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Online services like Just Eat have changed both the food industry and our expectations as customers. The online intermediary platform between independent takeaway food outlets and customers has created an easier, seamless experience – and other companies have been looking to get in on the action.

CEO Andrew Norton said Luke Johnson joining TellTheChef as chairman was crucial for the business's ongoing success

Restaurateur Andrew Norton founded TellTheChef after working in hospitality for decades and noticing that pre-orders were proving tricky to grapple with at his Oxford-based restaurant the Jam Factory – particularly at busy times of the year like Christmas. 

“I was surprised there wasn't an off-the-shelf product to make the pre-order process easier, so we built it," he said. Referring to the service as Just Eat for pre-orders gives some indication as to its potential, and Norton believes it makes a fundamental difference to how restaurants can operate. “You want your staff focused on a great service, not dealing with admin.”

Menus are uploaded to a cloud-based platform, event details added and then the system automates the rest with personalised emails linked to online menus. The advantages for restaurants and venues to manage pre-orders are clear, particularly for group events when juggling a number of different orders. The UK food and restaurant industry is a busy space – market intelligence firm Allegra Foodservice predicted the value of the restaurant market to reach £52bn by 2017– but Norton claims that no other services offer an "end-to-end order-to-kitchen service", the depth of data it does, or the ability to integrate with other major providers such as ResDiary.

He explained that the market is currently split between limited-feature single-function startups or the IBMs or Oracles who build "custom" services. TellTheChef aims to upset the balance by placing pre-order software and detailed analytics, “in the hands of every restaurateur in the country".

The extensive data on offer is a particularly appealing draw for clients such as The Royal Opera House, and the company is exploring how to utilise the analytics on offer even further. TellTheChef has served close to two million dishes so far, and Norton can provide specific detail regarding just what exactly the 500,000th customer ate on April 16 2015. “A chicory, pear and clawson stilton salad, chargrilled pork cutlet and apple and hazelnut crumble caramel custard at a hotel in Oxford," he revealed. Norton can also divulge how the customer found their three-course meal – a solid 4.1 out of five, which considers the atmosphere, service and individual dishes. The hotel was probably quite happy to find out the guest also said they were highly likely to recommend the hotel to a friend, scoring it ten out of ten.

Norton is exploring how to make further use of the range of data the service provides

“I can't give anymore specifics for privacy reasons, but I can tell you the customer ate at 8.30pm, and gave the overall dish a slightly below average score for that restaurant, but above average for that time of day. Our data shows diner satisfaction increases from 7.30pm to 8.00pm,” Norton supplied.

While services like TripAdvisor and Foursquare provide restaurants useful tools for gathering customer feedback in one space, TellTheChef compiles in-depth information. Norton explained: "It drills down into time, date, meal – really granular data. You can see trends across the country, seasonal preferences and so on.” He added that the service can indicate which fashionable restaurant dishes move into the mainstream – in 2013, TellTheChef saw a huge increase in pulled pork order, before it became a staple in chains like EAT. When asked about his next prediction for the foreseeable future, Norton said: “Salt Marsh lamb is experiencing a surge in popularity in restaurants right now, so perhaps it's coming to a Pret near you soon.”

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Since founding the company in 2009, Norton checks three particular memories as milestones for him personally. When the Malmaison hotel chain showed interest in using the service, it signified that he hadn't just developed an insular initiative for his own benefit, but a service that was time and cost-saving for other restaurants too. He also recalled an occasion where a friend invited him to a meal using TellTheChef, without realising. “That's when I really knew the system was taking off!” Then, the appointment of well-known entrepreneur Luke Johnson as the chairman – whose hospitality industry successes have included Pizza Express, Strada and Patisserie Valerie – as Norton recognised they needed an established industry figure to boost their next stage of growth. “From the first investment from an Oxford-based business angel to Luke Johnson agreeing to be our chairman, that signified a huge step forward for us.”

The fast development and increasing client base reflects the growing need for technology to keep up with customer demands. Expectations are higher, and people's attention spans shorter, and Norton mentions the shift to mobile being particularly significant. “Diners want to order through their phones as they work through their emails, not just when they're sat at a desk,” he explained.

A business that has capitalised on this quite recently is restaurant chain Hummus Bros. Co-founder Christian Mouysset said that lunchtime queues and a rush for a quick lunch, often meaning people were out off from queueing, prompted their decision to improve the ordering process. Teaming up with Judo Payments, they developed a mobile pre-ordering app so customers could place an order and pay in advance, to skip the ordering queue.

Hummus Bros introduced an app for customers to skip the lunchtime queues

Despite having introduced the app within the past couple of months, Mouysset said that it is already making a difference. “Customers that have started using our app and telling us that it's a huge difference to their day-to-day. And we've been surprised at how easy it is to process these orders – they print out 15 minutes before they need to be ready and the customers come straight to the collection point to pick it up.”

The positive feedback so far has meant Hummus Bros is looking to deploy more technology over the next couple of years. When asked about what might be next on the horizon, he said: “I see the next big innovation coming from bringing together self-checkout kiosks, pre-ordering apps, online ordering platforms and point of sale apps under one unified system.”

Mouysset admitted that the increasing pressure from customers expecting everything to be convenient and delivered quickly is a challenge. The increasing incorporation of, and reliance on, technology, also means there's less room for the dining experience from his perspective. “I worry that all this reduces human interactions, though the pendulum will probably come back," he said.

It's not just the dining experience, which the development of technology is affecting. Bonativo, a startup which bills itself as bringing the farmers' market online, is aiming to transform people's accessibility to local produce, even in city areas. Christian Eggert started the project in Berlin after his mother frequently bought food from local farmers, and asked why she couldn't just buy it online. He teamed up with Nigel Akehurst in the UK to bring Bonativo to London. They hope to provide Londoners with accessibility to high-quality locally sourced food, while helping small producers gain online exposure to more potential customers.

Christian Eggert expanded his Berlin-based startup to London

Not only does it circumvent the issue of investigating where food comes from, it also provides fresh, local produce to urban areas quickly – a draw for busy Londoners. Orders are fulfilled within two days, and delivery is currently on offer for all of Zone 1 and 2, along with all south west London postcodes. Spokesperson Anouska D'Abo explained: “We try and fill all the basics someone needs for their weekly supermarket shop – milk, eggs, vegetables, main proteins, breads and so on. We pride ourselves on more unique products that are difficult to come by though, including quinoa and freshly made pasta.”

London, she added, was the obvious next step after Berlin, and the increasing sales of organic produce in recent years – rising four per cent to £1.86bn in 2014 – indicated Bonativo had a ripe market to tap into. “London has such a food-focused culture, it just seemed natural to open a branch in the UK. The momentum of the natural food movement was an indicator that we needed to be there, as there's a demand for high quality, fresh food,” D'Abo explained.

As everything from pre-ordering to takeaways to the farmers' market, makes the dining and food experience that much more seamless, there's also scope for further ventures combining these developments further. While customer demands may keep growing, it seems these businesses at least, are welcoming the challenge. 

Indeed, Norton believes there's much more to come. “Dining isn't something we do virtually, and it's an area that big data hasn't really touched. There's no platform that really monitors what people are eating where and when.” He pointed to Google and Amazon, that have become attuned to anticipating our needs from years of big data and analytics. “We're still on the nursery slopes in terms of food and leisure technology.”


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