During the summer of 2019, BYU student Jacob Parry slaved away in the kitchen making countless numbers of Sonoran hot dogs for the Provo Farmers Market each Saturday.
He and his wife made the hot dogs for their friends all the time, so they decided to test their luck and sell them at the local farmers market.
Parry sold hundreds of Sonoran hot dogs at each Farmers Market. Although he enjoyed making and selling them, he said he found the whole process exhausting.
“We were making a lot, but it’s like we only get to sell for five hours and we’re putting a ton of work into this,” Parry said.
Flash forward to August 2021: Parry discussed building some kind of start up company with his business partners, Drew Christofferson and Emmanuel Gonzalez. He said the challenges he faced selling homemade food at the farmers market gave them the idea for Ontray.
According to the Ontray website, Ontray is an online marketplace that allows local chefs to make meals in their own homes and sell them to people in their community. The company works with the home cooks by helping them get their food permits, take product images of their meal and find customers.
Since December 2021, Christofferson said Ontray has featured 17 cooks on the app and sold over 400 meals. The main goal of Ontray is for people to find unique and ethnic foods that they wouldn’t be able to find in a restaurant.
According to a 2020 publication by the Journal of Eastern Caribbean Studies, the digital online ordering market contributes an estimated $38 billion in sales in the United States, and 52% of users are likely to use their phones to order food online. Gonzalez said Ontray is growing within this digital marketplace and is gearing its app towards these consumers.
Parry, Christofferson and Gonzalez said they faced many challenges and struggles throughout the process. Parry said they wanted to expand the diversity of meals, but initially only had six cooks on the app.
Parry said coding an app and working through all the bugs is something they are constantly problem-solving. However, the Ontray team has not been alone in their process; they have been developing their company through the Sandbox Program within the Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology.
Chris Crittenden, the director for the Rollins Center and Sandbox founder, works with Ontray and other student start-up companies to guide them through building their businesses.
Sandbox is a newly developed program that provides student innovators with the means and resources to start their own companies, all while receiving 17 school credits.
They have experts that help mentor these students and teach them tips and tricks about running a business. These experts also give these students feedback so they can improve every aspect of their start-up.
Once a company has completed their two semesters of the program, they present their start-up idea to a committee of investors. From there, the company will decide if they want to continue to pursue the start-up or if they want to stop.
Crittenden said it is rewarding to see each of the teams, specifically Ontray, go through hard challenges and find out that they have the strength to push forward through each trial. He noted that it is not easy to get accepted into Sandbox, so seeing these students work hard to learn all of these skills is amazing.
“The real purpose (of Sandbox) is really helping them learn in this really deep and meaningful way in a safe environment where they’re getting tons of mentorship,” Crittenden said.
Parry said the Ontray team has pushed for a lot of advertising to promote their company. It was through Instagram ads they posted that they found one of their chefs, Cynthia Miller.
Miller said she saw an ad about becoming a home chef and instantly became interested because of her love for cooking. She said she enjoyed cooking for her family over the years and thought this would be a fun side job.
Since her discovery of Ontray, she has been consistently making meals every week. Her profile consists of four different entrees, with her most popular dish being her New York-style meatballs and pasta.
Miller said she has found a lot of success selling her meals through Ontray and has explored different meals from other chefs on the app.
“My favorite experience is just the appreciation and people’s compliments,” Miller said. “It’s not just my family telling me this is delicious, but everybody is.”
According to Parry, Ontray has accomplished a lot with the app and there are no plans to stop. One of Ontray’s goals is to expand the business within and beyond Utah.
Gonzalez said Ontray has been one of the best things he has done throughout his college career. He said he is grateful for the community he has helped build with his team.
“It’s pretty awesome how we started with an idea and now it’s turning into an actual company,” Gonzalez said. “We want to continue because it’s helping people come together and learn different cultures.”