Can tech make dining out more enjoyable?
When you combine an Italian upbringing with a passion for tech, you end up with a food-loving entrepreneur who’s spent his career developing products to help the hospitality industry. That entrepreneur is Stevan Premutico, creator of the online reservations platform Dimmi, which he sold to TripAdvisor in 2015. His latest project, me&u, is an app that promises more convenience for customers, more quality experiences and a healthier bottom line for operators. Premutico believes the check-in, order and pay system of me&u can remove all the “friction points” that are associated with dining out. “We don’t want to wait five minutes at the end of the meal to pay the bill,” he says “Your Uber’s outside and you want to go. That’s the world we’re in.”
Restaurants and dining have always been Premutico’s passion, but he feels the industry is in trouble, with high closure rates among businesses, shrinking margins and high turnover of staff. Like so many other parts of the food supply chain, there are huge forces disrupting the business model. Can tech hold the solution to some of these problems? We spoke with Stevan at Global Table to find out more.
How does me&u work?
The two big problems we’re trying to solve with me&u are improving the customer experience in restaurants, and helping restaurants, pubs and operators be more profitable. We’ve tried to bring together the beauty of Instagram and the convenience of Uber so people can simply tap, order, pay and get on with life.
You rock up to a venue, you tap a beacon in the middle of the table and you get the menu. At that point you’ve got a beautiful menu on your phone, with pictures that you can filter by dietary requirement – you’ve got a customised menu just for you. Your ordering goes through the phone directly into the point of sale system and into the kitchen. So the ordering experience is now seamless, friction-free, easy. The magic comes at the end when I can just split the bill, pay and get on with life.
Was there a particular restaurant experience that you had that made you think “This is crazy, this really needs changing”?
I think it happens to us all the time. It’s a parallel but if you cast your mind back five years and think about taxis: you’d have to walk down the street, you’d have to hail somebody, you’re lucky if you get one, you’re unlucky if you don’t. You get in and the cab smells, he doesn’t know where he’s taking you, he might be on the phone while you’re sitting in the back seat: it’s just a shit experience. There is a parallel to our industry right now. Think about all the friction points, like constantly putting your hand up to try and get a waiter’s attention, standing in the queue at the bar to try and order a drink, studying a menu for 10 minutes because there’s a hundred items on the menu and you’re thinking what’s good, what do I feel like? The biggest pain point of all is the five minutes at the end of the meal where you sit there and have that awkward social experience where you want to pay and there’s no waiter around, you don’t know who’s going to pick up the bill – it’s full of friction. We’re trying to tackle all of those key bits. I should add I’m not talking about the fine-dining end of town. We don’t play in that space. Cafes, the mid-market, the big pubs are a natural space [for me&u]. The thing that matters most there is convenience.
What happens when you walk into a restaurant? Does someone take you to your table and then you don’t really see a person again?
No. That’s a misconception here: hospitality is about people. We see the waiter playing a really important role in the experience. The challenge in our industry today is operators are not making any money, so we’ve got to try and evolve the role of the waiter. Waiters today are taking orders and collecting payment. Our vision is that we’re going to free them up from doing the lower-value stuff so they can be more focused on rapport, relationship and connection with customers, rather than just running around from table to table, dropping off food and collecting cash. The waiter is still a heavily integrated part of the experience but the role will change because the app will be doing the ordering and the payment.
Does that mean people need to be hiring staff that are more skilled and more passionate about hospitality?
As an industry it’s increasingly difficult to get skilled people, in back-of-house especially but front-of-house as well. I think what we’ll find, as an industry, is that we’ll be able to recruit more generalists: people who are great with people, but I don’t need to be a sommelier, for example, to work in one of these venues. That should hopefully mean it’s easier to recruit good people in hospitality.
Have you had any criticism about this putting people out of work? And what do you say to that?
Not so far, no. I think that this industry is in such a delicate position right now that something has to change. You’re lucky if you’re making three per cent profit margins. Twenty per cent of businesses that open today will close by the end of the year. It’s an industry whose business model is broken, so something needs to change. I truly believe that tech can be part of that answer. Our goal is to help improve the experience, and help free up waiters to do other, more valuable stuff. If that means that waiters change their roles and shift into more hosting and service-driven roles, I think that’s better for everyone. But let’s see how it plays out.
I read somewhere that you said you didn’t want to go back into the crazy world of startups. What lured you back?
I think two of the hardest jobs on the planet are to own a restaurant – you’ve got to be crazy to do it – and the other one is running a startup – that’s insane and you shouldn’t do it. In both, the odds are well and truly stacked against you. Twenty per cent of restaurants will close down each year. Ninety-nine per cent of startups don’t make it. It’s a big, bold ambitious idea to make me&u happen but when you believe so deeply in something like trying to make an industry better and more sustainable, you fight for it. You fight for your purpose.
Do you think that me&u takes away any sort of valuable human contact that people might need in their lives at the moment, given that we are often in a little bubble because of technology?
As much as I’m a tech entrepreneur, I believe there’s a role and a place for tech. I think the magic is introducing tech in a way that enriches an experience, and doesn’t detract from it. Now I think the reality is we go to cafés and restaurants to have a connection with the person who’s with us, not with this waiter who keeps coming to you and interrupts at the wrong time and can never be found when you want to order something. Tech can be introduced in an elegant, seamless way that allows you to get food, have a great experience and connect. I grew up in an Italian family. I know that the best moments in life happen around food. The waiter plays a role in that, but the even more important bit is the ability for us at the table to connect and have a conversation. If I can quickly order without having to stand in a queue for 15 minutes, then that’s time better spent.
What makes a great night out in a restaurant?
I did have a fascinating experience at Noma a few months back, which was one of the most thought-provoking experiences of my life. It was a three-hour dining experience of a lifetime and I won’t remember anything about the food, but I remember everything else, from the hug that I received from the host as soon as I got out of my Uber, walking down the corridor, arriving at a big huge door where you’re greeted and there’s a big huge group of people welcoming you into the venue. That’s what hospitality’s about. It’s very rarely about the food that’s in the middle of the table. It’s what happens around the dining experience that should be celebrated. That’s a very extreme example with Noma but it happens in our lives all the time.
When can we expect to see me&u in venues?
We’ve been building and creating for more than 12 months and we’re now in hundreds of venues, in places like Opera Bar in Sydney, Fratelli Fresh and so on. We’re in cafes like Pablo & Rusty, mid-level restaurants, pubs like The Golden Sheaf, typically those venues that are priced between 0 and 75 bucks per person. That’s kind of the sweet spot for us.
I think the three big things that we’ve learned so far are that, number one, when customers order through me&u they spend 15 to 20 per cent more than when they order through a counter or through a waiter. It’s kind of upselling and it’s a bit addictive. Two: customers prefer it than ordering through the traditional menu. They love to see it. Three: it’s helping operators run a more profitable business. That’s what we set out to achieve and we’ve pivoted quite a bit along the way but it’s live and we’re running fast. Right now it’s mostly in Sydney but we launched into Melbourne earlier this year with Munich Brauhaus, El Camino, Colonial Brewing Co and Half Moon. The Portsea Hotel will go live in a few weeks.
What innovation or change have you seen in food in the last three years that really excites you?
I think the single biggest thing that we need to try and solve as an industry is surplus food and the wasted food that happens at the end of the meal. There’s a bunch of businesses trying to solve this problem, clearly OzHarvest but also Yume and others. It’s an issue that’s very ripe in our industry, so anyone who can play a role in reducing food waste is going to go a long way to making this planet better.
Is there an item you’ve had to make a conscious effort to remove from your shopping list, and what is it?
I’m doing the minimalist movement. I’m trying to get towards 10 items of clothing. Trying to eliminate consumerism as much as I can and trying to eliminate decision-making that doesn’t need to happen. I’m partway through that journey now.
There are many young people here at Global Table this week. What message do you have for them about changing our current trajectory?
Right now, individuals can be the most powerful that we’ve ever been. One person can create a movement, a group of people can create a movement. Yes, I think there’s a lot of negativity and noise and shit that’s happening on the planet right now, but this is where tech can be polar: it can be used for bad or it can be used for good. If we as a society intentionally try and use tech for good, it is so bloody powerful. It can create movements – truly create movements – that help make lives, people, and the planet better, unquestionably. The movement in Hong Kong would not have happened without technology. The vegan movement around the planet would not have happened without technology. There’s a virality that happens now that allows good news stories to spread like never before. But as a 15-year-old kid, how do I choose that rather than being jealous of somebody who’s got a slightly better life than me? I think if we keep coming back to a purpose or something that we truly believe in, it can help us shift our attention to something bigger and greater, rather than the petty stuff.
The only other thing I’d say is that I use a lot of yoga for that. It’s probably been a saviour for me, it’s really helped me distil my thoughts, declutter my mind, and just be single-minded.
Find out more about me&u and see where it’s available at meandu.com.au