Ever experience frustration trying (and failing) to flag down your server mid-meal, or at the end for the check? Ever had to ask your server to repeat the daily specials again? Or wish you could see a photo of an entrée before ordering it? Butter Systems founder Sam Brin believes that the restaurant experience can be a lot better. The startup replaces the paper menu with a tablet that takes and tracks orders and allows the wait staff to focus on adding a human touch.
Brin—younger brother of Google co-founder Sergey Brin—thinks that food ordering is often an unpleasant business. Restaurants are often understaffed, especially during peak hours, and guests are forced into a decision-making process that’s out of step with the way they want to order. Suppose everyone isn’t ready to order at the same time, or maybe midway through the meal someone wants to add a beer. And when it’s time to order dessert, the hassle (both anticipated and actual) of hailing the waiter dramatically decreases the likelihood of ordering that slice of chocolate cake, Brin says.
Butter Systems tries to capture those moments by providing better table service and not allowing transactional opportunities slip away, Brin says. By allowing guests to order items and request the check in a smooth, interactive flow, there’s less waiting time for the customer, the server’s job is more pleasant and restaurants capture roughly 13% extra per table—an increase stemming primarily from high-margin items, according to the startup.
Brin studied computer science and physics at the University of Maryland, where he met Butter Systems co-founder Jon Li, a fellow coder and child of immigrants who shared his passion for tech. Brin and Li mused early on about how restaurants could embrace technology to improve their service model. While Sam moved into biotech, building web apps for neurosurgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital, Jon worked at Cisco and on Amazon’s AWS team, where he became a bona fide scalability expert.
But they kept their eyes on the intersection of food service and tech, excited by the launch of new tablets like Microsoft Surface.
“I immediately thought of restaurants when I saw the demo,” Brin says. “I thought it would be really cool if we could sit at a table and interact with the tablet device—and with each other—in a seamless way that makes for a really cool experience that’s not polluting the human interaction which is ultimately why you’re there.”
After several mock-ups and investor conversations, Brin and Li turned to their friend Mary Heffernan, a restaurateur in San Francisco. Her restaurant, Bumble, was a perfect proving ground for their tablet-based ordering platform. They tested the concept right on Bumble’s busy tables. The first customer-users were two big families who came in together for lunch. After ordering a boatload of entrées and high-end add-ons (a confirmation that the tablet interface was capturing impulse buys and transactions that otherwise might not have happened), the customers gave rave reviews—to the system as well as the food.
The feedback has been excellent, Brin says. “Two things are important to me: that customers are happy, and that they ordered more stuff,” he says. "It’s also good to see smiles on the wait staff too.”
A finer dining experience
While Butter Systems helps owners and servers, Brin says their main priority is the customers. The founders say they’ve found their niche in fast casual and fine casual restaurants—settings where there’s often a shortage of staff and plenty of impatient clientele.
“We want to turn every dining experience into a fine dining experience, where everything is completely on demand, and you get what you want when you want it,” Brin says. “That allows you to focus on the food, drinks, and company.”
Compared with competitors E La Carte and iMenu, Butter System’s onboarding approach stands apart. Butter Systems is designed to work with any point of sale system, so restaurants can use the free trial and see value without spending time setting it up or training.
Bumble and beyond
Building on the successes at Bumble, Brin’s immediate goal is to saturate the Bay Area market in the coming months.
“It would be pretty cool if a year from now whenever someone visited San Francisco, they left amazed by all the cool restaurants where they didn’t have to wait,” Brin says. From there, they’ll move into other geographic areas.
Butter Systems is just launching its sales campaign and is weighing a number of post-trial pricing options. So far, the founders’ focus has been on testing the product and getting feedback. With positive reviews, Brin looks forward to a day when tableside tablets are ubiquitous. He compares the innovation to credit cards—it was once seen as novel to pay with a piece of plastic. “That’s the kind of change we want to see in ordering,” Brin says.
Why did you pick this idea to work on?
We built Butter Systems to solve our own personal frustration with the restaurant experience.
How are you different from your competitors?
Product Design: Our product is easily customizable and brings each restaurant's brand to life. We built a snappy, native UI that engages customers and boosts check sizes. We utilize Android (not custom/proprietary hardware), which shortens development cycles and allows for automatic over-the-air updates.
Ease of Implementation: Butter is completely plug-and-play. All hardware comes preloaded with dynamic breakfast-lunch-dinner menus. Butter works with the waitstaff and their existing set of processes, which is not true of other products on the market. Our product frees up time for the waitstaff, allowing them to focus on the customer.
Point of Sale: Our server pagers (Android phones) and kitchen displays (Android tablets) notify servers of each order, so they can fire it into the POS. The waitstaff can still oversee the staging of appetizers, entrees, desserts, and more. Other companies in the space tend to cut the waitstaff out of the order flow, but this validation step is critical
How big is the market?
Restaurants account for 4% of US GDP. Quickservice restaurants alone did $212b in sales in 2012.
What do you understand about your business that others just don't get?
This business requires both scalable technology and a scalable sales/distribution model. Restaurants get the short end of the stick when it comes to software that runs inside the restaurant, and Butter Systems addresses all of these issues.
What's your biggest risk? What keeps you up at night?
Our biggest competitor is the paper restaurant menu, but the excitement of bringing restaurants into the future is what keeps us up at night.
How do you acquire customers?
Combination of inbound interest, sales/distribution partnerships with other companies, and in-house sales reps with strong rolodexes.
How do you make money?
We use a monthly subscription model, and at scale we will become a digital ad platform at the restaurant table.
Haven't I seen something like this at airport restaurants? How are you different?
Our product is fully customizable to bring every restaurant brand to life. It's designed from the ground up with restaurant owners in mind. We want to help bring both existing brands and new concepts into the future, not provide a kiosk that takes away from the atmosphere.
How many restaurants have you signed up?
We have 12 restaurants signed up for deployments, all before launching our sales/marketing campaign in San Francisco.
How expensive is it for a small restaurant to set this up?
We offer a one month free trial with zero up-front cost. Installation is self-serve and completely plug-and-play.
How long will it take a restaurant to see an ROI on installing Buttersystems?
ROI is evident immediately. Restaurants see a statistically significant boost in check size after the first 100 orders.
How much does it cost you to acquire a restaurant as a customer?
We are still developing our customer acquisition strategy, and still developing sales/distribution partnerships. One of our core values is to create a self-serve product that generates inbound interest and organic growth, by creating the best experience for restaurant and their customers.
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