From Busboy to Millionaire: How This Bangladeshi Immigrant Made His Big Break in the U.S. Restaurant Industry
Lunchbox founder Nabeel Alamgir has worked his way up from bussing tables at a fast food chain to securing $20 million in VC funding.
Since COVID-19 took indoor dining off the table, restaurants have resorted to takeout and delivery, often relying on third-party platforms like Uber Eats and GrubHub, which charge commissions from 15 to 30 percent per order. Nabeel Alamgir, a 30-year-old Bangladeshi-American based in New York, believes he has the solution to help restaurants cut down on such expenses.
A former busboy at Bareburger, in 2019 Nabeel founded Lunchbox, an online ordering platform that helps restaurants reduce their dependence on third-party marketplaces. In addition to web and app design, Lunchbox handles point-of-sale operations, online orders, marketing, loyalty programs, and data-crunching for restaurants.
An alternative for restaurant chains and ghost kitchens
Unlike most marketplaces, which charge clients on a per-order basis, Lunchbox has a flat monthly fee per location for chain restaurants. “We help restaurants convert third-party sales, GrubHub sales, into first-party sales,” Nabeel explained.
“They’re not just about saving money—it’s also a question of, increasing margins,” the techpreneur says. According to Nabeel, for every $100 a consumer spends on Lunchbox, the restaurant makes around a $25 profit, compared to $5 when the sales are through a third-party platform.
In an effort to reach smaller businesses, Lunchbox has partnered with C3 platform and created CitizenGo, an app where people can order directly from ghost kitchens. Nabeel believes they have helped minority chefs broaden their customer base. The app offers pickup options across C3’s network, which includes about 200 communities. Delivery is available in LA, Northern California, NYC, and Chicago.
Fast food learning
Nabeel, who was featured on the Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ list, moved to the U.S. in 2005 as a 14-year old. Though he didn’t speak English, he managed to find a job, working as a busboy at Bareburger to support his family. At the time a standalone restaurant, Bareburger is now a franchise boasting over 50 outlets, in a way mirroring Nabeel’s own entrepreneurial success.
Nabeel learned English watching Martin Scorsese films and worked his way up the corporate ladder to become Bareburger’s chief marketing officer. It was while working for the burger chain that Nabeel got firsthand experiences with third-party delivery companies, observing their predatory practices and getting the feeling that customers were being exploited. He had two failed startups before launching Lunchbox.
These days, he feels that New York City is coming back to life, and looks like a great place to raise venture capital in 2021. “New York is packed, everyone is back here. Everyone wants to be a part of the story in 2021, to help expand business. A lot of restaurants closed, but a lot of restaurants are opening. There is a lot of opportunity here. There is a lot of energy in the venture space now.”
$20 million in VC funding
In 2019, Lunchbox secured $2 million in seed capital, after being rejected by 72 investors. A year later, it raised $20 million, the food tech industry’s largest Series A in history. “By the time we went for Series A, I already had 100 investors we had built relationships with,” Nabeel says, adding that the capital was raised in a week.
Investors in this round, led by Coatue, include Primary Venture Partners, Jonathan Neman, CEO of the Sweetgreen salad chain, HelloFresh founder Bryan Ciambella, Planet Hollywood founder Robert Earl, Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, and chef Tom Colicchio.
The techpreneur feels the VC space in the U.S. is dominated by white men, and is more like an old boys’ club, rife with discrimination. ”Me, as a Brown person, I am not even considered a minority in tech,” Nabeel adds.
Despite challenges posed by pandemic, the company managed to grow their revenues by 700 percent year over year in 2020. Starting with a team of 10 in 2019, Lunchbox has expanded to a cohort of 160 employees and is on the lookout for more.
Over the next year, Lunchbox wants to extend the virtual storefront to grocers, liquor, and retail. The startup also has plans to go global in 2022.
Training next-generation entrepreneurs
Nabeel advises immigrants to take the entrepreneurial plunge. even if it means going against cultural and family norms. “If you want to please everyone, then go be a doctor, but if you can take feedback and have thick skin, then go ahead. That’s what entrepreneurship needs,” Nabeel says.
To give upcoming entrepreneurs a hand, Nabeel supports FirstGeneration, a nonprofit that aims to build generational wealth, mobility, networks, and capabilities for immigrant and first-generation communities through entrepreneurship.
Nabeel, who dropped out of his pre-med program at Syracuse University, believes that immigrants who don’t go to Ivy League or other prestigious universities face barriers to entrepreneurship.
FirstGeneration’s mission includes lowering barriers to entrepreneurship and providing financial, emotional, and network support so immigrants can start and scale businesses. Another program, FG Prime, focuses on building core competencies for first-time founders. Both programs, which look to increase socio-economic and cultural diversity in the tech and startup scene, are free.
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