Stellar start-ups: A better way to do lunch: Online menu system

Much of the data entry, programming and sales work is done by Anglo immigrants here in Israel.

By DAVID SHAMAH
May 30, 2009 23:40
Stellar start-ups: A better way to do lunch: Online menu system

food88. (photo credit: )

 
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Meetings, phone calls, e-mails. Getting chewed out by the boss. Listening to client complaints and counting the days until vacation. Yep, it's another typical morning in the office, enough to make you scream. In fact, you're about to scream, when... saved by the bell! It's lunch time! For many, the work-time lunch hour is more than a meal - it's a refuge, a saving ritual that helps them refocus, take a breather and perhaps even salvage their sanity. So, seen from that perspective, the online menu system at BiteToEat.com (http://www.bitetoeat.com) isn't just a way to cut down ordering frustration and confusion at lunch time; by enhancing the lunch experience, BiteToEat may just make for happier, more productive workers - and give a boost to the restaurant industry as well, with eating establishments getting a new, low-cost way to market themselves and pick up business. In fact, says BiteToEat CEO Jay Bailey, it was after a typical round of "office lunchtime menu bingo" that he realized the idea presented by his partner, chief technology officer Marc Fischman, would work. "We were doing the usual thing," he says, "trying to round up who would order what and trying to coordinate the orders, the payment, etc. I realized that if we had a system like BiteToEat, it would have solved everything." BiteToEat eliminates the frustrating footwork involved in getting office take-out orders together, says Bailey. BiteToEat consists of a social-networking application that enables coworkers (or students, neighbors or even parents who want to order dinner in for the kids) to choose a restaurant that has signed up with the site and place online orders. In most offices, ordering in lunch works like this: One or two people take the initiative and begin an order, then go around the office to see if anyone else is interested, jogging between offices to recruit orders. Instead of taking a hike, says Bailey, the person whose job it is to organize lunch on a particular day stays at his or her desk and chooses what they want from an online menu post at the BiteToEat site. Using their address book, they send colleagues a message about the impending order, with a link to the menu, where they can choose their own items. "Everyone who is interested in ordering can click on the menu and get what they want, and when the last person has ordered, the entire order is called into the restaurant by our system," Bailey says. "Instead of running around with a dog-eared menu and chasing down 'customers,' the whole thing is done in one click, allowing users of the system to enjoy their food without the hassle." The food then gets delivered (or picked up) as a single order, with the order placer divvying up the goodies - the fun part! Bailey and Fischman aim to make things easier not only for the people ordering lunch but for the people filling those orders. With statistics and experience showing that restaurants are not ready for hi-tech computer ordering systems, the pair decided to integrate the BiteToEat system as closely as possible with the work-flow of a typical restaurant. "We found that few restaurants, even in the US, bother with computers, and only 15 percent take orders by fax," says Bailey. What restaurants do know how to do well, however, is take orders by phone - and BiteToEat accommodates them. "When an order is placed, our system, using text-to-voice technology, calls the order into the restaurant, where it joins the establishment's regular order work-flow," Bailey says. "The only change is that we have the restaurant call the customer just to confirm the order, enabling both customer and restauranteur to make contact, adding the human element to the transaction" - and allowing last-minute substitutes for items that the eatery has run out of. Customers get an easy way to order food, while restaurants get an additional ordering channel, grabbing customers they might not have had that day, without requiring workers to interrupt their regular work-flow or adapt to new technology. An additional bonus for the restaurant is that it doesn't cost anything to sign up; BiteToEat doesn't charge membership or start-up fees, but gets paid only when the restaurant gets an order. They bill the client once a month, making it easy for restaurants to integrate the commissions with their regular budgets. "We are trying to enhance the customer's experience and the restaurant's work-flow with technology, enhancing both," says Fischman. "Restaurants have been very open to our ideas and the technology because it allows them to continue working in the way they're used to, but more efficiently and quickly." While some restaurants do have Web sites, the vast majority don't - and only a relative handful have any online ordering mechanism, having learned with experience that such systems are more trouble - and more expensive - than they're worth. "BiteToEat solves those problems for them with our specially designed software, enhancing and tweaking the ordering process for both customers and proprietors, with no charge to consumers and a minimal expense for restaurants, which they pay only for orders that are actually placed," says Fischman. While starting a new Web service for restaurant orders during a recession might seem like a bad idea, Bailey says that BiteToEat is tailor made for recessionary times. "With restaurants pulling money out of advertising and marketing, we're giving them an essentially free method they can use to market themselves," he says. Their ideas were good enough to make an impression on start-up legend Jeff Pulver, who gave them some seed money, which they used to set up an impressive pilot program. That program has proven to be a rousing success, Bailey says. The company is ready to expand beyond the 750 member establishments it has signed up in its first three months of operation and is actively seeking more investment money. And while there are several other online services working in this space, there's enough business for everyone. "Out of the 900,000 or so restaurants in the US, fewer than 1% have any online ordering system whatsoever, and almost all of those are in places like New York and San Francisco," says Bailey. There's plenty of good eating in mid-size cities all across the country, and it's there BiteToEat hopes to have the most impact. Working during a recession has also helped BiteToEat to develop its technology and hone its corporate structure. Restaurant menus are malleable, and BiteToEat wants to ensure that offerings and prices remain up-to-date; the company has taken upon itself the data entry, along with the back-end ordering system. The software takes care of the combinations and options (of which there can be dozens) automatically, but what about getting the information into the system - a very time-consuming task? In order to save money, Bailey and Fischman have out-sourced almost all the data entry, programming and sales work (much of it done by Anglo immigrants here in Israel); as a result, they have spent far less of their angel money than they anticipated, Bailey says. "Our tools can update the menus in minutes, ensuring that the information on the site is relevant, and we've saved as much as two-thirds of our projected outlay by outsourcing the data entry, menu conversion and marketing," says Bailey. And while the recession may slow growth, Bailey is optimistic that BiteToEat can grow, even now, since eating out or ordering in is a "second tier" luxury that people continue to enjoy even during recessions. "Bottom line: people still have to eat, and BiteToEat helps make it easier for customers to order food, while giving restaurants new marketing tools that can help them survive and even thrive," Bailey says. http://www.israeltech.net

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