About 7 years ago I decided to start a food delivery business. The kernel of the idea was that people wanted healthier delivery options and diet-friendly meals that weren't readily available. And so I started testing Southfork with whole-food, vegan lunch delivery in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan. Eventually, it morphed into healthy dishes sourced from local restaurants for office workers in Atlanta, where I had relocated with my family.

Over lunch one day, a friend of mine asked me how I was going to get and keep customers. He thought the best approach was a subscription model. We could lock in repeat orders and secure recurring revenue, he suggested.

But that idea didn't sit well with me. We were delivering lunch. Who would be interested in a subscription to lunch? There were all sorts of barriers to the subscription model. People might forget to skip or pause and then get angry when food showed up unwanted. A last-minute meeting might derail plans. The list went on.

So how were we going to retain customers, then? Was there a way to build an ongoing relationship with Southfork customers that got them to order on a regular basis?

How We Acquired Customers

We found customers in two ways: traditional marketing and PR. It worked, to an extent. We built an email list of about 500 people via word of mouth and some helpful local press. We used a direct sales strategy by approaching office managers to encourage group buying amongst employee pools. Partnerships with landlords helped us advertise our service to large office buildings. Our marketing was effective enough to start building our business.

Retention: The Challenge of Keeping Customers

Social posts and daily menu drops via email were our best source of repurchases. We did anywhere from 30-50 orders per day. Our conversation rate hovered around 10%—a healthy number. But we noticed that we were only capturing a repeat order about 1-2x per month, and our goal was for each customer to order at least once a week or more. This was one of the core struggles for our business (food production and competition being the others).

A Better Model: Text + Memberships + Checkout

As I was contemplating how to improve my business, Will reached out and showed me the very first barebones version of Bottle. I was excited by the idea of texting customers. I wouldn’t have to compete in email inboxes and I could make repurchases seamless.

Five years later, that barebones product has evolved into Bottle: we help local businesses sell their goods and improve retention through harnessing personal, text-based relationships that make ordering and operations easier.

Bottle 2.0, our new product set to launch in the next few months, has the features that complete the circle for local businesses whose survival depends on repeat purchases. Texting + Checkout + Memberships is the solution that Southfork needed. I wish this product existed when we first started.

The idea that you can send a text with an ordering link to a customer who can simply click to place an order makes cultivating business a no-brainer. But the most valuable feature—the one  that would’ve been a gamechanger for Southfork—is the ability to offer memberships at checkout.

Some of the most notable brands have proved the power of the membership model. Amazon Prime is the king of consumer memberships. Doordash's Dashpass has been wildly successful for retention, loyalty, and incremental revenue. In 2020, DashPass had 5 million subscribers each paying $9.99 a month. And Shipt's grocery delivery business model, which relied solely on memberships, led to a $550 million exit when the company sold to Target in 2017.

Enter Bottle 2.0: Dynamic Memberships for Local Merchants

Local businesses can thrive on membership models, too. At Southfork, for example, we could’ve pulled a number of levers to offer compelling memberships. Pay $10 a week for free delivery + any meal of your choice 1 x per week. $100 for an annual membership that includes 1 meal per month plus free delivery on all orders. Those are just two of many possible iterations.

But there’s also another angle to memberships at this scale, which we believe can be uniquely powerful for local businesses. It’s a free membership: one that doesn’t lock customers into a paid subscription with benefits, but simply asks them to opt-in to text communications—curated carts, order reminders, product drops, and the ability to engage in casual conversation with local makers. This type of relationship is pressure-free for the consumer, while still spawning recurring revenue for the business.

Bottle 2.0 offers a well-rounded checkout experience for local merchants to simplify ordering and open up new revenue streams through memberships. Altogether, these new features have the power to transform local business. Not only would they have solved Southfork’s problems, but they would also have allowed us to thrive. That’s why I’m so excited to launch Bottle 2.0.