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Startup Wants Bar Patrons to Round Up Tabs for Charity

By Patrick Wall | July 22, 2013 1:43pm
 The startup, called Spare Change, would help bars and restaurants add a donation line to their receipts.
Spare Change Startup
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PORT MORRIS — Andra Tomsa lugged bag after bag of thin spaghetti boxes, canned vegetables and chicken noodle soup into a food pantry last week — 300 pounds worth, the pantry scales found.

After the pantry director explained how far the food would go — some 250 needy people would turn the items to make countless meals — Tomsa seemed surprised by the impact of her delivery.

“That was just people partying at a club one night,” Tomsa, 26, explained after she left the pantry.

Tomsa had bought the food using some $400 in donations that she collected one night the previous week from patrons at Sutra Lounge in the East Village.

The club was the first to partner with Spare Change, the nonprofit startup that Tomsa, a bartender with a master's degree in economics, recently launched in the hopes of raising thousands of dollars for charity each year at clubs, restaurants and stores around the city.

Her idea is simple: the businesses will add an extra option on receipts that allows consenting customers to round the bill up to the next dollar. Tomsa’s agency will then collect the donated change and funnel it to certain approved charities.

If enough businesses partner with Spare Change, then many micro donations could add up to produce a macro impact, Tomsa argues.

At the same time, the service could alter the way some people think of philanthropy, she insists.

“My idea is to make donation a part of daily life,” Tomsa said. “It’s forcing people to be conscious — a tiny bit at a time.”

Tomsa, who studied economics as an undergraduate and graduate student at Fordham University and lives in Port Morris, was a financial advisor until last winter, when she realized her heart wasn’t in the work.

On Christmas Day, she contemplated a next move — maybe a startup venture — that could meld her love of numbers with her desire for social justice.

First, she thought about how, as she worked her way through college as a bartender, she had watched flush partiers shell out hundreds of dollars in a single night on booze. She also recalled bank programs that round up customers’ debit card purchases and deposit the difference into their savings accounts.

What if she could create a similar service for club hoppers and fine diners, but with the differences directed to charity?

She crunched the numbers and found that if each partner business could raise just $4 per hour from change donated on bills, then that would amount to $20,000 per business per year.

“The math is just exponential,” she said.

For the past several months, Tomsa has been fine-tuning her business plan.

In order to get the biggest bang for each donated buck, she decided to direct the Spare Change revenue directly to the research wings of hospitals that study cancer and heart disease, as well as to the Food Bank of New York City.

She is exploring a way to let donors check off on their bills which charity they would like to receive their change — but she is determined to keep the guilt-inducing and arm-twisting to a minimum.

“I’m trying to kick away all the stuff that usually annoys people about donations,” she said.

In the meantime, Tomsa has left her financial job and returned to bartending — now at an upscale steakhouse in Manhattan.

The venue has been ideal for pitching her plan to receptive customers, including many who own establishments where she hopes to bring Spare Change.

In fact, one customer, Charles Grimley III, who owns a collection agency in New Jersey, agreed to be a partner in her company and to provide startup funds. This month, the Bronx’s Clock Bar agreed to offer the service; the owners are currently working on adding a Spare Change donation line to their bills.

Co-owner Michael Brady called the plan a “no-brainer” — it allows businesses to foster good will by facilitating donations without cutting into profits.

“There are so many customers who don’t take their change,” he said. “So why not give that to a good cause?”