When it comes to cooking up ideas for successful software-based startups entrepreneur Alex Barrotti knows the right recipe: identify a gap in the marketplace and fill it. That’s exactly what he did with his latest venture,TouchBistro, a company whose existence, and success, is more proof in the pudding that Canada can rightfully be called Silicon Valley North.
TouchBistro offers restaurants and bars a tablet-based point of sale (POS) solution, unique to Apple’s iPads (other tablets weren’t viable at the time, says Barrotti). Its mission is to disrupt the current POS space in such establishments by improving the user experience while providing cost savings and a more efficient distribution model (Apple’s App Store) than traditional POS solutions. The idea for the app presented itself to Barrotti when a restaurant owner and friend asked him about a potential software solution that would allow for a truly effective and time-saving table-side serving experience.
To the top of the app store in less than two years
Armed with a successful software background, he decided that tablets would be the best platform for his solution. Barrotti founded TouchBistro in Toronto in November 2010 with business partner George Konrad and debuted the TouchBistro iPad app in the App Store in June 2011. Clearly, bar and restaurant owners the world over have been hungering for a solution like TouchBistro. Since its unveiling in the App Store, it’s become the top grossing food and beverage app in 20 countries. That’s not bad for only two years in market.
“What we tell people is we have a completely table-side, or mobile, experience which can actually work amazingly well on food trucks as well as fine dining,” Barrotti tells Dx3 Digest. “At the end of the day we have a restaurant/hospitality management and point of sale system that transforms the entire experience, giving you a tableside service, or mobile service (you could take orders walking up and down the line at a coffee shop) which we say is 60% cheaper than the next closest thing, and completely disrupts the distribution system. You can be anywhere in the world, download TouchBistro to your iPad and you’re up and running.”
The app features a dashboard called “Floorplan,” which is the first thing servers see when they pick up their iPads. It instantly shows them what tables are occupied, what server is working which section, how long customers have been at a table and how much money they’ve spent at each table. The app also does table and menu presentations. Servers can show customers daily specials and the like, all of which have been captured using the built-in camera. There’s also server-sharing functionality. Any server can log into any one of the iPads by using a waiter code, or using the camera to take a picture of a QR code, and pick up where they left off last shift. For customer convenience, the app also facilitates mobile payments. Servers can show them their bill on the iPad and they have the option of paying right then and there by swiping their credit cards on top of iPad, or paying with their mobile phone thanks to a recently announced deal between TouchBistro and PayPal. At that point, they have the option of paying single bill, or they can instantly split the bill between people at table with the server knowing exactly who’s paying for what.
However, the most attractive aspect of the app, says Barrotti, is how it helps servers save time, effectively turning a two-hour dining experience into one that lasts an hour and a half or less.
“At 1,100 restaurants people start to take you seriously.”
“The main thing [about the app’s functionality] is being able to instantly take any order and send it right then and there to the kitchen, or bar, to one or multiple printers,” says Barrotti. “After that you can either remain and keep talking to that customer, or go to another table. You don’t have to go back to a server station. That’s all gone.”
The app has certainly caught on. Over 1,100 restaurants currently use TouchBistro, including establishments like The Steam Whistle Brewery, The Toronto Institute of Bartending (AKA The Spirit House) and the Ritz Carleton in Toronto. Most of its downloads have come from the U,S. and as a result the company opened up a sales office in New York and has a sales team on the ground in L.A.
While growth is obviously most welcome, it has served up some challenges for the fledgling company.
“If we only had 50 restaurants you’d say, ‘That’s a cute concept,’ but at 1,100 restaurants people start to take you seriously,” says Barrotti. “[After 100 restaurants] you have to start putting structure in place and more processes. And, while it’s great because it shows that so many people like your product and there’s pride in having people use your product, you have to also grow it while still keeping the innovation and spirit of excitement alive.”
The most astounding thing about the rapid adoption TouchBistro has experienced is the fact that it’s all come about due to word of mouth.
“All the success we’ve had has been with zero marketing dollars,” says Barrotti.
And, despite the challenges involved, Barrotti and his team are hungry for even more growth, having the goal of signing on 10,000 restaurants as quickly as possible firmly in mind. To help them accomplish the feat they’re currently developing plans that will soon see them significantly expand TouchBistro’s marketing and press presence. Other plans for the future include translating the app into different languages – it’s only available in English. Also on the horizon is the impending launch of a consumer version of the app, called TouchBistro Mobile, which will be available across Apple and Android mobile devices. Slated to launch mid to late October, it will allow diners to peruse the menu of any restaurant using TouchBistro and either place an order or order ahead.
Alex Barrotti has a history in successful software-related startups. In 1997, prior to TouchBistro (his fourth venture), Barrotti had built up a company called Inex that allowed people to create their own Internet storefronts. After only three years he sold the company to Infospace for a whopping $45 million. He decided to take some time off. It was while he was living in the Caribbean, during his sabbatical of sorts, that Barrotti would have the fateful conversation with a restaurant-owning friend that would lead to the creation of TouchBistro.
Advice for Canadian Entrepreneurs:
“I would say that – number one – the talent here is as good as anywhere else in the world. Canada provides an incredible infrastructure and certainly culture, and don’t be afraid to compete.” – Alex Barrotti
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