Pizza, Databases, and an Armpit: The Founder of Grubhub Explains Its Origins

Pizza, Databases, and an Armpit: The Founder of Grubhub Explains Its Origins

In Hangry: A Startup Journey, Grubhub founder Mike Evans explains the humble beginnings of what would become a massive food delivery empire. In the days before he helped launch said empire, Evans was a lot like the rest of us — hustling to get through another workday and wracking his brain to figure out how to feed himself in between. With detail and humour, the entrepreneur sheds light on his early days in the tech industry and reveals how his nightly meal choices of pizza, lucky charms, or pizza, led him to the idea that would eventually grow into a billion dollar company.  

Below is an excerpt from chapter one, “Old Spice, New Hobby.”

GrubHub is born in an armpit.

As it turns out, armpits don’t really feature heavily in most startup origin stories. Usually, they go something like this: some wunderkind goes to Harvard, or Stanford, or MIT. They spend a couple years furiously think- ing about how to get rich by changing the world in some small (but highly profitable) way. After some kind of divinely inspired eureka moment, they quit school, raise a crap ton of cash from venture capitalists, and then, magically, two years later have an IPO, and start buying islands and planes and shit.

This is not that story. Mostly, this is a story about how I’m cranky. And that crankiness turned into a hobby. And then that hobby turned into a business. I realise I probably need to learn something about running a business. So, I figure out some stuff as I go along by listening to my customers. And then, over a decade later, I have a huge business. I make a metric shit ton of cash when it goes through an IPO. After that, I’m still cranky. At this point, I could have bought an island, I suppose. But what good would that do anybody? So, I punt everything and go on a bike ride, trying to figure out where I went wrong (oh, by the way, the business went way off the rails and became brutally exploitative), and how to do it right the next time. This story will be disappointingly uninspiring for the Silicon Valley crowd. It isn’t glamorous and doesn’t fit into how the busi- ness schools teach entrepreneurship. But, if you’re a bit of a couch potato, pay attention.

The year is 2002. Tech startups are in the doghouse. Just two years earlier, the dot-com boom, and subsequent bust, cost investors trillions of dollars. So, having recently graduated from MIT, I’ve taken a stable, if boring, job at an early internet mainstay, I’ve just fin- ished work, and I’m heading home. It’s one of those drizzly fall days, the ones that serve as a harbinger of Chicago’s coming winter, with its polar vortexes, potholes, and mystery black slush. I rub my arms and stamp my feet at the bus stop.

Two buses have already sped by, too packed to let anyone else onboard. My stomach clenches — I haven’t eaten since midmorning. Work was so boring that I only made it to 10:45 before skipping out for lunch. Now, dinner is a long way off — with traffic, I’m looking at a solid hour of creeping home along Michigan Avenue toward Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood (also known, vaguely, as “up toward Canada” to the froufrou, downtown crowd).

I’m cold, hungry, and tired. I’m looking forward to finally nabbing some dinner, but I’m also really tired. Maybe I’ll cook something easy tonight? Grilled cheese?

A third bus arrives, also packed, but the driver is willing to let us fight for a couple of spots. I find my way aboard in the wake of a sharp-elbowed MMA fighter, who moments before was cunningly disguised as a kindly grandmother.

The heater on the bus is turned up to the max. The huffs and sighs of a hundred commuters has coated the windows with condensation. A trickle of sweat rolls down my back. Within minutes, drowsiness overwhelms me, my head nodding as we make excruciatingly slow progress north. Grilled cheese is too hard. Three ingredients. Ugh. Maybe quesadillas? That’s only two.

Bam! The bus slams to a stop.

My face makes contact with the armpit of destiny. I have no idea whose armpit it is. It belongs to a perfectly well-groomed man. It doesn’t smell bad. In fact, it smells good. Too good. Like it suffered through too many strokes of cool-fresh-evergreen deodorant.

Nope. Not going to do it. I can’t cook tonight.

We’ve all had this moment. Stomach clenched, tired, hungry, and lack- ing all possible motivation. Mostly, we just shoulder through it, head down, trying to get dinner on the table. But nobody has that much stamina at the end of a long day. It’s exactly this feeling that makes delivery so appeal- ing. But it’s also true that nobody wants to call a pizza place, get put on hold, and then read their credit card numbers over the phone to a teenage kid. But unfortunately for Mike with his face in dude’s armpit, GrubHub won’t exist until tomorrow. Actual online ordering is still years away.

I didn’t come to the idea of making delivery better out of the blue. Delivery food has always featured heavily in my life. Being raised the youngest, feral child of a single mum, we were on a first name basis with the Domino’s driver. When she did cook, mum rotated through three or four key dishes, chief among them being “taco salad.” Taco salad con- sisted of crumbled Old El Paso taco shells, browned ground beef, toma- toes, and pinto beans. As an adult, I call this dish “nachos” — but somehow back then, naming it “taco salad” transformed it from a snack to a meal for the whole family. Taco salad was always served in the same bowl, one of the few wedding presents that survived my parents’ marriage. It had the word Munchies written on it in a thick, skating-rink font. (The bowl was such a fixture that it was actually one of the ingredients.) Mum could whip up taco salad in ten minutes. I don’t judge her. In fact, I’m impressed she was able to pull this meal off, while also holding down her third-shift, second job.

I’m not tired, like mum was tired. But I was running on fumes before the armpit, and now there’s nothing left. Unfortunately, even if I am will- ing to go without dinner myself, I’m not the only one at home who needs to eat. It is my task to keep Christine, my wife, alive by getting fuel into her face. She is in the final months of law school, leading up to the bar exam. She hates it in the same way that Hermione Granger hates tests — which is to say, loudly and falsely. She is actually deeply enthralled by her academ- ics, even though she complains about them. I know that when I get home, she will be studying, and when I go to bed, she will be studying. Sure enough, when I wake up, she will be studying. When she is not studying, she is thinking (and complaining) about studying. She is the happiest I’ve ever seen her. (She, by the way, does not appreciate this observation.)

But with all this studying, she can forget to eat, so it falls on me to get her food.

Because the apple does not fall far from the tree, my methods for get- ting dinner on the table closely mirror my mother’s: simple and easy above all else. But it’s hard to get much simpler than quesadillas, and that already seems like a stretch.

This leaves delivery. I bring to mind my drawer of menus awaiting me at home. It has a few decent options: Calo Pizza, Andie’s, Carson’s Ribs. But we had all three this week already, so we need something new. That means one thing: the Yellow Pages.

Here’s the cranky part that eventually turns into a billion-dollar busi- ness: I loathe the Yellow Pages.

Sure, there are a bunch of restaurants in there, along with ads and cou- pons. If a restaurant exists, it stands to reason that it’s listed, meaning the Yellow Pages are comprehensive at least. But this enormous trove of information is presented alphabetically, with emphasis sold to the high- est bidders. This is a shockingly poor way to present delivery restaurants because it doesn’t answer the only two questions that I care about when I’m hungry: Do they deliver to me? And are they any good?

So, why couldn’t I just create a website that lists all the restaurants that delivered to my zip code? It wouldn’t be hard — I could code it up in one night. Tonight, even.

This is not the first time that this particular thought has gone through my head. I never feel like cooking, so I face this problem — and day- dream this solution — a few times a week. Plenty of bus rides home, I have thought, “Hey, maybe this time I’ll start coding up a delivery guide when I get home.” But every time, that motivation has given way to reading a sci-fi novel, or playing Halo on Xbox, or watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

But this is the first time that I’ve thought about it with my face smashed into a stranger’s overscented underarm. Apparently, this was the missing ingredient — the thing that has finally motivated me to take the first step of turning an idea into an actual hobby.

I arrive home. The steep stairs to our second-floor apartment always feel like an extra kick in the teeth after a long day. I’m greeted by an inferno blast as I open the door. The boiler driving our ancient radiator heat has one setting: roast humans. One of the enormous steel registers is gurgling with the first use of the season.

“I’m home!”

“In here, studying.”

(See? Told you so.)

I make my way to the kitchen/dining room. It’s just barely big enough for a table and chairs. OK, that’s a lie — it’s just barely big enough for our table and chairs. When we moved in, we treated ourselves to our first grown-up present, an enormous dining room table. It’s big enough to host a feast for twelve. (Have I mentioned we don’t cook?)

Christine has appropriated every bit of space on that table for books and notes. There are piles two and three volumes high in places. At some point, she started using that too big legal-size yellow paper that all lawyers use. The bigger paper has not helped the situation.

“You know, when we bought that table,” I say, “I’m pretty sure we were thinking it would be for sitting at to eat, at some point.”

“That would require one of us cooking, at some point,” Christine says, not unreasonably.

“So, pizza?”


“Any other ideas?”

“Um. Lucky Charms?”


She shrugs and I go to fix her the Lucky Charms. She flashes me a sincerely grateful smile, happy that she didn’t need to pause her studies, overlong. She goes back to reading about federal jurisdictions, or some such, all the while munching away on blue diamonds, green shamrocks, and purple horseshoes.

I get myself a bowl of deliciously empty calories and carve a little work- space on the table, hoping she’s too engrossed to realise I’ve moved some of her stuff. Time to get started on this delivery guide website.

I open my laptop and start coding. First step is to create a map of Chi- cago. Once that’s done, I trace in all the zip codes. I want a user to be able to click on the one in which they live. Then, once they’ve committed to that ballpark location, it should be a simple task to look up which restau- rants deliver in that proximity. This simple innovation is, honestly, already at least one million times better than the Yellow Pages.

Storing restaurant names, phone numbers, operating hours, and so on, requires the use of a database. I like a free one called MySQL, an open-source database system created by a trio of Scandinavians in the mid-1990s. In the database, I set up the various tables of data, along with defining the relationships between them. I then invent a theoretical test restaurant and load it. It works, but it’s uglier than a DMV website. Mid- night has come and gone. Christine is still studying, so, I keep at it too.

“I’m headed to bed,” Christine finally says, sighing and yawning. “Good night,” I say. And then I remember to ask her how her day went. “Good,” she says, “exhausting. I read two hundred pages today, but I still don’t feel prepared for class tomorrow. Not that it will matter — the lec- tures are just personal anecdotes from the professor’s greatest hits, rather than having anything to do with the actual subject matter. Still, I need to learn this stuff if I’m going to pass the bar. What are you working on?”

“Oh, I figured I’d make a website to store menus, instead of the drawer.” When I say it out loud, it doesn’t sound all that useful.

“That’s cool,” she says, kissing me on the cheek. “It will be good to have something more than three restaurants to order from. Have fun. Good night.”

Determined to get something working before I join her, I continue. I’m still absorbed, tinkering with this cool new delivery guide I’ve made for hours.

Eventually, the sun comes up.

I take a shower, eat some Lucky Charms, and head back out to work.

This article originally appeared in Hangry: A Startup Journey by Mike Evans. Courtesy of Hachette Book Group.

Image: Mike Evans/Hachette Book Group
Image: Mike Evans/Hachette Book Group

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