The first time David Fine parked his bagel van off Penn’s campus, he realized right away that he was providing a much-needed service—though it wasn’t exactly the “good” he was hoping to do with his business. It was a Sunday morning about a year ago on Locust between 41st and 42nd streets. A group of Penn students walking by stopped suddenly in front of Fine, who was peering out the window of his bright red food truck, Schmear It.
“I’m so hungover,” one of them declared. “And this is a bagel truck, right here? Am I dreaming?”
Those students were among Schmear It’s earliest customers, a small test audience that proved one of Penn grad Fine’s start up theories: Penn desperately needed good bagels. But the students that day probably didn’t notice that Fine’s mission goes far beyond bagels and specialty toppings.
With every bagel Fine sells, the 25-year-old entrepreneur is also raising money for charities in Philadelphia—a few cents at a time. Since opening his truck in August 2013, he has given approximately $5,700 to around 30 different Philly nonprofits, each of whom gets the proceeds from two weeks of sales. So far, the payouts are small: In the range of $150 to $200 each, which charities can take as cash or in catering for an event.
For now, Schmear It’s profits are small, too, as Fine works to pay off his truck, and his five part-time employees. (He pays himself mostly in bagels.) But business is growing steadily: Fine sells out his bagels at Penn four days a week, at festivals and events on weekends, at the Navy Yard and in LOVE Park a couple days a week. (He tweets the location of the Schmear It van every day.) Next winter, he will open his first brick and mortar store in the new University City Science Center building at 3601 Market Street. And he says—between learning the ropes of the food truck business and trying to create fresh, delicious meals for his customers—he has dreams of a Schmear It empire. “Would I like to see Schmear It as the next Starbucks?” he says. “That would be pretty cool. I think what we do is what the modern consumer is looking for.”
But the socially-conscious businessman didn’t want to wait to make it big before sharing his profits. “I knew that I wouldn’t be able to pay off the truck, and pay my employees, and give to these causes, and still be flowing in money from the start,” Fine says. “I thought it was important to give from the beginning anyway, to show that this is a true and genuine business model.”
A Baltimore native, Fine says he always intended to do work that satisfied more than his wallet—though he didn’t know what that would look like at first. He graduated from Penn in 2011, and moved home for a nonprofit job at a health care agency. But he quickly realized the limitations of the nonprofit: Money was not used efficiently or creatively, and his work—though meaningful—was also boring. Instead, Fine turned to the for-profit business world for inspiration. “If you look at Toms and Warby Parker, those are for-profit companies with a social mission at the very core of their brand,” Fine says. “Those are very successful companies. And they use their profits for good.”
A foodie at heart, Fine says he struck on the idea of a bagel truck for two reasons: The built-in customer base of Penn students. And he didn’t need formal food training.
Instead, Fine gets his bagels from South Street Bagels, and customizes schmears the way Cold Stone Creamery customizes ice cream. Customers choose from a menu of about 30 individual ingredients, from cream cheese to Sriracha, or choose a signature schmear, the most popular of which are Loxsmith (cream cheese, chopped lox, scallions, tomatoes and cucumbers) and Stuffed French Toast (cream cheese, strawberries, bananas, walnuts, cinnamon and maple syrup).
Fine chooses recipients for his donations through a simple application on Schmear It’s website, where the only criteria is that an organization be a nonprofit in Philadelphia. Schmear It features the group on its website, in its Twitter feed, and next to the ordering window for two weeks. Fine realizes this approach means he’s having only a minimal impact on a lot of different groups, and says he may decide to focus more on just a couple nonprofits a year, so his donation is more significant. “The question is, ‘Are we spreading ourselves too thin?’” he asks (pun apparently unintended). “We’re still working through the best way to do this.”
In the meantime, Fine is channeling his grandfather, a not wealthy man who responded to every charity letter that came in the mail—even if he sent just $5. “He wanted to help whoever needed it,” Fine recalls. “That’s sort of my model for doing this.”