Could a Happy Valley startup revolutionize food delivery?


By Holly Riddle 

With nearly two decades of experience in the restaurant industry, Zee Elhaj was the perfect person to launch his latest venture, Ontime Delivery. As the owner of downtown State College’s Are U Hungry, as well as Chrome Lounge (which was also in downtown State College, but closed during the pandemic), Elhaj knows the struggles that come with operating a restaurant and, more specifically, one that offers delivery.

We’re trying to solve all these problems with one solution

While customers place an order on a restaurant’s website or in an app like DoorDash, and then sit back and wait for their food to arrive, the logistics behind the scenes are complicated. Restaurant teams juggle orders as they come in, assign them to delivery drivers, attempt to route the orders as efficiently and quickly as possible, and give the customer a best guess at how long the order will take to arrive. While partnering with a provider like DoorDash helps to eliminate some of this guesswork, these partnerships come with other issues; when delivery drivers are third-party contractors that don’t work directly with the restaurant, quality control becomes difficult, plus solutions like DoorDash are pricey.

This is where Elhaj’s Ontime Delivery comes in.

He explained, “Currently, [for] most restaurants that do hire their own drivers, [like pizza shops], when they receive orders, the manager will make some best-guess decisions to assign orders. If you have multiple drivers, you have to decide which order should go with each driver. The customer gets a [delivery] ETA that is always the same. If you set [the ETA] to 45 minutes online, for example, it always says 45 minutes, regardless of how busy you are or how slow you are. The customers are not aware of where their order is. They're not getting any status updates. They don't get any tracking. So, you place your order and then you wait until you receive it, and a lot of times it ends up being late because you were promised the wrong time to begin with.”

Elhaj reports that the average delivery order in the United States is approximately $30 and, if restaurants hire their own delivery drivers versus working with a third party, they can save about 10%, so an average of $3 extra in profits per order. If a restaurant is processing 10,000 delivery orders per year, that’s an extra $30,000 in profit.

“What we’re doing,” he continued, “is we’re taking data from the kitchen, from where drivers are, the traffic information, and we’re calculating ahead of time [when] we’ll be able to deliver that order, so we can send a more accurate ETA to the customer to begin with. Then, the orders are distributed automatically between the drivers, optimizing the routes to meet these ETAs. We also leverage Uber Eats and DoorDash, in case drivers are not able to fulfill these orders within the promised time. You’re only leveraging their drivers as a backup option.”

Having this backup solves another pain point for restaurants. Currently, Elhaj said, restaurants that hire their own drivers rather than work with Uber Eats or DoorDash, don’t have a backup if a delivery driver happens to not show up or if a car breaks down. This leads to a litany of issues, like late orders, cancelations, refunds and poor reviews.

While the restaurant can choose to work with Uber Eats or DoorDash, these partnerships add up. Elhaj reports that the average delivery order in the United States is approximately $30 and, if restaurants hire their own delivery drivers versus working with a third party, they can save about 10%, so an average of $3 extra in profits per order. If a restaurant is processing 10,000 delivery orders per year, that’s an extra $30,000 in profit.

Additionally, Elhaj pointed out that hiring in-house delivery drivers comes with benefits beyond cost savings. When a restaurant can manage its drivers directly, it can ensure a better experience for the customer — ensuring food arrives hot, for example, and dealing with any delivery issues first-hand.

“We’re trying to solve all these problems with one solution,” Elhaj said of Ontime Delivery. Ontime Delivery clients reap the benefits of hiring their drivers and enjoy all the technical and logistics solutions of working with a third party, yielding higher profits and higher customer satisfaction.

“It’s been a huge help”

Elhaj’s approach to solving a pain point that he’d experienced in his own restaurant quickly caught the eye of Happy Valley investors. He and his co-founder Mike Emerick began building Ontime Delivery in 2020 and then, in 2023, participated in Ben Franklin Technology Partners TechCelerator program. They received a $10,000 seed grant from Ben Franklin and are now working with Todd Erdley, central region director, as their Ben Franklin portfolio manager, to reach their next stage of growth.

Erdley noted, “Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA has had the fortune of working with Zahi ‘Zee’ Elhaj over the past year. Zee participated in our TechCelerator program focused on food and beverage. He showcased the value of Ontime Delivery to our team and proved to be a quick learner… Ontime Delivery significantly advanced to the point where Ben Franklin Technology Partners wanted to accelerate his growth through a $10,000 seed grant. Since that award, we continue to see great progress and are pleased to be working in support of Zee and his company.”

The TechCelerator process, Elhaj said, proved exceptionally valuable as he attempted to build a tech startup, a process very different from opening a restaurant.

“Working on a software startup, going through…the discovery process with customers…learning from other startups and what’s working and not working for them — all of that was very helpful,” he said. “The product is something that we did, but the process of building an actual business and the sales and marketing… that is definitely where we saw a lot of help from Ben Franklin… The resources that they offer and the connections and knowledge are invaluable. It’s been a huge help for us to get to the point we’ve gotten to.”

After receiving the $10,000 seed grant from Ben Franklin, Elhaj’s goal is to secure 10 new locations, testing Ontime Delivery’s sales and marketing tactics to discover what works, and then raise additional funding for further growth. After that, he’d like to spread Ontime Delivery’s services to at least a hundred locations.

The Ben Franklin impact

According to the organization’s five-year impact report, released last year, Ben Franklin boosted the state’s economy by $6.1 billion between 2017 and 2021, creating more than 16,000 “high-paying” jobs and investing in more than 600 companies.

Elhaj encourages any Happy Valley entrepreneur hopefuls to reach out to Ben Franklin, to claim their share of that impact, even if they’re not quite sure they’re ready yet.

He said, “Don't hesitate to reach out to Ben Franklin. A lot of times, we feel like maybe we're not ready [or] maybe this is not a good idea. People hesitate to ask for help and I think that's what Ben Franklin is there for. [I would] encourage everyone who has an idea to at least entertain it and see if it's worth it. It's something that [Ben Franklin] could help with, for sure.”


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