From car care platforms to ‘ghost kitchens,’ Reno entrepreneurs join startup boom
Since the COVID-19 pandemic shook up the economy, people across the country are choosing to become their own boss. That’s true in Northern Nevada, where a growing number of entrepreneurs are not only forming their own businesses, they’re working to tackle issues brought on by the pandemic.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Tristen Houston walked into a pharmacy in downtown Reno to buy items for a customer who lives near the University of Nevada, Reno campus.
Houston and Derek Sornson are co-founders of Vistro, a food-and-drink order-and-delivery platform. They initially developed this service at the onset of the pandemic to give local restaurants an alternative to major delivery brands like DoorDash. They wanted to help restaurants make money after the pandemic shut down in-door dining.
However, they have now pivoted to delivering consumer packaged goods, focusing on college students specifically.
“Like trying to accommodate students for everything they need,” Houston said. “So whether it’s, you know, an energy drink in the morning or some Tylenol in the morning, or you know, pizza and some ranch at night.”
Their service is catching on. Vistro has more than 400 returning customers and counting, and its business model is expanding. This summer, they plan to open a delivery-only establishment in Reno that houses multiple restaurant brands. This concept is known as a “ghost kitchen,” a trend that has accelerated during the pandemic due to delivery demand and staffing shortages in the restaurant industry.
“We really aim to provide low delivery fees, do really rapid delivery with in-house drivers, kind of just streamline the whole process and really take it to the next level for how food is not only being ordered but also cooked and delivered,” Houston said.
So far, Vistro’s raised $250,000 to build its ghost kitchen. Houston says they’re hoping to double that in pre-seed funding before launching.
The company is one of many Northern Nevada businesses that have launched during the pandemic. In fact, the Reno-Sparks area has seen nearly 100 startups spring up over the past two years. Last year alone, area startups, big and small, raised $1.4 billion in funding, according to the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN).
“That’s outside money coming in to support the companies growing here,” Mike Kazmierski said, who is the CEO of EDAWN. “That’s organic growth. So we’re seeing the kinds of growth that really are important for the next generation and for the future of our economy.”
Another new startup in the area is Loop, a pickup and delivery platform for people who need their vehicle serviced.
Before the pandemic, Dawson Lamb, the founder and CEO, was a busy college student juggling schoolwork and two jobs. So whenever his car was due to get a tune-up, he ran into the same roadblock: he didn’t have the time.
Inspired, Lamb started brainstorming a business idea that would allow people to get their car serviced without leaving the house. When the pandemic hit and people were told to stay home, he saw the need for such a service grow.
“It opened up a door for us to really provide our services to customers, especially high-risk customers that needed a contactless, easy way to get their vehicle serviced,” Lamb said.
Less than two years later, Loop has gained traction. It has more than 300 customers and is seeing its sales grow every month. This year, Lamb plans to expand his startup to Las Vegas.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity for us, and I think we’ve kind of hit on a goldmine here,” Lamb said. “Because the automotive service industry has been stagnant for so long without technology. And we’re really able to introduce that into the market now.”
More than ever, people like Lamb are trying to carve out a niche in an existing industry. In fact, nationwide, nearly 5.4 million applications were filed to form new businesses last year, according to data from the Census Bureau. That’s the most of any year on record, and a 53% increase compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Nevada ranks among the top dozen states on that front. Grace Chou is the director of the UNR Innevation Center, a startup incubator. She says Reno-Sparks, in particular, has become increasingly attractive to entrepreneurs over the past two years. She points to the high quality of life and lower costs of doing business compared to other metro areas.
“Reno is now on the map for many entrepreneurs,” Chou said. “I think our challenge is how do we grow, but trying to keep the cost down so that we don’t end up having a really high-cost structure? Because, you know, we do have competition, places like Austin, Texas.”
Chou says that’s why Northern Nevada needs more investors, infrastructure and talent to not only build startups but keep them here as they grow.