A few years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant observing the crowd. From where I sat, a few of the patrons in the restaurant appeared to be genuinely enjoying themselves.
Diners were growing frustrated that their orders weren’t being taken, while overworked staff were run off their feet.
I grew up as part of a big Italian family for whom preparing and serving food with love is a foundational part of life. Dining out is a cherished extension of that upbringing, with its joyful sense of occasion and the grand theatre of incredible dishes presented with gusto.
I saw very little of that exuberance on that night a few years back. It was symptomatic of a disconnect I had begun to notice. Venues, and restaurants in particular, were stretching resources thinner to meet increasing cost pressures.
Conversely, increasingly social media-savvy diners were demanding more from their experience. When customers aren’t satisfied, loyalty is lost, and revenue drops.
Putting all this together prompted an idea that would prove disruptive to the entire industry – and even to my hospitality-tech business, OrderMate.
Shannon Hautot and I co-founded OrderMate in 2003 to offer point-of-sale (POS) technology designed to help hospitality venues such as restaurants, pubs and bars increase efficiencies and profitability.
Yet even as we grew OrderMate out to service 2500 venues, we routinely kept an eye on hospitality trends and saw some changes happening overseas in how customers and venues interacted.
Coupled with what our existing customers were telling us about their rising rents, food costs and staffing challenges – and our own boots-on-the-ground observations – the idea grew into a business plan, which would eventually become our second tech business together, HUNGRYHUNGRY.
Keep your eye on the horizon
We’ve hit some big milestones with HUNGRYHUNGRY since starting the business in 2019, and its proof of the value of always keeping your eye on the horizon.
Our focus has always been to build and deliver technology that venue operators need in order to achieve operational and financial efficiencies. What started out as a mobile order-and-pay QR code has now evolved into an omnichannel suite of products that empower customers to choose when and how they order, either at the table or via our recently introduced bespoke, paperless self-serve kiosks.
Our push into hardware also includes providing venues with customised tablets that enable front-of-house staff to offer more efficient service and also generates rich data that can inform highly targeted loyalty programs and marketing activities, as well as opportunities to enhance the customer experience with more personalised interactions.
Our tech also made a huge difference during the pandemic-hit years of 2020-21, especially in our hometown of Melbourne, where rolling lockdowns pushed many hospitality businesses to the brink.
We helped more than 1500 venues to quickly pivot to online ordering for takeaway, delivery and pickup. Technology that was previously considered discretionary suddenly became an existential necessity.
Talk a little, listen a lot
None of that would have been possible had Shannon and I been content to just stay in our lane and concentrate all our efforts on OrderMate, which we had poured 15+ years of our careers into and sold in 2021 to MSL Solutions (ASX: MSL).
In business, and especially as a startup founder, it’s easy to become hyperfocused on hitting the next milestone, getting that next round of funding, building out your social following, etc., and forgetting to look around every once in a while.
We’ve always made sure to dedicate a portion of our time to trend spotting – following what’s happening both here and abroad, searching for clues as to the next social wave, the next tech breakthrough, the next food and beverage innovations. A big part of that is spending time in venues talking to the owners, managers and staff for their ‘on the ground feedback.
As a B2B2C, we also make sure we’ve got eyeballs on our customer’s customers – in this case, hospitality venue patrons. This is no hardship for dyed-in-the-wool foodies like Shannon and myself, but we also see it as a crucial task to understanding the pain points of our own customers, the venue managers. It’s how we spotted the disconnect that led us to the disruptive idea from which HUNGRYHUNGRY was born.
Even casual conversations can deliver valuable insights if you’re willing to listen. I asked my cousin and her friends, aged in their 20s, about using technology to order and their perceptions of service and value.
They told me they preferred to use their phone to browse the menu and order but still highly valued a personal greeting at the beginning and end of the meal. That was a very useful insight and helped shape our strategy to introduce tech into a way of life that can enhance the dining experience rather than detract from it.
Cast a wide net
It’s not only about what’s happening in our own backyard, either. You can learn a lot from other industries that might be pioneering technology or services that you can adapt to your own use. I’m a member of EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization), a networking group of business leaders all over the world.
Once a month, I speak with business owners in diverse industries and pick up all sorts of leads into trends and consumer behaviours. Shannon is a member of YPO, a global community of high-performing CEOs, and is similarly privy to what’s going on around the world. I also have a close friend who works in private equity in Europe, where a lot of our trends come from. I often talk to him about what’s happening there.
We’re also big advocates for bringing in external experts from time to time to challenge our strategy – even if it’s just once a year. If we didn’t do this, HUNGRYHUNGRY might never have been born. Something we learned from OrderMate – the company that started it all and which we sold to a listed company in 2021 – was that we wanted our second business to have a trusted board of advisors.
Our chair, Brodie Arnhold, holds several other chair positions, and his diverse experience and leadership has been instrumental in helping us get to where we are today.
The key takeaway is to keep thinking laterally – be curious, do research, tap into networks, look at other industries and parts of the world, and be open to new and disruptive ideas. They may very well turn into a new business that takes you in directions you never dreamed.
Mark Calabro is the Co-CEO and cofounder of HungryHungry