Never mind free lunches: Twenty Tables founder and CEO Alex Cohen is devoting all his efforts to building charitable giving into locals’ everyday dining routine.
Rather than looking for a handout, Cohen is harnessing this area’s insatiable appetite for exclusive meal deals (his approach: getting restaurants to create $6 lunches and $12 dinners) in order to generate a steady source of revenue for local groups that work to alleviate hunger. A former attorney who says he spent 13 years handling health care issues at an international law firm, Cohen tells Eater the vision for Twenty Tables — which is currently competing against other tech companies in a March Madness-style bracket challenge — was partially “inspired by what José Andrés is doing.”
Andrés was recently named humanitarian of the year by the James Beard Foundation for all the support he’s provided to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, and all the meals he and his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, have supplied around the globe.
Cohen’s app works like this: users sign up and are instantly presented with the network of participating restaurants and food trucks that accept Twenty Tables’ proprietary meal tickets ($6 apiece). Lunch offerings, which can range from scaled-down versions of an existing dish to custom items vendors offer specifically to Twenty Tables customers, are priced at 1 ticket, while dinner orders are capped at two tickets (so, $12). There is a 15-minute lead time required for each order — so the food should, theoretically, be waiting for each customer as soon as they reach the vendor — and only same-day purchases are accepted.
Once a user places 20 orders, the company makes a donation to a charity partner — Twenty Tables is currently working with Capital Area Food Bank, DC Central Kitchen, and Martha’s Table — equivalent to five free meals. Users can also elect to donate additional charity meals at will. The app also promotes competition by showing users how they rank against friends and the Twenty Tables community in general regarding orders placed/charitable meals donated.
“All you do is participate and you are helping,” Cohen says. He adds that Twenty Tables orders are a floor not a ceiling, citing that it’s not uncommon for customers to purchase additional items — a beer while waiting, or perhaps a dessert to take home — when they go to collect their food.
Local chain Naan & Beyond was the first restaurant to come on board in late 2017. Cohen says Twenty Tables has added dozens more since then, including food trucks El Fuego and Peruvian Brothers; casual eateries Bub and Pop’s and Soupergirl; and neighborhood restaurants Meridian Pint and Brookland Pint.
The initial focus is on developing the service area around the existing base in the Golden Triangle/Dupont Circle. Cohen says growth opportunities could extend the reach into Chinatown next. From there, he could see branching out to Georgetown or Cleveland Park. If the momentum keeps building, Cohen tells Eater he’s game to connect users with cheap eats from Baltimore to Richmond.
“There could be a whole corridor of $6 lunches,” he says.