They want to revolutionize how people buy food. And they’re borrowing a page from Bitcoin. More or less.
A project team of Manhattan College students led by Hunter Brea and Stephen Serulle have invented MunchCoin, a cryptocurrency accessible to ordinary people to be used in daily life, intended to give independent restaurants and eateries a competitive advantage over giant corporations. And it’s as easy as spending money on the food college students already eat, uploading an image of their receipt, and tucking their rewards into their digital wallets.
It could be the biggest thing since Bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency that traded at nearly $20,000 at its peak.
“I mean, hopefully in the future we get to that point,” Serulle said, “but I think that’s a little ways out.”
“That’ll be when we’re on the front page of the Wall Street Journal,” Brea said with a laugh.
It was Brea who first toyed with the idea of making his own cryptocurrency two years ago.
“Me and my dad were driving around and we started talking about (cryptocurrency) because he’s an entrepreneur and got really interested in it, too,” the Manhattan College senior said. “I figured I could make my own with a little knowledge of coding, so we just started throwing names and ideas out there. We love food, so we came up with ‘MunchCoin.’
“My dad didn’t think anything of it, but I kind of brought that idea home with me and started messing around with it.”
Cryptocurrency is like electronic money. But instead of units of value established by a government and regulated by a central bank, the units are purely digital and controlled by a decentralized network of thousands — or even millions — of users. This network, called a “blockchain,” maintains an ongoing ledger of how many of the cryptocurrency’s units are in circulation, who holds them, and verifies recent transactions. Value units can be traded for goods and services just like regular money if the merchant accepts it as payment.
“People use credit cards, right? When you swipe your credit cards, physical money isn’t going from your bank to someone else,” Brea said. “It’s literally just digits. Everything is digitized now, so using a credit card is just moving some numbers around. It’s the same difference with crypto.”
MunchCoin is based on the blockchain system, but with a few important adaptations to everyday life. There are nine businesses in Riverdale and Yonkers that are part of the MunchCoin program. Any of the 4,000 MunchCoin owners who spend money at these businesses have the chance to get rewards for their loyalty.
To earn MunchCoins, customers visit one of the participating eateries. For every dollar they spend there on food, they receive a certain number of MunchCoins. Right now, the exchange rate is about 200 MunchCoins for every dollar, but that rate will change once more people hold tokens.
“The food industry in New York is super saturated. You have so many options,” Serulle said. “By being one of the only vendors that give out MunchCoins, they’re getting involved in this cryptocurrency community that has never been seen in the food industry, and that gives them an incentive.”
To redeem their rewards, the user snaps a photo of their receipt with their smartphone camera and submits it through the MunchCoin app to Brea’s team.
“And then you get a certain amount of MunchCoin in return delivered into your cryptocurrency wallet, depending on how much you spent on that transaction,” Serulle said.
“So as long as you’re buying sandwiches, chips or whatever, you’re getting rewards,” Brea added.
Along with marketing director Serulle, Brea’s team of Elvis Rodriguez, Mike Fulton, Christopher Dubois and Greg Urena has campaigned to make MunchCoin a mainstay among folks on campus by partnering with nearby independent eateries. A MunchCoin logo on the window outside of a business lets users know they can earn rewards by spending money at places like Jasper’s Deli or New Riverdale Gourmet Deli, both on West 238th Street, not far from Manhattan College.
Earning MunchCoins is easy, but the team has yet to find a way to make their tokens spendable
“Currently we’re trying to work with food festivals, food truck events, eat-offs and maybe exchanging MunchCoin at certain venues,” Brea said. “But that is the best way to do it so far.”
The team plans to partner with merchants to offer food-centric rewards that can be exchanged for MunchCoins instead of it being a currency that can be spent on the consumer’s choice of goods and services. Food festivals are incredibly popular, and the team hopes to begin partnering with some around the city this summer to offer free admission in exchange for MunchCoins.
The team is focusing on expanding MunchCoin’s reach and hopes to get more mom-and-pop restaurants on board. The program is only for independently owned restaurants, which may struggle to compete with huge corporations.
“Online companies like Amazon and even Walmart are siphoning small businesses of everything they have at this point,” Brea said. “We’ve seen a lot of businesses in this area close in the four years since I’ve been here. To me, it’s sad. I like that fact that we’re supporting local business. I like the feeling you get when you walk into a small store and you spend money there instead of giving it to a huge corporation that’s not going to care about you in the long run.”
And while MunchCoin isn’t earning them stacks of dollar bills right now, the team feels rewarded for pioneering a new use for cryptocurrency.
“Just the fact that we’re doing something innovative, that could change the way that people can buy certain type of goods, I feel that … it’s a personal goal of mine to inspire the next project,” Serulle said. “Where we’re doing food, someone else might do shoes or clothing, buying phones.
“It’s inspiring the next wave of people who are going to use cryptocurrency.”