July 27--Juggling a basket of bread and honey cinnamon butter atop a stack of appetizer plates at Texas Roadhouse in Monaca, venture capitalist Chris Olsen was simultaneously out of his element and perfectly in line with duties as an executive board member for an Oakland-based tech company.
Mr. Olsen, principal at Tulsa, Okla.-based venture firm Drive Capital, knew he would have to take on his first stint in the service industry since May, when the firm lead a $10 million funding round for NoWait and he was appointed to the reservations app company's board of directors.
However, when the time came for Mr. Olsen and fellow board member Sean Ammirati of South Side-based Birchmere Ventures to trade in suit jackets for black Texas Roadhouse T-shirts, the executives said anxieties faded and the much-needed lesson on NoWait's restaurant host app saved the day.
"The really interesting question coming in was, 'Will we be able to do this?' But after this experience I can definitely say that our team built an app so simple that even VCs like us can do it," said Mr. Ammirati.
For Mr. Ammirati, a Birchmere partner and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University, and Mr. Olsen, a co-founder of Drive Capital and former inventor and professional squash player, it was hard to imagine a greater shift from the norm than being a host at Texas Roadhouse.
But when it comes to NoWait, whether you're a board member or a janitor, you're a restaurant host for at least eight hours of your life or you're not part of the team.
"We don't consider somebody who joins NoWait a full employee until they complete their training -- and that includes host training at one of our customers' restaurants," said CEO Ware Sykes.
The idea came in 2012 during NoWait's infancy as an AlphaLab probe, said Mr. Sykes. Founder Robb Myer created the restaurant reservations app to help customers avoid long waits and the restaurant host app to help owners electronically manage waiting guests without using reservations or sending them off with pagers.
The guest app, which has versions for Apple and Android products, allows patrons to scan wait times for hundreds of restaurants and check in to the establishment of their choice. Working off of patron feedback, the app has been upgraded over the years to let patrons tell friends what restaurant they have checked into via Facebook or Twitter and to take suggestions for restaurants that should be added to NoWait's list.
As the NoWait team worked to tweak the app's restaurant hosting app -- a wait list and seating tool that provides customer analytics -- into a form that would best suit the nation's restaurateurs, Mr. Sykes said the team realized early on that the best way to see the software from a customer's point of view was actually to walk a shift in their shoes.
After surviving a shift he called "the scariest and most sobering professional experience" of his life, he knew employees and restaurants would be better for the effort.
"We're an innovative tech startup, but at the core we're in the hospitality business," said Mr. Sykes. "We wanted restaurants to have a great experience and we want consumers to have a great experience, but from an outside perspective it's difficult to appreciate all of the operational intricacies of the business."
Besides mere understanding, Mr. Olsen said the hands-on experience with the software also gives NoWait staffers the opportunity to suggest ways to upgrade the service.
"I've already found three things I'm going to mention to the team to make it better," he said.
Another bonus of standing behind the hosting desk was noting how many customers were taking advantage of the app, said Mr. Ammirati. In a little more than an hour of service, Mr. Ammirati said, he counted at least 60 tables that were seated using the NoWait app. The figure was impressive, but not out of line with growth that has helped the app seat more than 60 million people just this year, compared to around 700,000 all of last year.
For Todd "Texas Todd" Sapet, Texas Roadhouse managing partner and owner, the system has improved seating but has also eliminated costs associated with using pagers and provided data that help to streamline everything from scheduling to the types of seating available in the restaurant.
"It takes so much guesswork out of things because you're dealing in facts and hard numbers instead of guessing and flying by the seat of your pants when you're using a grease pencil and plexiglass [for seating]," he said.
If plans to double NoWait's staff of 2,000 in the next year come to fruition, Mr. Sykes said the Monaca Texas Roadhouse could see hundreds of new employees fumble their way through host training in coming months. Given the fact that Mr. Sapet has transformed hundreds of white-collar techies with no experience into no-collar restaurant hosts, he said he's up for the challenge.
"You don't have to be a software engineer to work in a restaurant," he said with a smile.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd.
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