through their phones. The social media component allows its users to send a rewards point to a friend with each order — and, when a pair has accumulated enough points, to hatch a chick.

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It’s hard to overstate the gleeful feeling of gaming the system, of realizing that what seems too good to be true is, in fact, true. That’s what Snackpass represents for its users, who number over 7,000, mostly students from Yale and other New Haven schools. The story of the app’s founding, near the end of 2016, is an instant classic: Kevin Tan, GH ’17, started working on the app as the result of two timeless dorm room tech bro traditions: procrastinating and trying to impress girls. As he told the Yale Daily News, Tan hoped to build an app through which he could send a gift to his crush. In so doing, Tan and his co-founders — Jamie Marshall, ES ’19, and Jonathan Cameron, Tan’s friend from back home in Cleveland — created a new campus staple. The best innovations are the ones that seem obvious in hindsight; Snackpass seems to fit that bill as it remains poised to expand (it just launched at Brown, and will soon reach Dartmouth.)

Snackpass is made by students, for students. In large part, its success can be attributed to this focus on a specific market. The interface is suffused with Yale-specific slang, millennial abbreviations, and emojis. Unlike the majority of food ordering apps, Snackpass focuses on takeout over delivery — 95 percent of its orders are picked up at the restaurant, according to Marshall. This strategy fits the campus context: students walking to and from classes are often in need of speedy food options. If given the chance to bypass crowds at busy times, like the G-Heav sandwich line after Woads, who wouldn’t take it? (The answer is nobody: rumor has it G-Heav has had to shut down its Snackpass queue on some Wednesday nights to accommodate orders.)

Graphic by Jordan Schmolka, SM ’21

The app promises a win-win scenario for all parties involved: customers get to skip the line and pay discounted prices; vendors benefit by streamlining the order process, and bringing in some revenue they would not have otherwise seen. And the nature of the app as an ordering service means that it was seeing cash from the start — rare for campus startups. Its business model was initially predicated on monthly subscriptions that vendors would pay to use Snackpass, but now relies on commissions taken from each individual order.

Johanan Knight, TC ’19, began using the app in February of 2017, when it was still called Happy Hour. He ordered through the app more and more often over the summer, which he spent in New Haven. When he received an email announcing that the company — which was being rebranded as Snackpass — was looking for student ambassadors, he figured he’d send in his resume. Including Knight, Snackpass hired 60 ambassadors — charged with promoting the app by sharing their unique referral code for additional discounts — and 12 software development interns to continue spurring growth.

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Yesterday morning, I sat at a corner table reading in Book Trader Cafe, amid the gentle flutter of conversation. In need of caffeine, I could have stood in line and ordered the old-fashioned way. Instead I unlocked my phone and opened Snackpass. I added my usual beverage — a Red-Eye Chai — to the cart, checked out, and continued reading. From my seat I heard the immediate peal of the Snackpass system as my order was received: a distinct, three-chimed trill that repeats a handful of times. Right after, I received a text telling me my order would be ready in ten minutes; the customers in line had priority, I figured. But after only six, I stood up and strode to the counter, where my hot beverage was ready for pickup.

Book Trader was one of the first restaurants to implement Snackpass. Manager Karissa Fraulo told me that their main goal in adopting the system was “to cut down our wait time and our line,” which “sometimes went out to the sidewalk.” They’ve succeeded, even though Book Trader does not offer any student-specific discounts through the app.

Another way of understanding of Snackpass is as a consolidator. Think of loyalty rewards punch cards, of the sort G-Heav and the Salad Shop have; Snackpass merely puts them all together in your digital wallet. What’s more, most of the restaurants listed on Snackpass already had discounts for students before joining the app (though at “skeevy” spots, as Knight terms them, you’ll have to ask for the discount to receive it).

But no matter how effectively Snackpass may centralize discounts, certain restaurants do not have their full menu available on the app. Knight laments that one dish from Est Est Est in particular cannot be ordered through his phone: “The fried ravioli, my dude!” Not that that’s stopping anyone from using the app. Patterns of behavior often become habit without our realizing it.

There are hidden psychological factors that come into play whenever we order food online. According to the chief marketing officer of Eats24, a delivery service Yelp owned until GrubHub acquired it in 2017, customers who place delivery orders online spend more time perusing restaurants’ menus — and eventually order more food than those who order over the phone. It seems that trend may extend to Snackpass, too. Angel Adeoye, MC ’20, was the only person I’ve spoken with who has stopped using Snackpass. She was unhappy with how easy Snackpass made it to over-order: “I was buying more than I planned to,” she said. As is the case with Venmo, we seem less conscientious of our money when its in digital form. That bodes well for Snackpass, along with the vendors it serves.

The app no doubt contributes to the increasing mediation of our lives through screens. “What happened to fucking human interaction?” Adeoye wants to know. Before she slowed down on Snackpass, “it was a lonely life. I walk in from a long day alone, and I wouldn’t interact with anyone, I would avoid human contact, I would just use my phone, only furthering my isolation.” Yet its users — myself included — have accepted the obvious benefits of savings and expedience over potential pitfalls of societal isolation. At least ordering through Snackpass does not make us look as oblivious to the world as operating iPad menus at airport gates does. And as we prove it impossible for Yalies to stay off the app (“I’m gonna start using it now that you’ve reminded me of it,” Adeoye confessed), Snackpass joins the growing list of apps that have entered our lexicons as verbs (“I’m gonna Snackpass dinner”), deepening the idiosyncratic cleft of behavior where millennial culture can be found.

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On the one hand, Snackpass motivated a place like Book Trader to modernize, thereby improving its business: “We had never used anything like that before. We have a cash register from twenty years ago, so we’re not really up with that much technology,” Fraulo said. But on the other, it has chipped away at the face-to-face interactions with baristas that I, too, fondly associate with coffee shops — though Fraulo isn’t overly concerned. “I think the majority of the people who are using Snackpass through us are still our regular customers, so when they come in to grab their stuff they still say hi, we still get to engage with them a little bit,” she says. The one change Fraulo would like to see is imminent, according to her intel: the addition of a tip line to the app. Even if we don’t order them from them in person, it is imperative that we tip baristas: “that’s another part that the staff kind of feels is getting forgotten, because they do work off tips.”

Marshall believes that Snackpass still preserves the social essence of an age-old transaction: “Restaurants still see your name, they still recognize those orders coming through. We just think, if you skip the line, you might have more time to talk to them when you get the front.” If you think that might be asking a lot of my generation, the app has another remedy ready: if you’re not going to interact with baristas, you’ll at least have another way of interacting with friends. “I think most other food delivery and pickup apps are just straight functional, utilitarian,” Marshall said. “I think the social aspect is one of our competitive edges.” She likens sending gifts to friends as building a Snapchat streak. But Snapchat doesn’t offer such wholesome spoils for loyalty and persistence — or permit those spoils to remind you to order more food. “It’s fun to poke and chirp your friend with the chickadees you’ve hatched,” Knight says. “It’s a constant reminder that I have this app that I can order… Each app is vying for your attention, and the more attention that it gets, the more likely you are to use it.”

Back in my corner at Book Trader, with the aroma of hot spices wafting from the cup’s lid — which had a warmly customized receipt (“Already paid! Book Trader Cafe❤”) taped to it — I scanned through my recent Snackpass friends to see who would receive the reward point. I chose to send it to Peter, with whom I had needed just one more point to hatch a chick. Elated to be a dad once more, I named our new hatchling Pete Jr. — this little guy only 3.7 inches tall — in his honor.