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Taranvir Johal founded Tavolo, a contactless dining app when he was in college in Minnesota. He saw the restaurant industry's acute need for such a technology, a foresight that has looked only more prescient during the pandemic.
The app was initially a dine-in solution that allows patrons to make reservations, order, and pay. Eventually the Tavolo team realized that contactless dining was the wave. As Johal put it, by slightly changing the way Tavolo operates, they can now be a better solution for restaurants.
Back of House spoke with Johal about what Tavolo does and why operators need it, the lasting effects of COVID on the dining scene, and why he believes contactless dining is the future.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Back of House: Tell us who you are and what Tavolo is.
Taranvir Johal, Tavolo: My name is Taran, and I'm the CEO of Tavolo. Tavolo is an app that introduces contactless dining by allowing users to reserve a table, order menu items, and pay for meals at restaurants. We also allow for pickup at restaurants. The vision behind it when we initially launched in 2019 was to minimize wait time at restaurants. After the pandemic hit, a lot of restaurants were forced to shut down, and what we realized was that our number one goal should be to help support the restaurant industry as a whole — especially in Minnesota, where the weather is really cold. For most of the year, a lot of restaurants were kind of forced to shut down, and they weren't able to do outdoor seating to start off with. But once summer hit, a lot of restaurants opened up again and allowed for outdoor seating. So then we thought to ourselves, “How can we go about having a solution where people can go eat at restaurants and do it in a way that it's safe for them, and also safe for restaurant staff?”
We realized that one of the best ways to do it was just to have the app introduce contactless dining. So let's say you wanted to go to a restaurant. You would reserve a table on your phone, you would order the menu items on your phone, and you would pay for everything on your phone as well. And the restaurant would be able to get all the payments the following day. You would have a great experience, and you'd also help drive extra revenue for the restaurant. We also allow for pickup at restaurants as well. We're partnered with quite a few restaurants around the campus, so if I wanted to order pick up at any of the restaurants, I can be in my dorm or in my apartment, select my menu items, pay for it, and by the time I get there, the food will already be prepared.
Our solution initially was for Tavolo to be a dine-in solution that minimized the wait time of restaurants, so you would pre-reserve, pre-order, and pre-pay. And then we kind of pivoted to be a fully contactless way of going out to eat at restaurants. It wasn't a complete shift from our initial vision. It was kind of a small change, where we realized the way that we were operating the business, we could make it work and help be an additional solution for restaurants.
BOH: Do you have a background in the restaurant space?
TJ: Yes. My family owned quite a few restaurants growing up. We owned a couple here in Minneapolis, and we own one in Madison, Wisconsin, as well. I grew up around the space. I knew quite a bit about it before jumping on to the project, and two of my co-founders [did] as well. One of them was a server for many years at our restaurant. All of us have different levels of experience on the team.
BOH: Tell us a little bit about when you made this pivot, some of the features that you wanted to roll out to help your restaurants.
TJ: The first thing was, I believe it was the second week or third week of March, when everything started to kind of shut down all at once [because of COVID]. So for example, I was in my junior year, and the University of Minnesota, during spring break, sent out an email blast basically just saying, “Don't come to campus. We're shutting down. We'll figure out what we're gonna do over the next two weeks and decide whether or not we're gonna have classes.” So it was kind of this period where nobody was really sure what was happening. And then eventually, like a week later, they were like, “Everything's going to be shut down. You're going to be doing virtual school for this year.” We noticed a lot of restaurants were starting to get forced to shut down as well, because there was mandatory lockdown throughout the city of Minneapolis and throughout the state of Minnesota. So at a lot of restaurants, nobody dined in. The only option was really delivery, and a lot of these mom and pop shops were really struggling to make money because delivery services like DoorDash, and Uber Eats, were charging about 30% per order, so they weren't making any profit whenever an order would come in for delivery.
We were working with quite a few restaurants at the time, and what we realized was we needed to introduce a pickup option for restaurants — because we hadn't implemented that yet. We had to be a solution where these mom and pop shops would still make profit by using Tavolo.
Our number one goal ended up becoming: How can support restaurants during this time? As soon as restaurants were able to open, we really started pushing the contactless approach. We were like, “You don’t need to distribute menus to anybody. You don't need to take their card or anything like that. You don't need to exchange cash. Everything will happen through our app. And the user will use their own device when they're paying, reserving the table, and ordering menu items.”
BOH: What does onboarding look like for a new restaurant operator who decides to bring on Tavolo? How quickly can you be up and running?
TJ: You can be up and running within a day. Onboarding is super fast — all we really need to do is have them send us a link of their menu or PDF menu, and we get it uploaded within a couple hours. Then we just send them over a tablet, have them fill out a Stripe form — which is a payment processor. Once they have that Stripe form filled out, and they got the tablet, they're up and running. So it’s a very, very quick process. A lot of times, we'll start talking to a restaurant on Monday of a week, and have them on board about Wednesday.
BOH: Are you strictly in Minneapolis right now? Are you in other markets? What's the footprint?
TJ: We’ve started to reach out outside of Minneapolis. Right now we're mostly based in Minneapolis and St. Paul — the Twin Cities. But we started reaching out — we got our first restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is only about an hour out of Chicago. We're hoping to hit Chicago in early 2021.
BOH: What's your vision for what Tavolo can be? What's the roadmap?
TJ: We've been asking ourselves what types of long-term changes will occur after the pandemic subsides, and one thing that we realize is that this contactless approach is going to be something a lot of people will look a lot more comfortable with. After COVID-19 isn't really a major issue anymore, long term, what we want to do is want to branch out to every major city and suburban area around the United States, and basically just allow everybody to order both pickup and dine-in at restaurants.
Our number one goal is to provide as much value to restaurants as possible and help support the industry as much as we can, because it will struggle long-term, at least for the next year or so, as restaurants rely on other services in order to bring in revenue. And our number one goal is to be a partner for them — not just somebody that they use every once in a while in order to drive more traffic, but as an actual partner they can rely on long term who actually cares about how healthy their business is.
BOH: What's the biggest challenge you are facing right now?
TJ: The biggest challenge that we're facing right now is probably that certain restaurants have a lot of delivery services that are in place already, like DoorDash, and Uber Eats, and Grubhub. Although we are very different from the platforms, a lot of times restaurants decide they aren’t looking for any more partnerships because they have so many apps already in place. I would say that's probably the hardest part of landing a restaurant. But we've also had it become an advantage for us before, where restaurants are like, “Tavolo’s been working very well for me, so I no longer need to use any of these extra services.” It's both a blessing and a curse to have that many apps in the market, but I would say that's probably the biggest hurdle in the way.