During COVID-19, a gap between local restaurants and consumers undeniably formed. What else can you expect when dining rooms close and operators stop greeting guests on a daily basis? But one of the largest disconnects, in many cases, is a matter of communication and accessibility. Many people want to help restaurants; they just don’t know how. And when they do decide to reach out, are they tapping the right safety valve? Is third-party delivery enough?
Nihal Mehta, a founding party with investment firm Eniac Ventures, created helpmainstreet.com, a crowdfunded platform that supports shops and restaurants (and their employees) via gift card purchases. All the money goes to the business.
Today, there are 121,000 restaurants onboard.
Nabeel Alamgir, the former CMO of Bareburger, was a partner on the project. He’s also the CEO and co-founder of Lunchbox, a digital platform that helps restaurants establish online orders. It provides a solution to concepts’ cross-channel content needs by setting each restaurant up with its own, customized app so they can oversee digital ordering without relying on aggregators. Since COVID-19, the company introduced a curbside ordering feature in less than 24 hours, alcohol ordering, and has tried to help restaurants reengage customers through email marketing.
Alamgir chatted with FSR about recent goals, how COVID-19 is changing the industry, and what’s still to come.
Let’s start with the Help Main Street Initiative. Where did the inspiration from this stem from?
I was a busboy at Bareburger at their very first location. I was blessed enough to grow into their CMO and help launch 50 restaurants across five countries. When you work every role at a restaurant you have the opportunity to really empathize with the service industry. I really wanted to give back as Mayor De Blasio announced that he would shut NYC restaurants down in mid-march.
Enters Nihal Mehta of Eniac Ventures the Sunday before the shutdown, where he was looking for a way to also give back. That early version just aggregated gift card information, and at the time we only had 100 or so locations
Today, we have over 121,000 locations and with first party ordering info to your favorite restaurant. As you know, Grubhub and Uber Eats fees are extremely high and during times like this when digital sales are your only life line, 30 percent in fees is egregious. First party ordering ends up being four times more profitable.
How did you build this in 48 hours? Give us an example of just how crazy that is.
We decided on Sunday that we are actually going to do this. I sent out a message to my team:
I had five volunteers and the sprint began. We had a dedicated lean team within Lunchbox to get this up and running. It was an all weekend effort to go from design to dev to live, but come launch day the site was live. We had a few hiccups, like how there was so much traffic after Jack Dorsey tweeted about us that Google flagged our site as hazardous. Needless to say it was stressful but rewarding. It was the most joy I felt since launching my company a year ago!
How has it developed? Did you expect to get 121,000 restaurants online?
The day we went live we had a 100 or so locations. It was crowdsourced by our team with our favorite restaurants. Our partners and siblings helped! Our goal was the same in the beginning as it still is today. Help as many small businesses that need help, as soon as possible, and make it easy for the customers to show their love. We launched with just New York City and quickly grew into New Jersey, Philadelphia, and then out West. As you said, we are now nationwide with 121,000 small businesses live on the site.
How big of a lift can gift cards provide restaurants, especially if we’re talking about those that are closed right now and not equipped to use off-premises business to recover lost revenue?
Gift cards provide immediate financial support for a lot of these businesses that are either fully shut down, or like restaurants lost their primary revenue stream. When a guest buys a gift card through helpmainstreet.com, 100 percent of the money goes directly to the establishment.
We also banned gift card companies that were bad actors and did not immediately reimburse the restaurants. Does it save a business, no god no! We are restaurant people, we know it is not even close to enough. But everything helps. And with the first party ordering sites, we are excited to create repeatable and predictable revenue for restaurants on our site.
What’s the response been like? Is there a lot of pent-up consumer demand for people wanting to support local restaurants, but perhaps not knowing where to begin?
Consumers really wanted to help. We sold over $400,000 in gift cards. We also released online ordering listing to make sure we increase awareness against third party companies like Grubhub. Restaurants don’t know that they are hurting their favorite restaurants.
We also had chamber of commerce, governors and mayor like Ravinder Bhalla of Hoboken, New Jersey, who are all involved and helped us with their community listings. It really does take a village.
And in particular, what kind of response have you gotten from restaurant owners themselves?
The restaurant industry has responded really positively. So many mom-and-pop restaurants across the country are hurting, and they needed somebody to help amplify their voice to get the help they needed and deserved.
Some of them have also created videos to help us promote the site like CEO and founder of Bareburger.
Talk about the Stella Artois partnership, in addition to some other initiatives you have going on and coming down the line.
Our partnership with Stella Artois has been a dream come true! Sessions @Home recently launched with Eva Longoria host the first one and giving helpmainstreet.com a great shoutout, we’ve seen tremendous growth since that partnership took off.
I see Helpmainstreet as a project that will live on even after the COVID-19 pandemic passes. Providing customers the ability to order directly from their favorite restaurants via their first-party solutions is what the restaurant industry dearly needed but was never to rally around. Helping restaurants avoid those outrageous third-party fees that are crippling even during “normal times.”
Let’s shift gears to Lunchbox. The platform was developed out of frustration with the struggle of solving omnichannel digital ordering. Walk us through what led you to get started on a solution.
One of my big projects while I was CMO at Bareburger, was to build our own digital ordering system just like sweetgreen has accomplished. As I was trying to build the system I realized I was having six different conversations with 6 different companies in an effort to create one product; web ordering. When the time came to add app ordering, I was told they wouldn’t be able to work together and the data couldn’t be shared.
It was a completely fractured system that was a headache to market with. That was the source of my “lightbulb moment,” I just thought to myself it has to be simpler and easier than all of this. So I pulled together a team with my cofounder Andrew Boryk who was at Johnson & Johnson at the time, and we got to work on an MVP of the product.
How does it work and what pain points is it fixing?
We solve the issue of truly omnichannel digital ordering for restaurants while making it affordable. To create beautiful solutions like what Sweetgreen has, you have to spend millions of dollars on development and a majority of the restaurants don’t have the pockets to be able to do that.
And more importantly Lunchbox provides a powerful growth engine. I call it the third-party killer but my investors don’t love that name. Our goal was to help all our clients achieve at least 20 percent of all digital sales directly with the Lunchbox platform. Guess what, we have already converted 42 percent across all Lunchbox client. Our oldest customer, Bareburger finally crossed the 51 percent mark. These are not normal numbers and we believe this is why we can create a tectonic shift in the food-tech space.
You all launched a Lite version to help smaller restaurants launch digital ordering during COVID-19. How has that gone so far?
We’ve seen great success with this new product. A great case study is how we were able to get our client, Naked Farmer, up and running within 7 days of our first conversation. Even Grubhub takes two weeks to go live.
My mission is to help people like my mom who is not tech savvy at all and an immigrant who can ask her son to create her an online ordering system in an hour or so just like Squarespace does for websites.
Just generally speaking, how do you think COVID-19 is going to change the industry? What are some of the big changes you expect to see on the other side?
I believe we will be seeing new ordering and eating habits emerge from all of this. Customers have gotten used to ordering safely from within their apartments and phones and will need to know that serious safety precautions are being taken within restaurants as they look to rebuild their trust.
I have also seen just in our portfolio of restaurants make changes. Full sit-down concepts are pivoting to fast casual concepts, and fast casual concepts are exploring cloud concepts. We work with David Chang’s Fuku who has more notably expanded to cloud via Reef Kitchens during COVID-19.
What’s the recovery been like in recent weeks? What kind of timeline, realistically, do you think we’re looking at?
Since February our portfolio of restaurants have seen a 112 percent increase in sales.
Regarding dining experience, I think we are looking at a timeline of late-June to early-July before we see any real movement of opening up again. And even then it’ll be at 50 percent capacity. I think the restaurants that have seen the greatest success are those that were able to pivot quickly to new solutions and build off of existing relationships they had with their customers.
A Lunchbox example is how during this pandemic, Bareburger has successfully moved 51 percent of their digital ordering to their first-party ordering and away from third-party sites. They pivoted their focus early-on to build new habits with their customers and remain relevant in their minds.
I am an optimist and I want to use all the disappointment and rage we have against what’s going on into a force for positivity. Let’s build technology that’s built my restaurant operators and not individuals from Silicon Valley who have never had to bus a table.