Start-up app limits confusion, increases dining convenience
Nick Mancini remembers when he realized it was time for popular restaurants to change how they managed their lengthy waitlists.
On a Friday night last November at Blue Water Grille in Skaneateles, N.Y., Mancini and his girlfriend faced a tedious 45-minute wait for a table.
“The host took down my phone number so I figured she would either buzz us or call us when our table was ready,” said Mancini, a senior information technology major and self-proclaimed full-time entrepreneur. “But she never ended up doing either.”
Just two weeks after his Blue Water Grille fiasco, Mancini, a 20-year-old who’s no stranger to start-ups and has done everything from developing Web pages and mobile apps to selling audio and lighting equipment, pitched an idea for an app called UpFront at Syracuse Startup Weekend in November 2011.
Mancini assembled a team of six tech heads to create UpFront, a nonprofit iOS application that allows the hosts of restaurants to enter the name and phone number of each dining party into an iPad interface.
The phone number then receives two text messages from the host (via the app) during the waiting process. The first welcomes the patron to the restaurant and tells the party how long its wait will be, and the second informs the group when its table is ready.
The group also received $10,000 from the Raymond von Dran IDEA Awards Competition for winning Syracuse University’s Emerging Idea Competition in April. The winnings have covered all of UpFront’s expenses up to this point.
Since it launched in February at Pastabilities, UpFront has seated more than 15,000 patrons and added 11 additional Central-New-York-based restaurants to its test-driving clientele. None of the restaurants pay for the service yet, but research has found that the app makes life easier for both hosts and patrons, saving time and frustration.
“We have saved $400 in the last few months from not having to replace the notification devices,” said Adam Eagan, Empire Brewing Company managing partner, in a written testimonial.
Like so many tech products, UpFront faces scrutiny from traditionalists who feel the app takes away from social interaction and the ambiance of a night out. Among these dining traditionalists is UpFront’s very first client, Pastabilities.
“We are hoping to create a more personable atmosphere and don’t want to get away from the reputation that has kept us going for so many years. We also don’t want to sacrifice the bar business that we feel will be lost by guests that decide to leave and wait for a text,” said Gabe Angelone, Pastabilities managing partner, in a letter to Mancini explaining why the Italian restaurant decided to stop using UpFront.
Most businesses have no issue bucking tradition in favor of innovation. The hardest task for Mancini and his team will be convincing restaurant officials that UpFront is a service worth its $200-per-month asking price.
“While the expense is not prohibitive, it is an additional expense that we did not have and operated for many years without,” said Angelone in the letter.
For the UpFront team, the lack of profit isn’t burning a hole in their expenses, but it did force the CEO to cut weight. After Startup Weekend, Mancini cut out three members of his original team of six. But the group received $2,500 on Startup Weekend because the idea was impressive. The money was divvied up among the original six members before Mancini realized he had to downsize.
Moving forward, the goal for UpFront is for consumers to seize an even greater sense of control through their mobile phones.
Said Mancini: “We want to control the consumer restaurant ecosystem. There isn’t a company that owns successful products from both endpoints. Yelp is for users. Open Table is for restaurants. By owning both sides, we can foster a much better experience.”
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