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Before Tyler Brewer joined Snackpass as head of restaurants, he worked for Uber on operations and marketing. And before that, he started his own business straight out of college, getting a solid taste for start-up work early. What did that experience teach him? Well, for one thing: "I learned how to grow a business really quickly."
Brewer joined Snackpass in 2019 ready to bring his start-up know-how to the food & beverage industry sector. As employee number five at the fast-growing company—which counts mobile ordering, social marketing, and contactless payments among its functions—he's been hands-on in tweaking the platform based on feedback from restaurants across the country. He wants to make sure Snackpass tells their story correctly and helps restaurants succeed.
Back Of House spoke with Brewer about how Snackpass works, its winning strategy of focusing on growth in college markets, and of course, how the pandemic has changed the way the company thinks about its value-proposition to restaurants.
This interview has been edited lightly for brevity and clarity.
Back of House: Tell us your background at Snackpass. Have you been there since day one? Before day one?
Tyler Brewer, Snackpass: I am employee number five, not a co-founder, but [was] here pretty early. I'm the head of restaurants here, so I'm in charge of everything on the restaurant side: helping us get more restaurants, helping us take care of our restaurants, helping get our restaurants live.
BOH: How long has Snackpass been in business?
TB: We're coming up on our third birthday this fall , so fairly young company. We have got some great funding and some great growth though in those past three years. I've been here just over a year and a half, so I came in about nine months before our Series A. And my goal was to help us get there and get us ready to expand to 100 campuses.
BOH: Tell me a little bit more about the head of restaurants job. How did you come to be in this position? Are you a restaurant guy?
TB: Great question. I actually don't have any direct restaurant experience. I came from Uber. I have tech experience, so I started my own business straight out of college. And from there, joined Uber very early on. I helped in the operations, the marketing, and the policy side of things. In my time at Uber, I learned how to grow a business really quickly to figure out how [a company] can scale. From there, I did a little consulting, and then joined Snackpass in January of 2019. My job is to think about the restaurant side of the business for Snackpass, and make sure that we're telling our story correctly, that we're something that benefits restaurants and helps them and their business. We want to be a true partner and make sure that we back that up in the actions that we take.
BOH: What's the quick and dirty pitch on what Snackpass is and does?
TB: Snackpass is a platform that helps customers order through their favorite restaurants, but they don't do it just in a silo. They do it with their friends, so it's a social experiment. If you've never used Snackpass before, it's at the corner of Uber Eats, Snapchat, and Groupon.
BOH: Tell us more.
TB: Every purchase on Snackpass as a customer is social—you always have to tell a friend where you're eating. You can see your friends’ favorite places to eat and you can actually send friends their favorite food. Restaurants, of course, want to be involved in the action.
We think of ourselves as a social network, and restaurants play a big piece in that. They get to interact with our customers just like our customers get to interact with our restaurants. That's a really powerful piece for both of them because restaurants always want more business. Restaurants want to know where [customers'] friends are going, not just where restaurants are telling them to go. That's a really powerful word-of-mouth piece that is ingrained in our platform.
BOH: The core product is the app, but you guys also do physical kiosks in certain restaurants, right?
TB: We started out with our mobile order-ahead app. The premise behind that was people needed a social way to order, and users didn't want to have 20 different order ahead apps on their phone. The convenience is obviously a big part of that. As we got to know restaurants more, we learned that the market just wasn't fulfilling their needs. We offer a very low-cost, sleek and professional online ordering platform for restaurants that helps them save money. And we have a digital menu platform that helps restaurants go completely contactless. It leverages the QR code technology, but it doesn't just bring up a menu — it actually brings up a portal where the customer can order directly from their phone without the app. That way, you don't need a server or a cashier — it's almost like a mobile kiosk [with an] ordering platform on someone's phone.
Every time you order on Snackpass, you have to tell a friend. So one customer is always leading up to another.
We do have self-serve kiosks, too, which are some hardware you put into your store that allows a customer to order. Those orders get sent directly to the back of the house of the restaurant and to where the food is prepared. All of this is connected to loyalty programs, a big part of Snackpass. [It’s] been proven to retain customers, and that's what restaurants really want.
Every time you order on one of our platforms, it's going to allow these restaurants to be able to communicate with the user, but also the user to communicate with the restaurant and tell their friends that they're ordering there to make this social connection. It’s really great that it's all interconnected — it gives the restaurant a whole lot more control over all the things that they use in terms of ordering within their restaurant.
BOH: Is there a core demographic that you target, or that you have seen gravitate to the platform from the customer side of things?
TB: From the customer side of things, we see a lot of people download the app and use our services in-store. We launch our marketplace at college campuses. The app is really interesting. [We] have to have so many restaurants, you have to have so many customers, and the experience actually grows as more restaurants and more customers come onto the platform.
So we'll launch at a college campus. It's normal for us to get about 70% of the student body on the platform within the first year, and restaurants love that. If you put your restaurant next to a college campus, I'd imagine you'd really like to get those college customers, and we help connect you with them. College campuses cycle through every four years. It's really hard to get those freshmen and that's what we specialize in. We do it in a way that actually uses their peers to invite them into your store, not so much that you're just advertising. This is digital and low-cost, and a way for people to really be sticky with their new customers and as they cycle in every year.
BOH: So customers are transacting using Snackpass, but also like it sounds like it's functioning sort of as a pseudo-marketing engine as well?
TB: That's very accurate. Every restaurant has the ability to set up an array of different marketing campaigns and choose the segment that they want to go after. If they want to build a promotion that goes after just first-time customers, they have the ability to [that]. They have the ability to set promotions based on time. Bring people into those [typically] slow times, and you can turn your slowest day into a busy day with our “seize the day” promotion.
Snackpass focuses more on pickup than delivery, so we give restaurants a whole lot more control in their margins.
There are also promotions that [feature] built-in social ordering. We have one called “group buy,” and instead of just getting one customer to buy, you can say, “I'll give a discount if four people joined that person to order.” There are all these different ways that you can set up marketing promotions on your platform to meet your goals, whether that's getting first time customers, retaining your customers, or growing your average check size. Anything and everything is pretty much possible on the Snackpass platform when it comes to that.
BOH: That group ordering idea seems purpose-built to the way college kids get food—sitting around a dorm room, all going in on something together at once. How did a feature like that come to be?
TB: Listening to restaurants is at our core. A restaurant always would like four people to order as opposed to one.
TB: From the user side, we think about that story [for] college kids and really anybody—they enjoy getting a deal, but they also enjoy sharing a deal with their friends. There's a community aspect to that, which only makes the purchase and the brand affiliation stronger for that customer. This is a way to not only take care of your loyal customers, but also bring in new customers at the same time, and make your loyal customers feel empowered to share your brand.
BOH: The community is digital by nature because that's where your product exists for the most part. But we're months into the pandemic keeping everyone home at this point—what have you seen in terms of [change in how] Snackpass customer communities are interacting with your restaurant clients?
TB: It has definitely changed things. 90% of our customers before COVID were students, and all of a sudden students were changing places because they didn't have to be tied to a campus because classes were all remote. Our customer base has changed a little bit; there are more [non-student] locals on the platform now. We've helped restaurants capture more information. Digital menus serve a huge purpose right now in COVID-time and allow [restaurants] to collect this customer information and encourage them to download the app. The restaurant then has a mouthpiece to these customers through push notifications and through the app itself, and allows the customers to talk to one another as well.
The community has definitely changed, but I think it's for the best. We've diversified our customer base and given a greater customer base to these restaurants to market to and tell them about their services.
BOH: What's your answer to a restaurant owner who's skeptical of yet another platform? Someone who says, “We've already got marketing, we've already got a reward system,” and so forth?
TB: All of our products talk together, whether it's a person coming into the store and ordering through a digital menu or a kiosk, or someone pre-ordering through online ordering or through the app. All of these talk together, and they push people towards social, and everybody knows the value of word-of-mouth — it's a really great motivator. I trust myself a whole lot more than I trust an advertisement, and I trust my friend's opinion just as much. Every time I order on Snackpass, I have to tell a friend, so one customer is always leading up to a potential customer. We really push the boundaries of word-of-mouth in this social buying aspect.
Additionally, cost is a big thing for restaurants—their margins are really low—and being able to combine all these features helps you lower the costs. Thankfully, because we focus more on the pickup aspect than delivery, we give restaurants a whole lot more control in their margins. We're not charging the 25, 30, 35% that other third parties do.
BOH: Tell me a little bit about what the evolution of contactless looked like for Snackpass during the pandemic. Being positioned around order-ahead seems like a big plus.
TB: We had been preaching [prior to the pandemic] that pre-order was becoming a larger and larger thing. You could see larger brands like Chipotle or Shake Shack invest in their digital technology and preorder apps. We believe that really strongly. For us, we've been preaching, pre-COVID, that customers want this convenience. But they want convenience all through one app, as opposed to having 20 different apps on your phone.
When COVID hit, we had to help our restaurants and take care of them even more. When that happened, we got rid of our commissions for a brief time to help restaurants stay alive, and gave them our digital menus and online ordering for free so they could all stay afloat. We really think of ourselves as a true partner with these restaurants, and we're the technology that a lot of these brands just don't have available. We've got an engineering team that's wonderful and can move really fast, and we're trying to help them out as quickly as possible.
We're very quick to build and iterate on this digital menu thing, and now we actually have restaurants that have gone completely cashierless. [They use] a mixture of our digital menus and our kiosks to stay alive and offer convenience to the customer, but also safety to the customer and their employees.
BOH: What's your biggest challenge right now [as head of restaurants]? Not having enough manpower? Not being able to get the restaurants’ ears that you want because they're too busy? What is the biggest hurdle that you’re grappling with right now?
TB: One of the biggest challenges is, how do you balance growing a company really quickly and also make sure that everything's taken care of to maintain excellence offered in the past? We're only in 20 markets currently, and our goal is to be at 100 by the end of 2021. We're looking to make sure that we grow our team and get the word out to more and more places across the country, yet still take care of all of our markets that we're already in in [such] a way that no level of service drops.
BOH: Are you still thinking about it from a college-first approach, or has that changed because of the inconsistency of whether students will be back on campuses?
TB: We still believe in colleges. We start with college campuses — we're really good at getting those college students as users really quickly — but it's always been a goal of ours to expand outside of college campuses. If we can help restaurants now with self-serve kiosks, digital menus, and online ordering, we can help restaurants all over the country. As we continue to grow and expand with the marketplace app, we'll be able to help bring in another wave of value to these restaurants. We're still looking at growing throughout the country in college campuses, but we're investing in the cities that we're in.