This 25-year-old San Diegan created an easy way to buy online gift cards for struggling local restaurants

Co-founders Alec Fong (left) and Nader Khalil (right) stand with a new restaurant customer at Saiwalks in San Francisco.
Co-founders Alec Fong (left) and Nader Khalil (right) stand with a new restaurant customer at Saiwalks in San Francisco.
(Courtesy of Paneau)

While small-business owners with shuttered dining rooms struggle to make ends meet, a local entrepreneur has offered a free way to receive gift card revenue online


As mom and pop restaurants and coffee shops cap a month of shuttered dining rooms, many small-business owners are looking for ways to make additional cash during the crunch.

Supportive customers who want to keep their favorite spots alive have descended on social media in the past few weeks to encourage locals to buy gift cards now to use later when things reopen. The idea has permeated talks of supporting small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s just one problem. Many small businesses don’t have a way to sell and process gift cards online.

Now, a 25-year-old entrepreneur in San Diego is offering up a solution through his company Paneau. Nader Khalil and his 23-year-old co-founder Alec Fong have built a fast and simple way for small businesses to sell virtual gift cards and process them digitally.

Nader Khalil, co-founder of Paneau, is an ex-software engineer at Workday.
(Courtesy of Paneau)

Khalil, a former software engineer at fintech and HR software giant Workday, launched his own startup, Paneau in 2019. The company has already received a stamp of approval from the startup community in San Francisco, where they recently graduated from the highly competitive accelerator Y Combinator.

Paneau’s original business idea was to place tablets in Uber and Lyft vehicles throughout San Francisco, positioning targeted, local advertisements to passengers on their drive. They still do this, and it’s one of their main revenue drivers. Khalil splits his time between his home in San Diego and San Francisco.

But when the pandemic took hold, many of Paneau’s customers either shut down or began to struggle financially. Khalil and Fong began brainstorming how they could help their target market — small, local businesses — survive.

“Consumers are going en masse to purchase gift cards for their local businesses right now, but we noticed that about two-thirds of these local shops didn’t have a gift card platform,” Khalil said. “Your favorite bar or taqueria we all love has never sold gift cards before.”

How the gift cards work

Khalil and Fong, who hold degrees in computer engineering and computer science, designed and coded a plug-and-play software tool that any small business could use. Essentially, the small-business owner sets up an account with Paneau (for free), which links their bank account details with Paneau using the secure payments platform Stripe. The shop owner decides the dollar increments they want to sell via gift cards, and is then issued a unique link. This link can be shared on social media campaigns, websites, email newsletters, and any other marketing channel.

Customers then click the link, buy the gift card online, and watch as the loaded gift card appears in their digital Apple Pay wallet (Google Wallet is next, but not fully built yet). From here, customers just need to show their phone at checkout to pay.

The business pays nothing to use this service. For now, during the pandemic, Paneau is waiving all transaction fees until they reach over $250,000 in transactions on their platform. After that, they will pass on the cost of the transaction to the gift card purchaser, not the business owner.

The competition

Paneau is not alone in tackling this particular problem for small-business owners. Interested customers can peruse countless small businesses on, which lists local spots using the Square point-of-sale (POS) system. The site funnels customers to SquareUp, which allows them to buy gift cards for their favorite spots online. They are only one of many providers of online gift cards.

Khalil said Paneau sets itself apart by being “POS agnostic,” meaning small businesses don’t have to use Square to be able to sell and process Paneau’s gift cards.

Another San Diego startup, Bitmo, sells digital gift cards to larger businesses with multiple locations. Founder and CEO J. Michael Smallwood said he believes the COVID-19 pandemic will speed up the adoption of contactless payment, whether it’s through Bitmo, Apple Pay, or other new services like Paneau.

“Today, people are starting to have reservations about using cash — or even the old plastic card,” Smallwood said.

Paneau raised $150,000 from Y Combinator to build out its startup and is currently fundraising for a longer runway.