Can Local Tech Make Dining Out ‘Seamless, Tailored & Magical?’

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Technology is slowly remaking the restaurant industry, reinventing long-established elements of the eating-out experience and making us reevaluate some of the customs associated with dining out.

Nowait’s app originally was created to help diners avoid waiting for their table — but the app also gathers information (from reservations to meal service and more) that restaurant managers can use to understand and serve their customers better while maximizing the potential for more business. With the addition of a new payment product coming soon (already in beta in the Pittsburgh area), the company is hoping to build out a full stack of tools to optimize restaurant management.

We recently caught up with Nowait CEO Ware Sykes, who will be a speaker at Street Fight Summit West next week in San Francisco, to talk about about how technology is rethinking the conventions of dining out for both customers and restaurateurs.

What are some of the marketing and technology pain points specific to the restaurant industry? What problems do you find restaurateurs most want to solve?
Restaurant managers and owners want to have smoother operations, they want to have higher sales and they want their guests to have a tailored experience. Their number one concern is how do I get more people to eat at my restaurant, deliver a great experience for them when they are in it and then get them to come back.

Nowait helps solves many of those problems by providing them with the ability to extend their busy times by allowing customers to get in line on their phone rather than waiting at the restaurant.

Nowait is essentially a product to enhance the consumer experience by cutting down wait times and optimize reservations. Do you see this as a standalone service going forward, or do you see it as part of a wider marketing system for restaurants?
A hundred percent of your customers walk by your host stand as they get in line — we collect their phone numbers and we will be able to integrate into point of sale. Now we’ve announced a payments product and will actually be able to tie back consumers opening our app and discovering a restaurant, ultimately eating at that restaurant and then returning in the future. We think there are lots of enhancements we can make where restaurant owners can have CRM capability or loyalty programs within the Nowait experience. We are tracking that information so there’s no reason we can’t add a level of insight for restaurants they aren’t able to get and reach into the consumer network we have to be able to not only understand who eats in your restaurant, but also be able to potentially market to new consumers.

How much actionable data can merchants get out of the Nowait system? What kinds of things can you get to know about customers by analyzing their reservations?
You can understand how accurate you are in quoting your wait times to consumers. With the front end of the experience, where someone walks in and the wait time they are quoted is 45 minutes and it’s actually 30, we can actually let the restaurant know how effective they are in actually managing their queue. That’s really important because what happens is when someone tells you the wait is 45 minutes, you leave. Thirty minutes is the magic number. What we find so often is 18-year-old hosts and hostesses are so nervous about getting in trouble or yelled at by customers that they just overquote. We can add transparency into the wait.

We also can understand how efficient you are at seating people at your tables with our table management platform. Some of our restaurants have redesigned the outlay of their restaurant because they realize they had the wrong composition of tables. For example, one restaurant, after looking at a month’s worth of data, realized the majority of parties they had were tables of two or four and yet they had a bunch of six-tops in their restaurant that were basically going empty during the time. So by taking the data we had, they were able to redesign the layout of their restaurant and increased sales substantially because of that.

Nowait CEO Ware Sykes
Nowait CEO Ware Sykes

Restaurants notoriously run on razor-thin margins — what does decreasing wait times do to help that? Can your system turn tables faster?
We extend the busy times in terms of if people are willing to wait at restaurants because they can get in line on their phone. We’re able to allow people to wait when they want. We keep the busy restaurants busier and help them increase their sales.

Because it’s an operational system, the tables don’t sit idle longer. We are able to turn tables faster when they use the system during busy times because by being able to notify guests when the next party is ready, the tables don’t sit idle as long. We are able to convert more people from the waitlist by quoting more accurately. So instead of saying 45 minutes when it’s really 30, we’ll say it’s 30.

How will your new payments product integrate into the functionality of the system?
Our payments product is going to help turn tables faster more. Often times you can wait five or 10 minutes after a meal for a check. With our new payments product you’ll be able to pay for your meal from your phone and be able to eliminate the time at the end of the meal. It’s great for the consumer and great for the restaurant because they get the table back sooner. The product is currently in beta in Pittsburgh right now.

How do you think restaurant technology will change the way we eat out over the next few years? What are some of the big breakthroughs, and what are some of the bigger pain points in the way restaurants are currently set up?
I ultimately think when you decide to eat out the on a Friday night it should be easy and not trying to figure out where to go and if you can get in and you want a great experience. We think you should be able to open up the Nowait application, have three or four choices and be able to input three answers. Here are three options for you in the next 20 minutes and let’s say one is a Mexican place – you decide you want to eat there so you press the button – when you get there they should have margarita waiting for you because they know you love margaritas, they know you are coming, they have your order history, you’ve given them ratings. You show up at the restaurant and at the bar is your margarita. When you sit down maybe you’ve pre-ordered your menu items or you browsed the menu from your phone while drinking a margarita and decided you wanted to get the special of the day and that’s waiting for you when you get to your table.

The whole experience can be completely seamless and completely tailored and can be magical for you – no matter what type of restaurant you’re in. Whether it’s the most fabulous restaurant to a burger joint. Why shouldn’t the burger joint be able to offer that level of hospitality if technology can do that? There’s nothing better than showing up at a place where they know you and your regular meal is ready for you and that should be the experience everyone has. You should be able to do that whenever you want, wherever you want or however you want.

Liz Taurasi is a Street Fight contributor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hear more from Nowait’s Ware Sykes next Tuesday at Street Fight Summit West in San Francisco. Click on the icon below for tickets!