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-based VineSleuth created a custom algorithm to match you with new wines based on wines you've had in the past. Courtesy of VineSleuth

Houston entrepreneur makes a splash with wine-selecting technology

Sip, sip, hooray

Amy Gross wants to find you the perfect wine. In fact, she wants it so much, she built her company, VineSleuth, around the concept that technology and machine learning could find the best wine to match individual palates.

VineSleuth's custom algorithm is backed by research from sensory scientists at Cornell University, and relies on both data collection and machine learning to determine specific wines that will match an individual customer's tastes. Flavor profiles from thousands of wines are incorporated into her database, and none of those are based on the typical wine scores you'll see in magazines or reviews of wines.

"We have a team that tastes and analyzes wines and inputs their findings. Then, we have a team that codes all of that data," she says.

VineSleuth's technology can be easily overlaid on a restaurant, grocery store, or other vendor's existing web platform or app to provide a tailor-made experience for customers.

"Take a grocery store setting for example," says Gross. "A customer logs into the store using their loyalty card, and their past wine purchases come up. Our technology can analyze those and point to different selections in the store's inventory they'll enjoy."

Think of it as using big data and machine learning to deliver big returns for wine drinkers.

Gross has been deliberate and incremental in how she's grown her company, and she just got a major boost: back in September, she won the 2018 Start Here Now competition, a combination business pitch event and incubator aimed at encouraging women entrepreneurs. She took home the $10,000 Silicon Valley Bank Grand Prize, as well as an app-design concept prize to help her improve the app she created, and a media and PR consultation.

"It was such an affirmation," she says. "To have them validate our work and my future plans."

Planting the seed
It was a slow and steady growth for Gross, who started work on VineSleuth in 2011. But her wine journey started before that.

"My now-husband asked me out on a date, and I'd just graduated college," she says. "I wanted to be sophisticated, so I ordered the house chardonnay. Well, after four or five dates, I started paying attention to what I was drinking, and I developed my palate."

She and her husband and friends of theirs enjoyed exploring wine together, and on a trip to Napa in 2009, Gross noticed something. All six of them were drinking the same wines — mostly Cabernet Sauvignons from Oakville — but they had remarkably different reactions to them.

"I thought, wouldn't it be great if there were an app that told me what I wanted, not what was 'good?'" Gross says.

While she wasn't sure then how to create such an app, she knew she needed to build up her wine knowledge. She started learning about wine in earnest and launched a wine blog. That gave her access to wine vendors and wine makers.

And then, several things happened in steps. Her brother-in-law wrote a basic algorithm that would collect taste profiles and other details from wines, but Gross needed something more. A neighbor who was an applied mathematician took that original algorithm and built on it.

"When I felt brave enough to show it, I shared it with the owners of some wineries I'd developed a business relationship with in the Finger Lakes," says Gross. "They loved the idea, and it turns out one of the winemaker's wife was a sensory scientist at Cornell. At every key place along building this business, it's been about relationships."

Still fermenting
Gross did create an app, but she admits it's not quite where she wants it to be, so she'll likely tweak it over the coming year. In the meantime, she's focused on the B2B future of VineSleuth. While she says the technology her team has created is currently being used for wine, she knows it's possible to take it and expand its capabilities to beer, chocolate, spirits and other consumables.

Building the business has been both an adventure and a learning curve for Gross, whose background is in journalism and PR. But even though she doesn't come from the technology or STEM side, she says her journalism work made her a great researcher – which is exactly what she needed to build VineSleuth. She's also a driven and detail-oriented project manager.

"My team once called me the den mother, keeping everyone on track," she laughed. "And in a way, I am. But I'm also watching the future of AI happening in front me and I really love hanging out with the brilliant people on my team. This is a blast."


Amy Gross is also working on a consumer-facing app, called Wine4Me, that helps users keep track of their favorite wines and gives recommendations for new wines. Courtesy of VineSleuth

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Overheard: Local innovation leaders share what they see has changed in Houston for venture investing

Eavesdropping online

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

Houston's Brené Brown rises strong with new podcast and exclusive Spotify deal

now streaming

For two decades, renowned Houston thought leader and researcher Brené Brown has delved into the human condition, studying and exploring themes such as courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. Her work has made her a national figure as a five-time New York Times bestselling author and as a host of one of the most popular TED Talks of all time.

Now, Brown is leaping forward with her self-help work with an exclusive new multi-year deal with Spotify. The Houstonian will host a new podcast, "Dare to Lead," which will premiere exclusively on Spotify on October 19, according to a press release. Fans can also look for her beloved "Unlocking Us" podcast to move to Spotify in January 2021.

Brown said in a statement that it was "very important to me to build a podcast home where people could continue to listen for free."

In an added treat for those who love Yacht Rock (and who doesn't, frankly?), Brown is taking over Spotify's Yacht Rock Playlist and has added her favorite tunes (look for smart picks such as Christoper Cross, Doobie Brothers, TOTO, and more).

As for the podcast, "Dare to Lead" will feature conversations with "change-catalysts, culture-shifters and more than a few troublemakers who are innovating, creating, and daring to lead," according to a statement. It mirrors Brown's bestselling book of the same name.

"I've partnered with Spotify because I wanted a home for both podcasts," Brown added, "and I wanted it to be a place that felt collaborative, creative, adventurous, and full of music — like my actual house, where you'd find guitar stands in every room and framed pictures of everyone from Willie Nelson and Aretha Franklin to Freddy Fender, Mick Jagger, and Angus Young hanging on my walls."

When she's not overseeing her multimedia brand, podcasting, writing, hosting, and programming Spotify playlists, Brown serves as a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work. She is also a visiting professor in management at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

She is also the author of four other No. 1 New York Times bestselling books, including The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness. Her 2010 "The Power of Vulnerability" TED Talk has consistently been rated one of the top five most-watched of all time, with more than 50 million views. She is also the first researcher to have a filmed talk on Netflix; her "The Call to Courage" debuted on the streaming service in 2019.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.