In anticipating technology’s impact on restaurants, the company devised a solution ahead of its time.

At a time when many restaurants boast a robust digital presence, it can be difficult to remember that not so long ago online orders of any kind—clothes, electronics, food, et al—were virtually nonexistent. Dial-up was still common, Facebook was only available through a few dozen universities, and apps were the first course of a meal.

During these early days of the internet, Noah Glass intuited that smartphones would not only become ubiquitous, but they would also change the way consumers interacted with brands.

Sebastien Silvestri (left) Is The New Chief Executive Officer Of Chef Daniel Boulud's Award Winning Restaurant Group, The Dinex Group

Noah Glass

“Based on intuition, based on pattern recognition, based on some historical analogy, I imagined where this could go and then, having a hypothesis, gathered enough data to really have conviction,” says Glass of his own creative process. “You can work backward. You should begin with the end in mind, then plot a course.”

That approach led him to found online-ordering platform Olo in 2005, back when a mere 5 percent of consumers had smartphones. Early on it proved a steep learning curve for restaurants and their guests, but fairly soon operators realized that online ordering freed up employees from manning the phones and also guaranteed that pick-ups were paid in full, regardless of whether customers claimed them.

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Nearly 15 years later, Olo has evolved beyond its original online-ordering foundation to encompass a number of digital services, including delivery. Its latest rollout, Expo, aggregates and organizes orders from across multiple and direct and third-party platforms. The New York–based brand’s client roster now includes more than 250 restaurant brands across 50,000 locations.

But despite the tech advances made by Olo and other early restaurant digital solutions providers, foodservice is still considered to lag behind other industries.

“There’s a rethinking that’s required and a little bit of discomfort because it’s going to shake things up. It’s kind of the Wild West in this otherwise controlled environment.”

“In a way, the restaurant industry has been thought of as less innovative than other retail segments or other industries. Restaurants are a simple, low-tech business model that have been around hundreds of years,” Glass says.

It’s a valid point; restaurants have been cooking and serving food long before smartphones, computers, or cars were even dreamed of. Because of this legacy, many consumers and operators believe the field is exempt from tech. Glass regularly encounters this mentality.

“Historically, a lot of the executives who came up in this industry started in very low-tech roles and rose in the ranks to become leaders based on a certain way of doing things really well,” Glass says. “There’s a rethinking that’s required and a little bit of discomfort because it’s going to shake things up. It’s kind of the Wild West in this otherwise controlled environment.”

Still, Glass is quick to point out that restaurant leaders are far from Luddites. When it comes to customization and tailor-made orders, the industry is well ahead of other sectors. Retail giants like Amazon rely on an early e-commerce model in which goods are sent to distribution centers before being shipped to customers. Those retailers have not yet figured out on-demand delivery where goods are produced locally and made to order.

“Restaurants really are cutting-edge when it comes to on-demand commerce, and that was our insight 15 years ago,” Glass says. “Plus, in this ability to custom-make something in real time for somebody to pick up and deliver to the customer, restaurants are kind of the cornerstone use case of this new, on-demand commerce.”

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