Growing up in Selma, Alabama, Mark Peterson knew how hard it was for his mother to afford weekly groceries. “My mom struggled to put the kind of food that she wanted on the table,” he says. As she worked to feed her family, she’d spend hours on weekends wading through flyers and booklets for coupons, buying items like eggs or pickles individually at mom-and-pop stores, and often going to four or more stores to locate the best deals.
Motivated by this childhood experience, Peterson launched his company, Ziscuit, as a search engine for grocery item prices. The platform, which he calls “the Kayak of groceries,” allows food insecure customers, or users in food deserts, to look for the best-priced sustenance located near them, potentially saving hours of coupon clipping and driving aimlessly from store to store. Ziscuit estimates its tool could help individual families save up to $520 a year.
Ziscuit users can upload their grocery lists and instantly find the cheapest total bills based on their inputs. Setting various parameters, they could increase savings by widening the radius of travel from home and the number of stores they’re willing to visit. Just as Kayak did for flights and hotels when it first began, Ziscuit uses web crawlers to pull price data from supermarket websites, ranging from Publix to Walmart to Dollar General, depending on the area. The information refreshes frequently to ensure it’s up to date, and users can access it for free. (Ziscuit currently earns revenue through advertising and survey products.)
The site can be used by anyone interested in saving some money, and it comes at a critical time, when grocery prices have risen to a 40-year high due to inflation; food prices on average increased 49% between May 2020 and January 2022. But in particular, Ziscuit hopes to cater to food-insecure households (of which there are an estimated 38 million in the US) as well as Americans who live in food deserts, or areas where access to healthy nutrition is lacking.
Peterson is quick to point out that when it comes to food, supply shortages are not the issue. “Hunger is a logistical problem,” he says. “We have cheap food. We just can’t figure out how to aggregate the demand and get the food to the people who need it the most.”
With help from startup accelerators, including the Techstars Farm to Fork program, which invested $140,000, as well as the Google for Startups Founders Academy, which provides support for Black, Latinx, and veteran-led tech startups, Ziscuit has already launched in four ZIP codes in the Atlanta metro area—a region that’s home to a large share of millennial women with two or more children, a demographic group that the company’s analytics identified as key to its model. These are households that are both tech-savvy and need savings, and that often spend hours online finding recipes, listing ingredients, and trying to procure them.
Currently the company has about 100 users in each ZIP code, and Peterson says he’s received encouraging early feedback. Depending on the parameters set, users have been able to save up to $10 weekly, with the average at just under $5.
In addition to cost and time savings, Peterson has heard feedback that users have also discovered grocery locations nearby that they didn’t know of before, including mom-and-pop shops and dollar stores, some even within walking distance. “People have found significant savings in places that they didn’t expect,” he says.
The company now has its sights set on 23 US cities, each with substantial shares of its target demographic, after which it would eventually like to expand even further. First up is a rollout in two ZIP codes in Birmingham, Alabama, with the help of a $50,000 investment from another tech accelerator, Innovation Depot’s Velocity. In this iteration, Peterson is hopeful to help not only consumers but also smaller retailers like the ones his mother used to frequent, those that may be struggling to compete with the scale at which the Amazons of the world are able to aggregate demand and keep prices low.
Peterson argues, “All those things need to be replicated by smaller retailers if they’re going to survive the next 10 years.”