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Independent restaurants have faced their share of hurdles in the past year. Many have been so busy simply surviving, they've scarcely had a chance to figure out how to grow and thrive. Enter Sociavore. Who better to know what a restaurant needs than a restaurateur? Amina Gilani cofounded the company with her husband, Thusenth Dhavaloganathan, who was raised in his family's restaurants — and together they built a digital hospitality platform specifically built for operators. She says the challenges of the pandemic are now built into the platform's DNA, with functions that let restauranteurs easily extend their offerings at a moment's notice.
Back of House spoke with Gilani about Sociavore and how the platform lets restaurants control online ordering, delivering, ticketing and e-commerce, all in one easy-to-use platform.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Back of House: Tell us who you are and your role at Sociavore.
I'm Amina, and I am the co-founder and COO at Sociavore. The company was actually founded by myself and my husband, Thusenth, and we originally built it for our own independent restaurant. It then kind of grew to be a platform. So everything that we built from the ground up was based on our needs, coming from an independent restaurant.
BOH: Tell me a little bit about the product itself.
AG: What we are, in a nutshell, is an all-in-one website platform built for food and beverage businesses. Within that, you have features like online ordering, the ability to sell tickets, merchandise, and online reservations all in one spot. The platform is really flexible, and with it you're able to pick what you need to create that amazing online guest experience — essentially taking what you built within your brick-and-mortar restaurant and being able to then extend that online. It's really easy; everything's included in our monthly subscription fee. Plus we have a ton of integrations with existing restaurant software. We integrate with Square as well as a whole bunch of different electronic reservation apps as well as social channels like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Really it's that one place that you can go to manage your restaurant online.
BOH: Do you serve all markets and/or you available everywhere?
AG: Our customers are in Canada and the U.S. And in terms of segments, we have small mom-and-pops like the restaurant we came from, as well as bakeries, breweries, and cafes, all the way up to multi-location independent restaurant groups that use our platform. So it's really built for scale. You can start with one restaurant, and then as you grow and add concepts and locations, you're able to scale it really easily within our platform. I'd say the sweet spot is anywhere from one all the way to 20 locations.
BOH: What are the things you feel like differentiate your product or your solution in the space?
AG: One thing that really taken off is our online ordering. It's fully branded, and has the ability to have multiple menus with different schedules. It ties into your back of house operations, so you're able to get those order notifications to a printer. It’s also super flexible, so for example if you have a special that you want to highlight for Easter, you can add that specific menu for your special events in addition to your regular menu. And the cool thing is, since it's fully branded, it looks like you so it's really an extension of the restaurant.
The other thing that is pretty interesting is we've seen a lot of restaurants use our ticketing feature, which allows them to be able to offer tickets for any sort of event. So we've seen a lot of private dinners, for example, or if you're doing a music event at your venue the ticketing feature works well. And with the pandemic, a lot of our restaurants are spending more on the cooking classes, and that ticketing software is built right in.
BOH: Do you imagine that that type of functionality is something that operators are going to continue to use even as things get back to “normal” after the pandemic?
AG: For sure. We have restaurants that have their online ordering for their regular day-to-day operations and then they're also experimenting with different ticketed events, which has been really cool because they get to be creative. Plus it gives them another revenue stream. I honestly think even post-pandemic it’s going to be part of what an independent restaurant operator can use to really extend their brand.
BOH: Let's talk about delivery in more detail, as it’s another thing that has been very top of mind for operators. What makes Sociavore’s delivery functionality different?
AG: We have restaurants that set up a delivery schedule for their online ordering menu. And what's cool is they're able to leverage whatever delivery network that they want to use. We have some restaurants who deliver for themselves. We also have restaurants that use local delivery networks, too. Delivery networks have existed pre-pandemic, so places have their own local delivery networks that a lot of restaurants are now tapping into as well. And then the other thing is, we have our integrations with DoorDash Drive going live this month, and then we will also be integrating with Postmates.
And those options are commission-free. You're able to leverage those delivery networks in an automated fashion, meaning you're able to get a delivery driver without having to pay the hefty commission, so it's a flat fee for delivery. That's really how we help restaurants fulfill delivery.
BOH: What's the future hold for you as a platform?
AG: One thing that's been really interesting is people check out your brand online first, and that's not going away. Having an amazing online guest experience in which someone can land and check out your brand is always going to exist. Sociavore helps with that because you're really able to showcase your brand online through the platform.
The other thing is online ordering, which is just going to remain part of the mix. Of course, people want to go back into restaurants and to have those experiences, but takeout is going to be here long-term as well. With our super flexible platform, you're able to turn on your reservations, have your ordering menu, sell tickets and merchandise. Holistically you're able to create all these different revenue streams using your website, and that's here to stay for sure.
BOH: What's your take on how operators leverage their website currently and how Sociavore can help them realize that potential?
AG: It's really attractive to use the social media tools because they're really easy to use and a lot of people are on there. But the one thing that's awesome about your website is, that's your own space. You don't have to worry about an algorithm. In terms of Instagram, for example, you don't know who's seeing your content because you're constantly fighting against algorithms — whereas with your website if someone lands on there, then they can peruse your website and really learn more about your restaurant. You get to really showcase what you want with your website. You're not fighting all that extra stuff you might with social.
Pre-pandemic, in terms of what the website did, many of them are just flat and a lot of them had gone obsolete. With the pandemic, it came to light that you really need to make sure that your website is up-to-date, or else you're going to lose a lot of business and people won’t know much about you. Post-pandemic I think it’s really about the restaurant owning that guest experience, whether that's brick-and-mortar or that's online, as opposed to handing it off to other third parties. And that’s a large part of why we built the platform. We really believe that the restaurant should have full control. And so I think that you know time is coming where they're realizing that and that's just going to be part of their operations.
BOH: Having that control to understand what the customer and what their audiences are doing opens up new opportunities, it seems like.
AG: For sure it does. And we've seen it with our customers. Our platform is self-run, and of course, there’s a learning curve. But we also have the option, where we will help the restaurant get up and running with the concierge set up as well as teach them how to use the platform. And we've got non-tech-savvy people, like my father-in-law for example, who realize they’re able to offer things they weren’t able to prior online. It’s been really cool to see them be able to take the control and then become really creative and offer things within their website and create new revenue streams.
BOH: What's something that you feel sets you apart from other solutions?
AG: You can build out this experience yourself — you have full control and have access to the full set of tools with your subscription, which includes a 14-day trial. You can literally go in and build out your compelling branded website and online ordering. We have documentation and tutorials. And then the other thing too is, like I mentioned, we have so many different types of restaurants that are using our platform. Everything from little bakeries that are selling goods all the way up to James Beard Award winners that are leveraging our platform. So we really built a platform that we want everyone to use and are really focused on making sure that you have the best technology. We’re always pushing code and we're always adding features to make sure that happens because we don't want the independent restaurant's website to ever go obsolete.