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January 11, 2022

Amid pandemic shutdowns, a Portland delivery company found a niche

person at whiteboard Courtesy / CarHop Thomas Brems founded CarHop in 2019 as an alcohol delivery business and expanded into restaurant delivery in 2020.

CarHop is a Portland company that delivers food and alcohol across Maine. 

The founder and CEO, Thomas Brems, is a University of Maine Law School graduate and adjunct professor who started importing champagne from France in 2017 and started CarHop in 2019 as an alcohol delivery company. In 2020, orders quickly ramped up from a handful each day to hundreds in the food and beverage space as the pandemic pushed the delivery model.

With five employees now and expanded office space in Portland, CarHop had $3.5 million in revenue and 50,000 orders in the last 12 months, and acquires about 1,000 new customers per month. 

The startup recently rolled out a $13-per-hour minimum earning guarantee designed to attract and retain independent contracting drivers and plans include hiring full- and part-time employee drivers and offering hourly wages, health and retirement benefits, and equity sharing.

We asked Brems for the company’s origin story and how it unfolded during the pandemic. Here’s an edited transcript.

Mainebiz: How did CarHop get started?

Thomas Brems: I grew up on in Phoenix, Ariz. When I was younger, my mom had a little restaurant in the countryside in France we had a little house there. That got me interested in the champagne producers in the area. I wanted to import champagne back to the U.S. I went to Arizona State University and studied business. As I was graduating, I started meeting with champagne producers, knocking on doors. From 2014 to 2017, I went to the University of Maine Law School. A lot of my focus was on intellectual property, regulatory compliance, business and contracts. In 2017, I started importing champagne. 

In 2018, I went back to Maine Law as an adjunct professor to teach import-export law and regulatory law. By the middle of 2019, I got started with a simple alcohol delivery company and figured it would take some years to build up. 

MB: How did the idea evolve?

TB: About four months later, things changed drastically. In March 2020, we were cruising along, doing a small number of orders —five to 10 orders per day — all focused on alcohol. Then March 13 came around and we started to quickly elevate. Two weeks later we were doing 100 orders per day. That was generally alcohol, as bars shut down and people were looking for way to access alcohol in a safe way. 

The restaurant part of the business started ramping up that summer. We started bringing in contractors to assist with marketing. We wanted to have a space to collaborate and dispatch, so in August we got office space in Portland at 10 Dana St. We just expanded there and we just brought on a new dispatcher. We have five employees now.

MB: Why did it take off?

TB: A lot of restaurants didn’t have delivery services. That’s where we stepped in. We already had the drivers. 

MB: Could you explain the commission piece?

TB: Our business model was already set up to be sustainable without commissions. Other delivery companies focus on a commission-contracting model and take 20% to 30% of the final item price. 

MB: How does your business model work? 

TB: We have an app and a website we collect requests through. We purchase everything from the restaurant or retailer at full retail price. There’s no contractual relationship with any restaurant or retailer. One thing that’s important to us is that we don’t work with a company that doesn’t want to be listed through us. We respect their consent.

Then we pick up the order on behalf of the customer and charge our customers a delivery fee. We split the delivery fee with the driver as a commission and they can also earn tips.

MB: What’s your geographic scope now?

TB: We’ve reached about 20% of Portland households. We’re the only company that does alcohol delivery in Maine, working with multiple retailers from Kittery to Bangor. We’ve been in Bangor since summer 2020, and the same with Lewiston and the southern coast of Maine.

MB: What does your customer base look like now?

TB: Last April, we were cranking out about 300 orders per day. But over the summer, as more people were happy to go to restaurants and concerts, the less they wanted to stay in and get delivery. Now we get about 200 orders per day. 

We had $3.5 million in revenue and 50,000 orders in the last 12 months. We get about 1,000 new customers per month now. This has all been bootstrapped as an organic, local company. 

MB: How do you acquire customers?

TB: Most of our customers come from online advertising. 

MB: Could you talk about the idea behind your planned driver incentives?

TB: As we develop the company, we wanted to provide W2 protections for people so this can be more of a career for them. We’ve had hundreds of drivers. It fluctuates. In the gig driving world, that’s the points – it’s flexible. They can fill in while they’re in-between jobs. During the pandemic, we saw a lot that. There were tons of people who worked at restaurants or breweries that had to furlough their staff. A lot of people found some opportunity with us during that period of time. 

But now, it’s more about people who like gig driving. We have a few hundred total in the driver pool. There’s a smaller group that does most of the work as a full-time equivalent job. We want to give them a more long-term incentive, whether they want to remain gig drivers or join us as W2 employees. We want to give people long-term sustainability.

MB: What’s the status of these offerings?

TB: We’re working on developing the program. 

MB: Do you think delivery will be a sustainable business after the pandemic?

TB: We’ve been running for about two years now and we’ve witnessed that bump. But we feel we’ve become a brand name. That’s why we continue to have success. People want delivery. 

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Martin Grohman Grohman
January 11, 2022

That is incredible growth. And sounds like more on the way. Remarkable!

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