Andra Tomsa is a young woman with a lot of determination and one big idea, which just might change New York City for the better. And if I were a betting person, I’d put my money on her.
She’s the founder of SPARE, and she is busy making her big idea into a transformational reality. Here’s the gist of it: when you go out to dinner in NYC, round up your bill to the nearest dollar, and donate that amount (from 1 to 99 cents) to feed the hungry. You can get the iPhone app and start right away. Your spare change will support the Food Bank for New York City, City Harvest, Citymeals-on-Wheels, and/or New York City Rescue Mission. Just $1 can help provide four meals to hungry New Yorkers.
It’s an updated version of the coin jar at a cash register, but, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it’s now completely transparent, so you can see how much money you’ve donated, where the money is going, and how the collective actions of your fellow New Yorkers are helping to fight hunger locally. You also get rewards for doing good, and if you round up three times at a participating restaurant in a month, you’ll get a drink on the house. Five round ups gets you a complementary appetizer or dessert. And ten round ups will buy you a $15 discount off the bill. (Plus, they’ll probably get to know you at that point, and it’s always good to be a regular at your neighborhood place.)
So that’s the math on the micro level. On the larger scale, here’s what’s happening. There are currently 235 million “missing meals” in New York City. This “meal gap” is New York City’s official measure of food insecurity: it means that household budgets are falling too short to provide adequate, nutritious food, year round. The biggest meal gap is in the Bronx, but there’s hunger throughout the five boroughs. And we can help. NYC is home to over 8 million people. Countless others commute in and visit frequently. If only 10 percent of resident New Yorkers each rounded up for a total of $6 per month, in the course of a year we could close this meal gap and feed everyone who needs it.
Andra was kind enough to take some time to tell me about SPARE on the phone recently and I couldn’t have been more impressed with her enthusiasm, energy, and optimism. Here’s what she had to say (edited and condensed for clarity):
The NewsWhistle Q&A with Andra Tomsa
Date of interview: March 19, 2015
What’s your hometown?
I was born in Romania. I’m an immigrant. But my parents came here when I was four so I’m definitely a New Yorker, too. Growing up, I spent summers in Romania, so still I have a lot of bonds there.
And where do you live now?
The Bronx. A few blocks away from Yankee Stadium.
I’m a Bronx girl from way back, too. My father was a graduate student at Fordham when I was a kid.
I went to Fordham! I went to college and graduate school at Fordham University.
Where did you get the idea for SPARE?
I studied economics at Fordham. I was really interested in social justice and fighting inequality. Then I found myself unexpectedly pregnant right after graduation. I took a job as a financial advisor, because I was very stressed about providing for the baby. I took the Series 7 and the Series 66 while I was pregnant. So I started working and did that for a while, but I wasn’t inspired by selling life insurance. It was a departure from what I had really wanted to do.
My son was the inspiration to start a new business. I quit my job and went back to bartending, and I started to think about what to do.
The idea came to me around Christmastime of 2012. People spend so much money at bars and restaurants, I could see it all around me. And I thought, “let’s capture a piece of it to fight hunger.” What could I do? I knew the restaurant world didn’t have consistent enough profits to fund it. Then I thought of the Chase program for rounding up card purchases, and putting the money in their customers’ savings accounts. I realized I could dilute the ask by going to the consumer to help. I started with a simple paper campaign, and partnered with the Food Bank for New York City and just six restaurants. The request for the donation was at the bottom of the receipt by the “thank you” message…it wasn’t even where you add the tip. Just a little line asking for the spare change. But, overwhelmingly, people did it. Over 1,000 people in two months in six small restaurants. So, I realized, this is viable, and it can make an impact, so let’s scale this into a technology. Now that took a little over two years, mostly because I took my son to all the meetings.
What are the next steps? Is there going to be an Android app?
Yes. We are actually going to have a new version out in early May. This is going to allow people to opt into an automated program that will donate a quarter when a user has been in a hospitality venue for 25 minutes or more. It’s a meal for a meal campaign as it only takes $0.25 to feed one New Yorker (It will be tracked using GPS). But that’s a short-term solution. We are also working on a link with a payment processor so that making the donation will be more seamless. That will take a little longer (we’re in discussions with a payment processor now) but we hope to get it out there by this summer.
Can you use this app at all restaurants, or just your partner restaurants?
You can use it at all restaurants, but it is only the partner restaurants that will give you the bonus drinks, desserts, and dollar discounts.
So it’s kind of like a buy back?
Yes! I have worked in restaurants, so I know the kind of things that restaurants are able to do for their patrons. Giving a drink to a regular customer is something they’re glad to do. I always did it when I was bartending.
I appreciate that! I feel like it’s very old New York. You don’t see too many buy backs these days.
I’m bringing them back! This is the high tech version.
Have you had a lot of success bringing restaurants on board?
Yes. We have had a 100% success rate. Every restaurant we’ve asked to participate has said yes so far. We have been concentrating a lot more on the technical side of things first, though. We haven’t made a big push yet to get restaurants to participate. It’s also time consuming to do it. You have to reach the person who makes the decisions, and restaurateurs don’t keep regular hours. But, once we have developed SPARE more, we’re going to try and get a lot more restaurants signed up, and we’re going to try and get more individuals to participate. In the meantime, we have fifty restaurants so far. We’ve recently added Michael Chernow, owner of The Meatball Shop, to our advisory board, which we’re very excited about! We’re looking to add on several hundred additional participating restaurants over the next 6 months.
I have always been really impressed by the generosity of the restaurant community. Every time I’ve been involved in fundraising for a non-profit, so many restaurants have come through with donations, gift cards, discounts. They’ve been generous with their time and generous with their money.
I think New Yorkers can be generous, too. I know New Yorkers can be hard, and cold, and rude, but I do really think they can come together.
Absolutely, I think it is actually a feasible historical event, that we could collectively close the meal gap in New York City. I’m really interested in changing the culture of going out to eat.
New Yorkers definitely go out to eat a lot. And, I think, tend to be big tippers.
Yes. Nobody cooks! So when you’re going out and having fun and being social, you do this small thing, and together we can make a big change.
Four meals for a dollar seems very low. How do you make that work?
$1.00 = 4 meals because our partners use their significant resources to buy
in bulk and leverage their relationships to get prices that are far lower
than market price.
Do you have plans to expand beyond New York City?
Not yet. For right now, we’re focusing on closing the meal gap in NYC and moving out from there.
But I’m actually also working with the Dominican Republic. I spoke there for International Women’s Day and they are pursuing a coalition to end hunger. They would like to have the tourism industry participate in a project with SPARE. So I’m working on a proposal to their government about how they can work with us to fight hunger in their country.
I expected you to name another U.S. city with a restaurant culture, not another country!
Well, we absolutely plan to scale to other U.S. cities! But we’re focusing on New York at first. When an opportunity came to work with the government of the Dominican Republic, it seemed like a great way to make an impact where it was needed and generate proof of concept abroad.
Are you a non-profit? How are you going to sustain the business if SPARE grows, as you hope it will?
We are actually not a non-profit. I formed SPARE as a B corporation, instead. That way, we can put our mission ahead of profit, but we have more flexibility. We donate 80% of the money we raise, and we put the other 20% to cover administrative costs and expenses. It’s already accounted for in the formula of $1 covering four meals. It would be five meals, but we’re going to use that extra money to grow. It’s less risky for us that way, so we do not have to rely on grants and elected government officials, and we can count on a steadier stream of income.
B corporations are a newer trend, with capitalism and compassion coming together. In the Dominican Republic we plan to lease the app for a fee, so that we can retain money, and, we hope, increase business to restaurants.
Right now we’re trying to raise money. We’d like to raise $1,000,000, to cover salary for a small staff and marketing. We’ve got $200,000 so far and are working towards the rest. We got very far on very little money, but we need funding for scaling. We’re offering equity.
What’s a book everyone should read?
Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty. This is my inspiration. He’s a rock star of development. He hangs out with Bono. He’s advised several different governments around the world. He has a clinical view of poverty and how to approach it. His work is honest and clear and he has an amazing career.
What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in life?
Probably quitting my job and starting SPARE with a two-month old defenseless little baby.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
My friend told me when I first started SPARE: In order to keep it moving, do one thing for SPARE every single day. Stick with it, moving forward, even if it is the smallest step, taking a note or making a list. It’s hard to get momentum, and once you get it, it really snowballs. Now people are reaching out to me and I’ve infiltrated a high level of connections. For the first year and half I had to chase everybody. That advice served me so well.
What’s your favorite movie?
A Beautiful Mind. I love that movie, it makes me cry every time. It is that amazing.
Do you have a favorite celebrity?
I’ve been so unplugged between work and the baby! I don’t even have cable. Okay, my favorite is Mariano Rivera from the Yankees. He’s so poised, I read his autobiography and it’s awesome. I love him. I’m a huge Yankees fan.
What is the funniest or worst thing that happened to you this week?
The worst was my son Quinn setting forth on a psychotic baby mission. He made a mad dash into the kitchen and pulled the microwave off a table (along with all the glassware and dishes that were sitting on a cutting board on top of it). In the two seconds it took me to get there, everything came crashing down. That was horrible. I had a panic attack (even though he was fine).
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I’m a super big math geek. If you look at the SPARE logo, the A is actually a delta, the mathematical symbol for change.
What is your strangest phobia or superstition?
I hate animals that don’t have a face. Worms and jellyfish. I don’t trust them. They weird me out.
Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes! SPARE! Please use the app. I really want to stress that it doesn’t take much and you really get your money’s worth with the rewards. It is a way to give back to your community and participate in a larger mission. If we close the meal gap, will it change our community? It’s not just a donation, it’s a social experiment. When something like this can be done, it opens the doors for others to make changes. Five boroughs. Right now. A city for itself project.
Oh, and I have to thank Rameet Chawla. I built the first version of the app with a friend of mine. It was our Beta version and had some challenges, so I looked for a tech co-founder. I Googled the fifty most important tech people in New York, and I e-mailed all of them. I was told that no one would help, but #4 on the list, Rameet Chawla, got back to me. He’s the founder of Fueled. He joined as SPARE’s co-founder and donated over $200,000 worth of resources to build our product. He said yes.
He’s a rock star in the industry and the most stylish man I know!
And if you own or manage a restaurant and want to participate, sign up with SPARE: http://sparenyc.org/how-to-be-a-spare-restaurant/
We need your help!
Lead-In Image Courtesy of Vladimir Wrangel / Shutterstock.com
Portrait Courtesy of Andra Tomsa
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org