tapping into tech

Houston entrepreneur's mobile platform brings gains to small restaurant chains

A Houston restaurateur and tech founder is giving the food and restaurant business a new marketing opportunity with VIPinsiders. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Food is the way to a Houstonian's heart. With critically-acclaimed cuisine and an abundance of diversity, Houston is the South's culinary pride. COVID-19 has now stirred uncertainty in a once definitive piece of the city's culture, and restaurateurs are looking for solutions. For Philipp Sitter, CEO of VIPinsiders, artificial intelligence is a step in the right direction.

Sitter holds many titles: CEO of KB Restaurant Group, President of EggHaus and King's Bierhaus — and now, tech founder. In 2019 he launched VIPinsiders, "a rewards program that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to understand the customer on an individual journey," he explains.

"I was born into the restaurant industry," says Sitter, as he remarks on immigrating from Vienna as a child and opening the first King's Biergarten in Pearland in 2011. As a fifth-generation restaurateur, he is familiar with "the love and pain of the industry." When he took on the challenge of marketing his family's "obscure German restaurant behind a car wash in Pearland," he became "obsessed" with the trade.

Philipp Sitter launched VIPinsiders last year. Photo courtesy of VIPinsiders

After building excitement around EggHaus, the Instagrammable haven that's attracted both breakfast lovers and influencers, Sitter wanted to find a way to build the same buzz at his other restaurants using technology.

Going mobile

From Starbucks Rewards' gold stars to Chick-Fil-A One, reward programs have been tested and utilized by the Goliaths of the restaurant industry for years.

When looking at the cost of building a mobile app like Starbucks, he determined it to be impossible.

"We're talking about millions that go into developing technology. What restaurant is going to be able to afford something like that?" he asked.

The plan soon crystallized: Sitter decided to create a mobile platform that uses AI to personalize unique offers and experiences for customers while taking the responsibility from the shoulders of restaurant owners with smaller, multi-unit concepts. By developing and scaling the mobile platform by providing its services to other businesses, "then it would all of the sudden become affordable for everybody," he realized.

Deciding to create a mobile platform was the easy part.

"I wasn't born with the emotion of fear in business," shares Sitter, who has dabbled in obscure endeavors from washing cars to flipping classic cars on eBay.

After formulating the VIPinsiders concept, he hired a team of developers to "use the psychology of everything I've learned in marketing and put it into a technology platform," he explains.

The user experience

Each client gets a tailor-made approach, ensuring the rewards and loyalty features are made to fit the restaurant. The VIPinsiders staff builds custom mobile platforms for its small and medium-sized restaurant chain clients that utilize the restaurant's branding, menus and events for $299 per month.

"We got through a discovery call in which our team will actually build the rewards journey for them and show it to the business owner for approval," explains Sitter, "We don't want to give the owners and managers a homework assignment."

Once the platform is approved, Sitter's team trains restaurant owners. In-house copywriters and designers then develop print material for the restaurant to cross-promote the rewards program.

According to VIPinsiders' internal data, 95 percent of users find the app "easy to use." Using QR technology, customers can sign up by scanning a QR code rather than downloading an app.

"The restaurant gets to know me [the customer], it understands how often I visit, it also gets to reward my visitation," explains Sitter. Rather than a one-size-fits-all reward program, the platform is meant to showcase different menu items and offerings.

"Most importantly, it reminds me to come back when I haven't visited in a while."

Data recorded by VIPinsiders shows that 48 percent of users visit restaurants with the platform "more often" in the first 90 days.

Text message marketing 

When stay-at-home orders first took effect in Harris County, many business owners could not update their business hours or post new content on the Google My Business platform due to the site's halted review process during COVID-19.

The issue left business owners with one less form of contact, creating a vulnerability in customer communication. Social media marketing doesn't quite come to the rescue either, with Facebook's algorithm showing an average of 5.5 percent of a brand's following will see its post.

To Sitter, text messaging is "the next frontier."

Due to COVID-19, VIPinsiders recently ran a promotion to provide free platform use and unlimited text capabilities for a limited time to restaurants. "We've gotten a lot of incredible emails and feedback saying thank you for letting us use this and helping us [get] back our business," says Sitter.

"It's time for all of us to take our power back, to own our customer [data] and be able to talk with them directly and not have to pay the middleman [like social media companies] and really have the relationship that customer opted in for," says Sitter.

As one of the first mobile platforms approved by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, restaurant clients can extend happy hour offerings and provide customers with free alcoholic beverages.

At King's Bierhaus, Sitter was able to deploy an alcohol-to-go offer via text message that resulted in $40,000 of bottled King's Whiskey sold.

"I was able to sell that because I was able to text my customers directly," Sitter says.

Clients outside of Sitter's own properties also see growth. Ninety-three percent of restaurants using the VIPinsiders platform reported an increase in sales.

"I would absolutely recommend other operators to sign up for VIPinsiders because it has increased our sales, our guests love it, and the support we get from them makes it effortless," explains Usman Dhanani, President of Operations for Cyclone Anaya's Tex-Mex Kitchen, in a VIPinsiders testimonial video.

El Toro, a Mexican restaurant chain with six Texas locations, generated an estimated additional $735,000 in sales with a total of more than 35,000 additional customer visits, according to VIPinsiders data.

"The biggest brands in the world and celebrities lead a charge into marketing initiatives," says Sitter, "A company like ours will bring that to small businesses and make it affordable for them so they can compete at the highest level."

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Building Houston

 
 

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via kodahealthcare.com

A new Houston-based digital advanced care planning company is streamlining some of the most difficult conversations in the health care industry around palliative care.

Founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

Koda Health uses a conversational platform where users can enter information about their values, living situations, quality of life wishes, and more while learning about different care options at their own speed. It also uses a proprietary machine learning approach that personalizes audio-video guided dialogue based on the patient's individual and cultural preferences.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fafanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fafanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions."

The app is also projected to save health care systems roughly $9,500 per patient per year, as it allows for hospitals and organizations to better plan for what their patient population is seeking in end-of-life-care.

The B2B platform was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship, which tasked Koda's founding members with finding solutions to issues surrounding geriatric care in the medical center. In March 2020, Koda incorporated. Not long after ICU beds began to fill with COVID-19 patients, "galvanizing" the team's mission, Fafanova says.

"It was no longer this conceptual thing that we needed to address and write a report on. Now it was that people were winding up in the hospital at alarming rates and none of those individuals had advanced care planning in place," she says.

After accelerating the development of the product, Koda Health is now being used by health care systems in Houston, Texas, and Virginia.

The company recently received a Phase I grant of $256,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Koda to deploy the platform at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and test it against phone conversations with 900 patients. Fafanova says the company will also use the funds to continue to develop personalization algorithms to improve Kona's interface for users.

"We want to make this a platform that mimics a high quality conversation," she says.

After Koda completes the Phase I pilot program it will then be eligible to apply for a Phase II award of up to $1 million in about a year.

Koda Health was founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry. Photos via kodahealthcare.com

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