As restaurant patrons increasingly bring smartphones to the table during meals, restaurants are looking to up their dining room offerings to reflect a wired world. Smart menu startup Plate aims to help restaurants and others in the hospitality industry manage their restaurants with its web-based tablet software and via an iPad app, which allows diners to browse a digital menu, and helps restaurant owners track analytics in the back-end. The company, which has formed partnerships with restaurants and hospitality chains including Marriott and Hyatt, claims to help restaurants sell up to 15 percent more food and drinks per order, and is working on rolling out a solution for in-room dining at hotels.
Founders Nick Granado and Rajit Marwah are former Myspace employees who started Plate to solve problems they saw with the dining experience, which included too many menus (food, wine, etc), too many menu items to choose from, a lack of photos to accompany the food choices, and a lack of additional information about dishes and specific ingredients.
“These may seem like small problems but when you add them up you can imagine how much better the overall experience could be,” Marwah said in an interview. “Restaurant menus are like the web on mobile phones before the iPhone. With the iPhone, Steve Jobs famously wanted to do away with what he called the ‘baby internet’ and I would suggest today’s menu experience is at a similar stage of infancy.”
Marwah and Granado set out to reinvent the menu for tablets, and they’re targeting any sit-down restaurant with their iPad menu system. The Plate software lets restaurants digitize their menus so diners can browse food and drink descriptions and photos. The app also lets diners view videos, and filter by dining preferences, for example if they’re a vegetarian. Owners can update their menu in real-time, so if the night’s special runs out they can adjust without having to tell diners they’re out of a dish. Restaurants upload and manage their menus to a devoted Plate website, which stores the information in the cloud. “All menu control is in the cloud so restaurants can update their menu from the office, their phone, or the beach,” he said.
Restaurants can choose to use their own devices (the system works with any tablet), or they can opt to get a comprehensive package, which includes iPad hardware, software, service, device insurance, and cases. Pricing starts at $30 per month per tablet, and they recently added a volume discount for large restaurants or hotels that want to do in-room dining solutions. The company also offers to do setup for an additional charge. “This is more than paper, but unlike paper for every $1 restaurants invest in this new concept they should return $5-$10,” Marwah said. “A single upsell of a starter, wine, or dessert a day more than pays for the investment.”
Plate claims to help restaurants sell up to 15 percent more food and drinks, a percentage that’s based on average check size data across thousands of diners and multiple restaurants. Marwah said increased sales are due to the fact that Smart Menus are a better way to merchandise than paper, and they tend to upsell starters, wine and desserts. “By observing and talking with diners we found the ways they bought more were discovering photos and notes of things they like, and once they found something, they often opt for the pairing recommendation,” Marwah said. “It’s the digital equivalent of checking out what the table next to you is having or the server bringing out the dessert tray – once something catches your eye you have to have it.”
A key part of Plate’s value proposition to restaurants is its analytics, which Marwah calls “Google Analytics for menus.” The app tracks every tap and reports on which sections and specific menu items people interact with. Plate is targeting sit-down restaurants, but Marwah said they’re not trying to replace servers. The app does feature the ability to order directly through Plate on request, and it’s integrated with major point of sale systems, though Marwah said they haven’t seen demand for it yet. “From the restaurant’s perspective, there is anxiety over people firing their own orders into the kitchen, making mistakes, and things coming out at odd times,” he said. “[But] as much as restaurants want to retain control over their kitchen, consumers want convenience and to order at their convenience, not the servers’.”
Plate is one of many in the competitive digital menu space. E La Carte is one of the best-known, offering proprietary Presto tablet hardware that allows diners to order and pay themselves. The company also promises a 10 percent sales boost from using its tablets, and says it turns tables around seven minutes faster than with traditional paper menu systems. Marwah believes that Plate is different because they constantly add new features, and aim for simplicity in terms of their business model.
As for why restaurant chains couldn’t just build their own solutions, Marwah said a technology company is better positioned to lead the charge. “San Francisco is home to Opentable and Yelp, billion dollar companies that changed the restaurant industry dramatically,” he said. “Our hypothesis is that tablets will be the next major shift in this industry and that a technology company will carry the day.”
He said the company will be building out a full product suite for consumers and restaurants, and that above all Plate is a data company that aims to personalize the dining experience. If Plate can tap into Netflix-style personalized recommendations for diners, while also improving a restaurant’s bottom line, they will likely continue to win big brand customers. Whether individual restaurants are willing to shell out for new technology is another question, and Marwah wouldn’t disclose how many are currently using the system.