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Contactless communication between restaurants and customers is key, whether it's pandemic times or normal times, Mike Errecart tells us. It's more customer-friendly, it's more efficient, and it's far more safe in a pandemic-ridden world.
Founded in 2011, TablesReady was born with this customer-first approach in mind. It's built on a foundation of making waiting easier for customers, whether they're waiting for a table or a pick-up order. A huge way to ease that pain is to make the entire waiting process digital, which TablesReady does. Yet it doesn't require vendors to buy any extra equipment, or customers to download an app.
Back of House spoke with Mike Errecart about TablesReady's beginnings (hint: it involves a famous American bar), why its services are essential for any business, and why the restaurant industry should continue to become more tech savvy.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Back of House: Tell us who you are and what you do with TablesReady.
Mike Errecart: I'm the owner and CEO of TablesReady, so I kinda do a bit of everything. I come from a background in business and technology — my undergrad was in computer science and then I got my MBA, so I have my fingers in all the pots. I run product, and I focus on building as great an application and system as I possibly can. Having both a technical and business background helps. I'm also super involved in our customer experience and customer success team, so I try to make sure everyone's really happy with how the app’s performing for them and that they're getting a ton of value out of it.
BOH: Give us a 10,000-foot view of what operators need to know about TablesReady.
ME: It's a waitlist reservations and queue management app. Obviously, with a name like TablesReady, it sounds like we text you when your table is ready. That's kind of where we were born out of, but we've tried to create a really flexible system that can manage all kinds of different waiting and appointment-type scenarios. It's not just for restaurants, but even within the restaurant space, we can serve quick-service restaurants who are texting people when their order’s ready, and we can serve all-service restaurants who are texting people when their table’s ready or when their to-go order can be picked up. We can do online bookings, either for order pickup or for tables. We don't do a per-cover charge like a lot of the more expensive online reservations platforms that I'm sure everyone's heard of. We also try to make it a pretty white-labeled experience. Most of the customer-facing pages can be customized in terms of colors and logos to look like our customers’ brands and their websites. It can be embedded right in their website. We help restaurants just run their front of house better.
BOH: How did TablesReady come to be?
ME: It was actually started in 2011 by three guys who were just out of college. One of them worked at Cheers, in Boston. They were using the coaster pagers, and they were always getting lost and broken; they’re gross, no one wants to hold on to them. Around 2011 — around the time of the first decent iPhone where pretty much everyone was starting to adopt smartphones — they just kind of realized, “We don't need to have these pagers anymore. Let's build this system so that Cheers, as the first customer, could use the tablet or computer and text people on their own phone that they're already carrying.” That's originally how it was built.
We've actually been around for a long time compared to a lot of the other reservation-type software applications out there. We've remained small, we’re bootstrapped, we have never taken outside funding or any of that. We've just tried to grow intelligently and organically in a product- and customer-led fashion.
BOH: Tell me a little bit about how it works. Is it primarily an app but can be integrated into a web experience?
ME: It's a web app. Most restaurants will use it on their iPads. You install the web app by essentially bookmarking the waitlist page to your home screen, so you don't go to the App Store and download it. It works on any device, because it's essentially a glorified web page. Because it's a glorified web page, you can just embed an iframe in anybody's website and customize the look and feel to fit in. There's a little bit of customization work, so they may need to know something about HTML to make the kind of the widget look really good.
And then for guests, for the restaurant’s customers, they would interact with it through their smartphone. It’s all mobile-friendly, so when they want to view their place in line, that's just a web page as well. That loads up on their phone's browser, and then the rest of the interaction is actually done through SMS, so they don't even need to open the browser a lot of the time. There's no app to download, which is this huge barrier with a lot of other platforms. It just works as it is on the customer's devices without anything else.
BOH: So TablesReady's new customers don't have to get more hardware at their hostess station or their host station just to use TablesReady?
ME: Use it on your existing iPad, and if you don't have an iPad, it’ll run on like a three-year-old, fifth-generation iPad, which you can get for like $100. One of the reasons we don't provide the hardware is because we're a month-to-month kind of software company. We don't require a two-year contract like you might see with other kinds of waitlist or reservations applications, where customers sign this very expensive contract, and because you're locked in for one or two years, [they'll] send you free hardware. People don't really realize that they've already paid for that hardware. We keep our pricing really competitive. Most people have iPads sitting around. If you don't, you can get it for a very reasonable price. The alternative is we would just charge you more and send you that hardware, so we don't like to do that. We like to be as transparent with our prices as possible.
BOH: Tell us about the month-to-month versus trying to lock in. Why did you choose to allow for that type of flexibility with your customers?
ME: We really do have a customer-first approach. We want to make it as good an experience for them as possible. We have a ton of seasonal customers who only are busy from May to September [for example.] You want to make it really easy for them. And then, there are just people whose businesses change. Unfortunately, the restaurant business is a hard business, so people are shutting down all the time. I would hate to charge someone $1,000 up front and then four months later, their business goes badly. I'd rather be providing value on an ongoing basis consistently for my customers, and as soon as they stop receiving value, or if they need to pause because of a pandemic or shutting down or closing seasonally or whatever it is, I haven't extracted cash that isn't really justified.
BOH: Obviously, it’s a particularly difficult time for restaurants right now. Have you seen an additional interest in TablesReady and in waitlist messaging services more generally?
ME: We've been very fortunate — our business has grown quite a bit during the pandemic. We had a set of restaurants that shut down or didn’t want to do to-go, but there were a lot of people who closed indoor [dining] down but wanted to offer to-go, and they just repurposed our app to text people when their orders were ready for pickup. They can take the order, send the confirmation text, and it really facilitates that transaction. A lot of restaurants were able to stay signed up because they needed this contactless way to communicate with customers in the midst of the pandemic.
But I also think, in general, we were growing quickly before that, because no one wants to use pagers. Customers expect higher levels of service. They don't want to have to wait in the foyer. They want to be able to wander around, they want to be able to wait on their own time. And in general, more people want to be able to book their spot. They don't want to wait in the line at all. I was talking with a friend yesterday who just spent some time in Asia, and he said everything is scheduled there, everything is booked. It’s always appointments, and every industry has it, and eventually that'll come to the US too. I expect everyone who offers appointment-type software and easier ways of communicating with guests to be successful, because that's what customers want. It's a boon to restaurants to offer this kind of technology.
BOH: American diners like the certainty of being able to put themselves on a waitlist in advance, but also like the freedom and flexibility of walk-ins. Is one gonna replace the other, or do you see them existing in parallel?
ME: I think it's gonna be parallel for a long time. I don't know that Applebee's [or places like that will] ever take reservations — that's really a walk-in driven thing. That's going to exist forever. The nice thing is with our system, we can be fairly agnostic about it because we have both online bookings and the waitlist. They’re kind of married in a single list, so you can see both your waiting people and your booked people in the same queue and manage both very easily in our app. We don't have to be too opinionated.
Regardless, the thing that's really amazed me is the number of restaurants that are still using a paper-based waitlist, or paper-based reservations. There are thousands to tens of thousands of restaurants that are gonna get get more digitally savvy over time, and that’s what’s going to be a big boon to them. They collect so much more customer information, they get much less attrition in their line from people waiting because they're serving them better, and customers are happier, so they come back.
BOH: Tell us a little bit about that customer information that your clients are able to collect through TablesReady. What can they do with the data that they're getting about their customers using your software?
ME: We have an analytics package. We show your wait times over time and the amount of traffic you're getting. Most people probably have this in a point-of-sale system, but the one thing that people really don't have is a sense for how long people are waiting and what percent of people are bailing on their waitlist. We can provide that data, over time, by day of the week, even by hour of the day. We give you some pretty good information there, and you can export all that data to analyze it your own way too if you’re data ninja and want to do things in Excel.
In our system, we have a customer relationship management light package. Essentially, anybody who adds themselves to your list with a unique phone number is tracked as a unique customer for you in our app, and from there, you can add more information about them. You can add their birthday, their email address, their address, their likes, dislikes, whatever you want. That information is then stored on the customer and you can access it when they come back. The one thing that I would mention is that we do take customer privacy very seriously. I know probably all of us hate getting SMS marketing texts that we never signed up for. One thing we don't let you do is export your customers phone numbers in bulk, because they're not opting in to receive marketing messages from you. I do think that's something we're going to add in the future — the ability to let people opt in specifically for marketing messages from you, and facilitate you being able to market to them over SMS — but for now, the idea of privacy is super important to us. Making sure that that's not abused is really important.
BOH: For a restaurant operator who already has coasters or already has a paper system that seems to work, why is TablesReady something that they should consider? What are they missing if they're missing out on your solution?
ME: There's a couple different things. In a pandemic, the ability to do this all digitally is super important. Contactless-style communication is really key. Let's assume we're not talking about pandemic time and we're just talking about regular times when people have their paper-based waitlist or their pagers. The pagers are really customer-unfriendly, but on top of that, the cost of the [pager] system is several thousand up front. For most of these people, that's already sunk, but the ongoing maintenance of one to two pagers a month either walking off or breaking is the same price as our system. Then, when you add in all the benefits of what you get with the online waitlist in terms of analytics, in terms of customer friendliness and probable increases in loyalty, in terms of the ability for people to wander wherever they want and how that makes customers feel about your location, I just think the benefits far outweigh the costs on that side of things.
For people who have a paper-based waitlist only — they don't even have pagers, that's old-school — the anecdote that comes to my mind is actually a restaurant that's fairly near me in Kittery, Maine, that is super busy all the time. They have a paper-based waitlist. It’s the hardest thing to read ever, and the number of mistakes they make by seating someone before someone else or scratching something out? Essentially, one person that you fail to seat on a given night because of a scratched-out list, or you can't find them but they're actually just sitting at the bar and you're wandering around your place looking for them? If you miss one customer, you don't seat them, you don't give them a good experience, you don't get the $100 cover — that alone pays for our software for the month.