Digital dinner

Growing Houston startup is digitizing the dining experience

Houston-based Roovy Technologies has created a mobile app where people can control their dining experience completely from their phones. Photo via roovy.io

Imagine going into a popular restaurant, sitting down at an open table and controlling the entire dining experience from a smartphone.

That's food, drinks, and even dessert all ordered and paid for on a phone.

Prolific Houston-area restaurateur Ken Bridge had the vision to converge dining with technology by creating a digital solution to combat chronic wait times in restaurants.

That vision became the Roovy Technologies mobile app, a platform designed to create the ultimate convenience for gastronauts everywhere.

"Roovy was birthed out of frustration," says Bridge, the serial entrepreneur behind the Delicious Concepts restaurant group. "Years ago, we would typically have lines out the door, so I thought to myself, that with technology, there should be a way for a guest to come in and manage their experience entirely from their phone.

"I felt like guests could go in, get sat at a table and order their food from their phone and pay from their phone and call it a day. That's how the idea of Roovy was conceived."

Three years ago, after putting mock pages together, Bridge started attending South by Southwest Interactive in Austin for research and inspiration. That led to commissioning a local boutique development agency in Houston to build out Roovy's Minimum Viable Product or road map before creating a fully functional platform.

"Roovy is a platform that allows the user to order and pay entirely from their phone," says Bridge. "We will soon be the first company to have all three categories of this type of app: dine-in, take out and delivery."

Bridge deployed Roovy in his Japanese concept restaurant, Blackbird Izakaya, at 1221 W. 11th St. in the Heights several months ago to test out the app before rolling it out to several other restaurants.

"It's a work in progress like everything else," says Bridge, who hopes for Roovy to be deployed in 20 restaurants very soon, then 40. "Everyday we're going to have issues that we need to resolve. But for now, we'll build it, we'll test it, we'll learn and we'll continue to go back and work out the kinks and keep pushing forward from there."

Convenience — on both sides of the transaction

For users, the value proposition is to be able to order and pay from their phone.

"Even a really good server can be impeding at the same time, over-qualifying or checking too much on a table that it becomes a distraction," says Bridge. "With Roovy, when the user is ready to order they can. It's convenience-based technology."

For operators, it streamlines the entire process, up to and including payment.

"We built this as a native solution, so restaurants can technically operate their entire restaurant on one single iPad, while cutting out all hardware," says Bridge.

The restaurant's menu is fully interactive and constantly updated in the app.

When a user places an order, they can add notes to alert the kitchen or bar with their allergies or substitutions and the kitchen or bar receives the notice on the Kitchen Display Side.

That order is then colored and timed, depending on the restaurant's flow and the user then receives a page when the order is ready.

"When restaurant's not packed, they can prepare orders in four minutes, but when packed, it may take eight minutes," says Bridge. "So through the machine learning, they can input a flow time, but then the system intuitively will become more and more intelligent based on the number of tickets and how frequently the operator is stocking and selling a particular item."

Bridge funded Roovy with his own money, so running the cloud-based platform in his own restaurants provided another distinct advantage for his startup's bottom line. And, with operators running the Roovy platform, it has officially entered post-revenue valuation. Roovy's revenue, like other payments facilitators, comes from its restaurant clients.

With the method of payment tied into the app, users pay from their phone and Roovy processes that payment transaction between the user, operator and bank tied to that payment method for a processing fee, much like a point-of-sale provider would with traditional POS devices.

Increasing opportunities for sales

What separates Roovy from other processors, though, is more than just the disruption of bulky hardware, printers and other equipment that can be very expensive for the operator.

It's the ability to maximize sales through convenience.

Case in point: in a busy restaurant, customers who have finished their meal, but possibly have cravings for another drink or a dessert might choose to eschew the urge based on the availability of their wait staff or the line at the bar.

But with Roovy, they could simply add the additional food item or drink to their cart, and have it at their table in no time.

"A lot of restaurants are not taking advantage of opportunities to maximize their sales," says Bridge. "If the per person average for a particular restaurant is $20, the likelihood that there are customers that want one more beer but don't want to go through the motions of ordering it based on service not being around is high. They're going to just leave and the restaurant just missed out on a potential $6.

"That would have been a 30 percent increase in sales," Bridge continues. "So, because of Roovy's ease of use, restaurants can increase their per person revenue and we guarantee an increase of 19 or 20 percent for operators that use our platform."

An additional revenue stream for Roovy centers on its pinpointed marketing campaigns designed to push promotions to its users based on user data and analytics.

"We can help operators run promotions for our users that can be very specific to the demographic of their choice," says Bridge. "They can be very direct and specific push notifications that go out to users based on location, vicinity or proximity, for example. We could also push notifications to a restaurant's repeat customers."

More features to come

For users that want take out, Roovy will be working with predictive arrival technology to estimate better execution times for orders so that they will be as fresh as possible for customer pickup.

Roovy will also be adding "Roovy Coin," a loyalty and rewards programs, as well as a social component for those users that like to share their experience with their friends.

"Beyond this super unique emerging technology, we are building heavily on the sociability aspects of it," says Bridge. "For example, users will be able to check in with friends, plan potential meetups, share video clips with their friends and the community on the platform and be able to review restaurants.

"I kid about this all the time, but most of us remember two things: the first kiss we had and the first time we used Uber. We'll never forget that. Our goal is to come in with that same kind of impact and convince users and operators that Roovy is not just a great technology, it's the inevitable technology that will be adopted on mass levels."

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

It's not too huge of an assumption to make that many Houston startups and small businesses failed to pay their rents in full yesterday. Since the city's stay-at-home mandate on March 24 — and even preceding that — most businesses have seen a slowdown of revenue as a result of COVID-19-caused business disruptions.

Business owners are frantically looking in their leases and searching online to see what rights they have and what sort of protection they have in such an unprecedented time.

"People are confused. They don't know what to do, and finding information is hard," says Meredith Wheeler, co-founder and chief creative officer of Sesh Coworking, which opened earlier this year.

Wheeler and Sesh's co-founder, Maggie Segrich, have created a petition to get on the radar of local elected officials to challenge them to pass legislation to protect small businesses in this time.

"At the end of the day, it would be so wonderful and idealistic to say that we could rely on the niceties and the moral compasses of our landlords, but it's probably not true for everyone and so that's why we need legislation to dictate what is right," Wheeler says.

But landlords are also in unchartered territory, says Josh Feinberg, who has worked in Houston as a commercial real estate broker and co-founded CRE tech platform, Tenavox.

"There's this idea that there's this acrimony between tenant and landlord, and I think, as a former broker, we're set up that way to get our side the best deal. But in reality, that's just not true," Feinberg says. "The majority of commercial real estate is owned by regular people — not usually some faceless, gigantic corporation."

And they have a piper to pay too, Feinberg adds. Ninety percent of CRE is owned by debt, he says. If the government steps in anywhere, it should be on the lender level, as well as creating some sort of tax relief.

"If there's any relief here, it's going to have to come from lenders, and I think you'd hear that from owners and brokers," Feinberg says.

In somewhat convenient timing, Tenavox has recently co-founded a new company that provides a bit of a solution for small businesses. Otso provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. Traditionally, deposits are held onto by landlords — they aren't legally allowed to spend it unless the tenant defaults.

"In general, I think cash deposits are wasteful," Feinberg says. "It's critical capital that the business can hire with, invest, and use."

Tenavox teamed up with Euler Hermes, a 135-year-old credit insurance company, to create Otso, and the credit company backs the lease performance of each tenant that is approved by Otso. The transaction calls for a fee added to the rent, but no large cash deposit would be required.

The tool can be used on new leases, and, in light of the current situation, Otso can also be used to create an addendum in existing leases so that the tenant can get back their deposit and use it in this time of crisis. Either landlord or tenant can apply online and hear back that same day — Feinberg says he's focused on a speedy response to help get this deposit money back to the tenant.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg says.

Other than looking into Otso, Feinberg has some other recommendations for small business owners. He says they should be applying for relief from the Small Business Administration, which has more money to dole out than they have ever had. And, as it pertains to working with their landlords, communication is key. Show financials and specific information — like what March 2019 looks like compared to 2020 — so that landlords can take that to their lenders.

"An unprecedented crisis is going to require unprecedented solutions," Feinberg says.