By Nicholas Upton
I tried to keep up with Folstad on a recent delivery, but as you can see in the video on the website, it was futile. He did, however, slow down enough to discuss the hyper-local, sustainable and increasingly tech-savvy world of bike delivery.If you want to keep up with Sean Folstad, the founder of bicycle-delivery company Zen Delivery, don’t bother. The man is a biking machine with a pair of quads suitable for the Tour de France. But while he might not be your best companion for a leisurely ride around Minneapolis, he is the man to call when you want lunch.
Folstad founded Zen Delivery in 2015 after he and his other bike-courier friends saw similar services pop up on the other side of town. He thought the growing hip neighborhood of Northeast Minneapolis needed its own. So they just started biking, bringing everything from cigarettes, beer and (as I saw first hand) bathroom tile. But mostly, they worked with restaurants to provide delivery on demand and enjoyed the range of adventures biking year round in Minneapolis offers, like the deluge that hit the day before.
“Every day is a little it different, you just have to be prepared,” said Folstad. “Personally, I love riding in the rain.”
The company survives on a flat delivery fee plus a percentage of the order price.
“We charge a $6 delivery fee then we add 10 percent to every order. That cost gets pushed to the consumer. So a restaurant that wants to do delivery can essentially do it for free,” said Folstad. “Then our partner restaurants subsidize the delivery costs, for instance for ChinDian pays the whole delivery cost. That’s something they do so they have free delivery and a better chance of someone ordering from them.”
They can keep prices low because there’s no fleet of cars, no car insurance and no gas. Riders also prefer fixed-gear and single-speed bikes to avoid all but nominal maintenance. Tips are encouraged to keep the bikers fed for the many miles they ride each shift. Even when subsidizing the fee, it ‘s lower than the typical 20 percent that national outfits charge a restaurant. That’s an obvious advantage to bikes, and customers like the low environmental impact.
“I don’t know if a lot of people think about it, but every time someone orders delivery and it comes by car, it’s some small addition to the global issues we’re seeing. So you can avoid that and likely have a cheaper delivery, and a delivery that treats the restaurant better,” said Folstad. “That green aspect is really important for us—and for a lot of our consumers, plus they want to be good to their local businesses.”
Speed, of course, is key.
“Our goal as far as food delivery is 40 minutes, that’s from order to delivery,” said Folstad. “That leaves about 20 minutes of travel and kitchen time, our delivery area is built so that I or one of the riders can get anywhere within that area within 20 minutes. So if something pops up I want 20 to get there and 20 to get to the customer.”
The quads helped on that front. One thing Zen Delivery didn’t start with was the digital prowess of bigger delivery brands. Ultimately, Folstad did it himself.
“We tried to go through it with developers, but that can be exorbitantly expensive, so I have some experience with graphic design, so I started there and the rest was just learning it,” said Folstad.
It was clear that customers were used to digital ordering from the big players, so they added an app to compete.
“It’s incredibly important, just this year we released our app on Android and Apple, all of our restaurants now have tablets much like BiteSquad [another local delivery outfit] that they can receive orders on,” said Folstad. “Before that, we were working with restaurants where they would take the order then they would call us for delivery. That was too complicated, especially when you have the rest of the industry offering something simpler.”
In 2016, Folstad said the company completed just under 5,000 deliveries, but with the new app, he said it’s on track to reach 15,000 to 20,000 with an average of 30 to 40 orders a day.
Riding isn’t. however. for the faint of heart (or out of shape), the crew at Zen Delivery bikes between 30 and 60 miles each shift for hundreds of miles a week, and you better know how to change a flat fast.
“You’d be surprised how fast I can change a tire,” said Folstad. “We should probably buy shares in a tire company.”
But given the speed he and his fellow riders travel, there have only been two bad crashes since 2015.
“One was a fork snapping off after hitting a pothole, causing the rider to go over the handlebars and chip his two front teeth. And another time, I was riding in the bike lane and got knocked into some parked cars by a person in a car, causing me to get a couple cracked ribs,” said Folstad, but don’t fret, the food still made it on time. “In both instances we got up and finished the delivery before we realized how much pain we were in.”