Undone by the pandemic, then reinvented stronger than before
When COVID-19 hit us this spring, more than just our normal rail commuting patterns were disrupted. One young entrepreneur’s business simply imploded… but now he’s coming back, stronger than before.
Joe Colangelo is founder and CEO of Boxcar, the N.J.-based company that bills itself as the “Air B&B of parking,” matching commuters with empty parking spots near train stations in Stamford, Darien, New Canaan and Stratford. Before COVID-19, his business was red hot. But by early March he knew it was doomed as people stopped commuting and demand for parking evaporated.
“We’re lucky our business fell 100%,” he told me. “It forced us to try new things. I’m not the smartest guy in the world but I can figure out what people need.”
And what they needed by mid-March was food. So Boxcar partnered with local produce distributors that were hurting because their restaurant clients were shut down, and developed a contact-less food box drive-thru service. For $50 you could drive to a local parking lot, pop your trunk and have a big box of fruits, veg, milk and eggs placed in your trunk.
Boxcar is now doing 1,000 food boxes a week in six N.J. counties and gaining hundreds of new subscribers, building their database. They’ve recently added fresh oysters from the Hamptons, do-it-yourself pizza kits and even Mother’s Day cupcakes made by a local baker who’d otherwise lost his business.
Now other service industries are asking Boxcar to market their work, like at-your- home car detailing and landscaping.
“They handle their expertise and we do what we do best, the tech and the customer service,” says Colangelo.
His latest family-friendly offering is drive-in movies. Even before New Jersey’s governor had allowed them, Colangelo used his municipal contacts to develop a plan so when the state said “OK,” he sold out his bookings in one hour.
Boxcar hires the AV company to set up their gear. The $25 per car is split 50-50 with the movie studio, and up to 200 families get to enjoy a “night out.” So successful has his plan been that 70 towns in the tri-state area are asking him to bring the drive-in concept to their residents.
During all of this business transition Boxcar hasn’t had a single layoff. In fact, they’ve added staff, given everyone a raise and are still profitable.
“Expanding beyond commuter parking was always part of my long-term plan,” says the former U.S. Navy officer turned Booz Allen Hamilton consultant. So in a way, he’s grateful that the pandemic accelerated his plans.
“What I’m looking for is points of friction. People are leaving the city for the suburbs, but that comes with challenges,” he says. “That’s what we want to help them solve. We see Boxcar as a ‘passport to the suburbs’.”
Colangelo still has hope for his commuting clientele. He’s getting a lot of requests now from Fortune 500 companies seeking van pools for their city-bound employees, not just to avoid mass transit but for safety and contact tracing.
“Our software knows exactly who is on every van every day. So if anyone gets sick, we can immediately notify everyone they came in contact with. You can’t do that on mass transit,” says Colangelo.
“I’m desperate for a reason to be bullish on mass transit,” he laments. “But right now I just don’t see any.”
Nor do I, Joe.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.
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