NEW YORK >> Justin Harter made an important discovery a few years ago while hawking ice pops on Rockaway Beach in Queens: "Once people get to the beach, they don't want to move."
That realization, coupled with overwhelming demand for some of the exotic fare at the Rockaway Beach Boardwalk concessions (from overstuffed arepas to Harter's ice pops, which come in flavors like mango caipirinha), led Harter and his business partner, Matthew Blance-Stephany, to make something new.
Namely, a food delivery app for the beach.
It's called Combrr, and it will soon allow people to buy items from concession stands from their towels, avoiding lines that lately stretch clear across the boardwalk.
On the beach, responses to news of the app were unequivocally enthusiastic. "Get out!" Cindy Solorzano, a yoga teacher who lives in the neighborhood, said the other day as she sat on a beach blanket nibbling a colorless sandwich that she had brought from home. "Yes, I would use that. The lines at the concession stand take so much time from time at the beach."
"Everyone has been talking about it," said Blance-Stephany, who came from Sydney, Australia, to work in New York's food industry. "We're the ones doing it."
Like Harter, 30, who was once the headwaiter of the Soho House rooftop pool lounge, Blance-Stephany, 31, fled Manhattan's restaurant world for the Rockaways, burned out, by his account, from serving jobs. He started a juice bar, Conchos, before he met Harter, and the two created CitySticks Parlor, which serves its gourmet ice pops, along with ice cream sandwiches made with doughnuts, at the 97th Street concession. They decided to create their delivery app last winter.
They settled on the name after many brainstorming sessions. "Food Feed, Flying Squirrel, Pointy — they were bad," Blance-Stephany said. "We liked the idea of a beachcomber." But that name was taken, so they got creative with the spelling.
Combrr, which is expected to appear soon in the Apple App Store, will initially deliver food from two vendors: CitySticks and Breezy's BBQ. At first, just two people will deliver orders, biking up and down the boardwalk and traipsing across the sand. By next summer, its creators envision hiring more than a dozen runners to deliver from all three Rockaway Beach boardwalk concessions, and from nearby restaurants.
"Is there a market? Yeah, I think so," said Rich Gouger, a manager at Bolivian Llama Party, which has a stand at the 97th Street concession, and whose owners are considering adding their menu to the app. "Last weekend I had a line from here to the fence. We got annihilated."
One question remains: How will runners find customers on busy weekends, when Rockaway Beach becomes an obstacle course of umbrellas and barely distinguishable bodies?
Combrr works a lot like Uber: Customers drop a pin at their location.
Vendors can accept or decline an order, and customers can track its progress from the app. There's a $5 delivery fee, and the entire transaction, including the tip, is done digitally, bypassing the city's requirement for a permit to sell items on the beach.
But in addition to geolocation technology, Combrr relies on customers' selfies and instructions. A sample note: "We're wearing pink bikinis sitting under a polka-dot umbrella on 99th."
When the partners were recently testing the app near the 97th Street concession, Blance-Stephany said: "It's very, very complicated. There are actually four apps" — one each for customer, vendor, runner and administrator — "and they all have to communicate perfectly."
Harter placed an order on the customer app, dropping a pin (shaped like an ice cream cone) and snapping a selfie: deeply tanned, in shades and a faded blue cap. Blance-Stephany, who was using the runner app and appeared as a bicycle on Harter's screen, received the order and began walking up the boardwalk, resembling a gondolier in his straw hat. Harter kept his eyes on his iPhone. "The little bike dude is coming to our little ice cream cone!" he said with relief.
Blance-Stephany arrived. "Job complete," he said.
The Rockaway Beach concessions, which appeared in their present artisanal incarnation in 2011, have been credited with turning the beaches into culinary hubs. The seaside food scene has remained charmingly low-tech — operating out of sandy-floored bunkers and brightly painted shanties with surfboard racks.
The app might seem to signal an end to that, but it shares some of the Rockaways' DIY ethos. Its creators, who had no previous tech experience, posted their idea just this year on a website for freelancers called Upwork. They hired a team of developers in India and paid for their services, about $20,000, using revenue from CitySticks, their ice-pop stand. "We like thinking we are the owners," Blance-Stephany said. Unlike startups suffused with venture capital, he said, "it's local businesses supporting local businesses."
Combrr, which is free, will be available not long before the concessions close, a week after Labor Day. The creators had hoped to begin around the Fourth of July but were held up by bugs in the software, said Blance-Stephany, who said he had been talking daily to the coders in New Delhi, "who are up way too late."
"It's been frustrating," Harter said. "In a restaurant, when there are delays, you can call in your sous-chef and have the food hit the table. We can't jump in and start writing code." So they are choosing to view this summer as a trial period.
"I think it's going to be interesting," he said. "There will be some interesting operational logistics that will be fun to work out."
But were they prepared? "Sure," he said. "It's no more stress than catering a $250,000 bat mitzvah."