The Coolest Apps Started by Our Fellow Bostonians: Seated
November 14, 2017
How would you like to try high-quality restaurants in your area by making a reservation on an app… better yet, how would you like to get a minimum $30 gift card to Starbucks, Uber, or Amazon (your choice!), for making this reservation? And how about, every time you make a reservation, the app also donates a meal to someone in need?
Sounds way too good to be true, huh?
That’s what I thought too, and why I reached out to Brice Gumpel to get to the bottom of it. Brice co-founded this very app, called Seated, with co-founder Atallah Atallah. When I first heard about the app, I honestly didn’t believe it. I mean, why would anyone want to pay me to make a reservation at a good, high-quality restaurant? What’s in it for them?
But when I started talking to Brice, it began to make more sense (I also know next-to-nothing about the restaurant industry, apparently). Brice explained that when he first started dating his girlfriend, he found a new passion: food (you probably thought I was going to say her, huh). From fine-dining to cheap-eats, Brice and his girlfriend loved eating out so much, they started a food Instagram account in college that got 25,000 followers. Understandably, this got restaurant owners’ and PR firms’ attention. So he started getting invited to events and dinners and got to meet some industry insiders.
“Being the finance guy in the room, I’d always ask restaurant owners what their biggest business concern was, and they explained to me that… it was really just about getting more butts in seats. They have plenty of customers Friday and Saturday night, but throughout the rest of the week, they struggle,” Brice explained to me, adding that nationally, roughly 50% of restaurants go out of business within three years of opening.
Eventually, Brice, who graduated from Brown in ‘14, partnered with his co-founder, Atallah, who graduated from Harvard in ‘16, and they moved to Boston to start working on their app in the Harvard Innovation Lab, in the heart of Cambridge, before moving headquarters to the Financial District.
When I asked Brice how Seated differed from other apps in the industry, I expected the answer to be obvious: Uh, Caroline, because no other app offers you $30 in Uber Rewards for eating?
But Brice surprised me by leading with something else: “We’re the fastest growing restaurant discovery platform in the United States. We want to help customers find their next favorite restaurant. People are creatures of habit… You love the Chinese place down the street, and you’re always going to go there, because you feel safe; but if I was going to pay you a $30 gift card to try a different Chinese restaurant down the other street, you might feel inclined to do that. Without that gift card, and without Seated helping you find that restaurant, you may never try it.”
He added that although there are food blogs, they don’t generate demand or let you make reservations. On the flip side, Brice explained, OpenTable is a great reservation platform, but it doesn’t necessarily give you the push you need to try new restaurants based on personal preference.
Seated also differs because it gives restaurants a lot of choice: they choose which time slots and which days they want to offer rewards, because “on a Friday night, they don’t need any extra reward to get customers… it’s only when they’re operating below 70% occupancy that they need to be filling tables.”
Similarly to Uber drivers, if a restaurant falls below 4-stars on the user-rating system, it gets booted off the app. Brice said they want to maintain the user’s trust by only working with quality restaurants that their users like.
Brice explained that it made sense from a business standpoint to start in Boston: “Boston’s a great market because it’s a tough market. If you think about it, there’s a large population of students, and those students leave three times a year [for school breaks]… so in terms of getting sticky customers, it’s difficult, which is one of the reasons we liked Boston so much.” Brice added that not only do you have people coming from all over the world, but because of the mobility of these student-consumers, you also get to ‘refresh’ who you’re testing on often.
“Plus,” he went on, “There’s a lot of young professionals in the area, so we were able to test on all different segments: the college students, the young professionals, and the people getting married in their thirties. If you can succeed in Boston, you can succeed anywhere. In terms of a test market, Boston is fantastic.”
Brice also mentioned the benefit of getting to hone your pitch on all different types of restaurants, including the mom-and-pop shops of the North End, all the way to the South End wine bars. He said that after Boston, other cities, like New York, were easier: the difficulty of Boston’s market paid off long-term when they tested their model elsewhere. Seated is now in 15 cities.
Brice said their biggest problem has been “solving the chicken and the egg problem; how do you scale your restaurant-customer base, at the same time that you scale your diner-base? If you have too many diners and not enough restaurants, then your diners aren’t happy. But if you have too many restaurants, and you’re not sending them enough customers, then your restaurants aren’t happy.”
He offered some great advice for other start-ups with a similar problem: “How we succeeded was by making sure our value proposition was very clear to both restaurants and diners, so we could sign both up concurrently, and quickly… if our pitch to restaurants was better than our pitch to diners, then obviously we would’ve scaled restaurants faster than diners. I think this is a problem a lot of startup’s face: their platforms rely on multiple counterparts, but their value is only really valuable to one of the two counterparts.”
When asked about the future of the app, Brice showed no shortage of ambition. “I mean, there’s 330,000 sit-down, non-chain, independent restaurants, give or take, in the United States. And my number one passion is eating, and dining out,” He laughed. “Look, there’s nothing that makes me feel worse then going to a fantastic restaurant and seeing that the place is just empty.” He paused. “I know this problem isn’t isolated to one or two metropolitan markets, so our goal is to expand as quickly as possible so we can help these business owners and provide an awesome value proposition for our diners, as well.” 330,000 restaurants sure seems like a lofty goal to take on, but then again, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to receive a gift card for going out to eat–do you?
As if this isn’t good enough already, for every reservation made, Seated donates one meal to a hungry child through the ShareTheMeal app, an initiative of the United Nations World Food Programme to end world hunger. Seated has pledged to donate 1,000,000 meals through team #SeatedApp.
Brice was enthusiastic about the importance of this, explaining that he has always tried to pair his passions with a similarly-focused charity; simply put, “You book a reservation on Seated, we donate a meal… We want to make sure we’re sharing love, and meals, with people across the world.”