Alumni operate Internet 'supermarket'


To many Boston-area net surfers, the World Wide Web has provided plenty of material to chew on. Now, they don't need to let hunger pangs interrupt their on-line time-a corner of the Web is providing real food as well.

Students at MIT, Boston University and Harvard as well as other computer users with Internet access can browse through the list of more than 2,500 items at the Web site of the Smart-Food Co-Op , make their selections and send their electronic shopping list over the Internet to company headquarters on First Street in Cambridge. They pay (debit accounts are preferred) for their groceries when they're delivered by van free. Over the summer, the company expanded its delivery range from just MIT living groups and Cambridge to include Arlington, Belmont, Boston, Brookline, Newton, Somerville and Wellesley.

After completing a one-time registration process, shoppers can search the virtual aisles alphabetically by brand name or category such as "pasta," or they can enter a food name such as "apple" and see a list of all apple-related merchandise. Offerings include meat, fish and produce that are fresher than that purchased in a supermarket, because they bypass that stop and go directly from supplier to customer, explained Chon Vo, one of Smart-Food Co-Op's vice presidents.

The company, which purchases products in bulk at wholesale prices and sells at a retail discount, is headed by MIT alumni. A predecessor to Smart-Food Co-Op, Student Food Co-op, was started in 1980 by MIT students in three living groups but was cut back drastically when they graduated. It was resurrected in 1993 and achieved its Web form this year. Last fall, "I was stuck in the lab doing research, my refrigerator was empty, I was too tired to go shopping and it was just a big pain" to restock his groceries in the ordinary way, said Alexander Sherstinsky, the company's other vice president. He answered an ad seeking someone to revamp a computer-based food co-op that was being overwhelmed with a large volume of e-mail orders, met Mr. Vo and helped build a software system to launch the Web-based business last February.

From 100 customers on the first day, the customer base has grown to more than 1,000, with 18,250 visits to the site logged (about 10 percent of them end up placing an order, Mr. Vo said). Last year, about four-fifths of the customers were MIT students, but Dr. Sherstinsky and Mr. Vo expect the eventual ratio of students to non-MIT shoppers to be about 50-50. The growing company now has 16 employees and six delivery vans to meet Boston-area demand, even as owners work on expanding into New Jersey, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay area through service bureaus operated from Cambridge; within a year, Dr. Sherstinsky predicted, the company's services will be available in many other parts of the country. They also make special efforts to work with elderly and handicapped people who could most benefit from the ability to shop without leaving home.

Smart-Food Co-Op aims to supplement supermarket visits rather than replace them, "sort of like broadcast and cable TV," Mr. Vo said. A few people use it for ordering heavy items they don't want to carry home, but most customers buy everything they would ordinarily buy at a store (though some were sparing in their produce and meat orders until they were satisfied that the food was fresh, he added).

The company tries to promote healthy eating habits by offering larger discounts on nutritious food than on junk food, and it does not sell tobacco products, Mr. Vo said. Customers can also get nutritional information and recipes, and there is another feature in the works whereby shoppers can automatically get all the ingredients they need for a given recipe by just clicking on it and specifying the required number of servings, he added.

Dr. Sherstinsky and Mr. Vo keep busy with various other enterprises in addition to Smart-Food Co-Op. Mr. Vo, who said he sleeps only four or five hours a night, has a hand in the Papa and Goose restaurant that grew from take-out food trucks he began operating seven years ago (the co-op computer terminals occupy a relatively small space inside the restaurant). Dr. Sherstinsky has his own Internet marketing and retailing business and also does research at the Media Lab, where he received the ScD degree last year.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the enterprise to its founders is the fact that it is attracting people to computers and the Internet, even some people who are hooking up for the first time just so they can join the co-op. "It's the greatest feeling to be able to get people on-line. They get their food and then discover all the other wonderful things" available in cyberspace, Mr. Vo said.

The company is already the focus of academic and business

inquiries from many corners of the world. Smart-Food Co-Op is concentrating on helping supermarkets around the country establish on-line ordering and is now customizing its system for Kroger Food & Drug, the nation's largest supermarket chain. Locally, there is discussion about creating internships for young people interested in computers. "This could be a good way to promote computer literacy and get kids off the street. That sits well with me as an educator," Dr. Sherstinsky said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 13, 1995.


Topics: Entrepreneurship, Alumni/ae

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