From the Kitchen

This new restaurant is serving up New York City favorites from a basement

Hieu Nguyen | Staff Photographer

Employees prepare food in the Good Uncle Kitchen, using the same ovens and fryers found in the New York City restaurants that have licensed their items to the tech startup.

UPDATED: April 2, 2017 at 10:58 p.m.

At a time when all the buzz on South Crouse Ave is about businesses on their way out, one is settling in quite comfortably. And it’s doing so without a storefront.

Just a block away from the strip that now houses only Hungry Chuck’s, in the basement of an apartment complex resides a newcomer called Good Uncle. At first glance, there’s nothing pretty about it. Bleak, grey hallways lead to the kitchen buried within the lowest floors of 614 S. Crouse Ave. Mounds of storage line the walls. But the hidden kitchen buried in it all acts as a portal to the Big Apple.

Good Uncle is a recent tech startup that doubles as a delivery-only restaurant. The bulk of its menu consists of popular New York City brands that have been licensed to Good Uncle to be made right here in Syracuse. Same ingredients, same recipes, same cooking methods — just in a different place and without the cost of maintaining a storefront. It launched in mid-January after testing the the market in limited quantities late last semester

“At the root of it, we’re really a logistics company,” CEO and co-founder Wiley Cerilli said. “… But people like to think of us as a delivery-only restaurant.”

Delivery-only, but not the way delivery usually happens. Instead of sending out drivers with a meal or two to the location of every individual order, Good Uncle places drop-points that have scheduled delivery times. This way, more orders can fit in Good Uncle’s signature massive black delivery trucks.

The drop times are scheduled around student life. Some are guaranteed to fit within the 10-minute window between classes. Others cater to temporary needs — when the SU men’s basketball team hosted Duke, Good Uncle created a drop point at the Carrier Dome’s gate E for students waiting in line.

On-campus, orders can be made through Good Uncle’s app. If a customer is off-campus — Good Uncle delivers within a 15-mile radius of Syracuse University — the app will automatically redirect the customer to order through the GrubHub app.

Cerilli, who attended SU for one year before dropping out to join the founding team of Seamless — now GrubHub — in 1999, is no stranger to the big-money world of tech startups. His last company, SinglePlatform, sold to Constant Contact $100 million in 2012. What Cerilli said seemed “laughable” to him 20 years ago is now the reality he lives every day.

This track-record helped Cerilli lure iconic brands to sign with Good Uncle. Joe’s Pizza, for example, has been owned and operated by Naples, Italy native Joe Pozzuoli and his family since its founding in Greenwich Village in 1975.

Now, with Good Uncle, they’ve expanded to a new market without the cost of opening a new location. Good Uncle can’t tarnish the Joe’s Pizza brand, Cerilli said, because an online, delivery-only operation means there’s no second restaurant. Good Uncle doesn’t borrow the whole menu, just the best two or three items. The restaurant uses the same ovens Joe’s has in Brooklyn, and Joe’s gets a monthly check from a percentage of the sales.

“It’s cash they would never have access to,” Cerilli said.

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Hieu Nguyen | Staff Photographer

To reel in this cash, Cerilli and his co-founder Matt Doumar have assembled a team of like-minded employees. Andrew Nolan, another entrepreneur with a past in startups, serves as manager of operations. In the greasy Good Uncle kitchen, as fryers sizzle and mounds of bacon wait for their destination, he sports an Apple Watch and tie tucked beneath a sweater.

“Every step in my career has been pushing toward delivery-only, so coming on board with a bunch of young entrepreneurs that are intelligent and hardworking and have the same values as me — that’s really been the best part of the experience,” Nolan said.

Student involvement has been key as well. In the “viral environment” of a college campus, Cerilli said their perspective and constructive feedback has helped shape these early stages. Seth Samowitz, assistant operations manager and senior dual majoring in finance and information management and technology, came on board last semester as a typical student brand ambassador. He enjoyed his role, but wanted more involvement.

Now he’s building the training manual for employees, including processes for making the food and operating their customer support software. At the moment, it’s a thick stack of papers still in the works. But soon it’ll help Good Uncle piece together branches at other campuses.

“I’m literally building something that is so key to our success,” Samowitz said.

Tough times have been rare for Good Uncle so far. Cerilli said he feels very lucky and that “things are booming.” Even a recent polarizing headline couldn’t bring his spirits down. If anything, they were boosted.

Just last week, news broke that Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, was an early seed investor in Good Uncle. But once Cerilli saw Kushner’s involvement with Trump’s campaign, Cerilli knew the values of Good Uncle didn’t align with the image Kushner represented. In a basically unprecedented move in the world of venture capital, Cerilli offered Kushner his money back. Kushner spitefully accepted.

“It’s something I’m very proud of. I’m proud of us as an organization,” Cerilli said.

But that’s in the past. Good Uncle now moves forward with plans to grow. It will introduce a meal plan next semester, just a tiny detail of its effort to change the world from the depths of its basement lair.

Said Samowitz: “This is revolutionizing the industry and revolutionizing franchising.”

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