Starting a Online Food Ordering Business
Interview with Sarah Young, Associate Partner and Co-Founder of LunchBox
College students and takeout food are a classic combination. Three students came together to found LunchBox, an innovative online ordering and waitlisting application they've parlayed into a business.
Interview with Sarah Young, Co-Founder of LunchBox.
Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?
LunchBox sets up online and mobile ordering for the restaurant industry. The online ordering is private-labeled for each restaurant, and users can access the menu via the restaurant's website or via our consumer branded site. We are also releasing a native app sometime in March (called LunchBox) for the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android phones. This app will be free to download, and will allow the user to find or search for restaurant menus in their area, order right from the application, and also share and rate/review specific menu items. For example, if a user wanted to search for the highest-rated vegan or gluten-free dishes their area, the results would populate a list of highly-rated individual dishes from different restaurants near them. The software tracks buyer behaviors, so restaurants can send out targeted promotions to users. Users can also "opt-in" to receive MORE promotions, coupons, etc. from their favorite restaurants.
The other feature of our technology is that we offer a queue management software called WaitMaster that tracks guest wait times vs. estimated wait times, call-ahead seating, online queue entering, etc. When guests walk in or call in to the restaurant, the host can enter their name and phone number/email, tell them the estimated wait time, and then page them when the table is ready. The guests will receive the page on their cell phone via text or email. When the guests come back to check-in, the host can check them into the system, automatically recording the precise wait time. We are testing this software with Texas Roadhouse, and we hope to bring on Outback Steakhouse, Timber Lodge, and Buffalo Wild Wings over the next few months.
When did you start the business?
What were you doing before this?
I have been a student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, graduating this May 2010. The other two partners are Samantha Fung and Parag Shah. We are three students that are working together to build up LunchBox and WaitMaster. Although we don't actually develop the software (we have hired 3 computer coders to work on that), we create the ideas of what we want the software to be capable of.
How did you come up with your business idea?
The restaurant industry is unarguably a perfect one for online and mobile ordering. For example, Pizza Hut's and Chipotle's iPhone apps have skyrocketed their sales, and now every other restaurant wants in. But soon no user will want to download 30 different apps for all the restaurants they want to order from! Ours is currently the only solution that exists in the industry to offer a consumer-facing brand where people can go to find and order from a directory of restaurants.
Our first big launches are with Granite City and Casablanc. This is with the private label online ordering initially. After we have a bunch of the other restaurants set up with their online ordering, we will be able to release our smartphone application.
Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?
Yes we all currently operate out of our apartments and coffee shops, wherever we can get some work done. The biggest challenge that I've experienced with this is distractions. When I'm working in my college apartment, my roommates are always around and I can do so many other things. It's hard to lock myself away to just focus on productivity for hours. The benefits of this are that we have essentially no overhead. We save a lot of money by not renting out office space.
Did you have a partner when you started your business? How did you select a partner?
Yes we have gone through several partners since the very beginning of the company. Parag, Samantha, and I are all the current partners of the company, and we met through our business classes. Parag told me his idea during a semester when I had an operations course with him, and I instantly wanted to do everything I could to help the company take off. Samantha and I had worked together several summers ago in an on-campus job prepping for new students coming in to the University. I told her what I was working on, and she wanted in on the fun as well.
For women entrepreneurs, what specific advice would you have for young women who would like to become an entrepreneur? Are there specific advantages, disadvantages to being a women business owner?
I have already had some very interesting experiences as a women entrepreneur, and the best advice I can give is to just be confident and professional with everyone you speak with and meet with. I've found that the combination of my age and my gender has often set me up for a stigma about my knowledge of the technology and business world. A specific example is that I have oftentimes noticed that when Parag and I go into a sales meeting with a restaurant owner (most likely male), that even if I lead most of the meeting, the feedback and the questions will be mostly directed at Parag. Overcoming that challenge is a great experience that I am working through, and it motivates me to work harder towards become even more of an expert in the industry. Sometimes, however, I've found that people offer MORE respect for the fact that I am a woman entrepreneur, and this is always encouraging.
Green business is all the rage right now. Has it really been practical for you as an entrepreneur to incorporate green business practices?
Our business has a huge advantage in promoting green business practices in the whole restaurant industry. Our goal is to promote the elimination of pen and paper wait-lists, less receipts, less paper usage overall. We also operate all of our business online and on our computers, so office waste is non-existent. We definitely have plans for operating in an office in the near future, and keeping it a green environment will be an important objective for us.
Finding employees to work in a new and growing business can be a challenge. How did you find your employees?
We do a LOT of networking in any place that we can. It's been very beneficial to us to be working out of large college campus -- there are tons of talented people around us. Other students get interested just from us talking about it or from things they see online or in our school newspaper about our work. Many people that are passionate about the idea come to us and want to help in whatever way they can. We've also joined groups such as BizLounge, Women's Foodservice Forum, GSEA, Entrepreneurship Club (at Carlson School of Management), and the Entrepreneur Organization's Accelerator Program. We each have mentors who are professionals in the business or technology world and have started and succeeded in building their own businesses. All of these opportunities have helped us make connections with people who want to get involved with us.
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?
Make sure you find really great and passionate people to work on your technology. It's way too common to develop a really amazing business idea and put a lot of time and money into generating sales and creating marketing programs and then just expect that the tech development will be easy and fast. Find someone who can speak both computer language and business language -- rare, but incredibly crucial to the success of your business.
I can't wait to try ordering from LunchBox. Best of luck to you and your partners, Sarah.
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