We’ve all been there: You approach the host stand at a busy restaurant in search of a table and receive a pager in return. It’s grimy, it’s covered in who knows how many germs and it doesn’t fit into your pocket because your phone is already there.
Now, you could receive a text message at Mickey Finn's Brewery Pub and Food, 412 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville, instead of dealing with a pager or waiting around for your name to be called.
And that's exactly what Andy Ellis, co-founder of the restaurant text-messaging notification system Table’s Ready, wanted to solve two years ago while sitting in his home in Massachusetts. Having put himself through college and Tufts Dental School by working in various restaurants, Ellis had an epiphany after watching employer after employer battle with expensive pager systems.
“Pagers wouldn’t work. Hosts were yelling names. It was chaos,” Ellis remembered. “I had been noticing that most things had been going mobile-friendly. I connected the dots in my head and realized we all already carry little pagers in our pocket: our cellphones.”
Ellis contacted a programming-savvy friend from his undergraduate days at Wake Forest University, Bill D’Alessandro, about a possible partnership.
“I thought it was a fantastic idea and it blew me away,” D’Alessandro said. “I was interested in building something that interfaced with phones and this presented the perfect opportunity. We built all the software from scratch.”
Within months, the two recent college grads had enterprise-class architecture in place. Ellis and D’Alessandro designed the Table’s Ready system to be as elegant yet straightforward as possible:
- A customer walks into a restaurant, provides a mobile number, and is then free to roam wherever he or she pleases.
- The restaurant enters the number into the Table’s Ready interface on the host stand’s computer (or iPad, since Table's Ready is web-based) and the application takes over.
- A timer automatically starts. Once a table is ready, the host simply clicks a button next to the customer phone number and an automated text message (or phone call, if the restaurant prefers) is sent to the phone in question.
Table’s Ready also allows restaurant staff to use the information they already have entered to track specific trends, such as average wait times on certain days or at certain times of day. Clients then can use these analytics to better estimate future wait times and even staffing needs.
Once Ellis and D'Alessandro completed the actual application, it was time to determine the price point. After conducting some market research, the two friends settled on a subscription price of $69.95 per month — a fee they say is much lower than the $1,500 to $3,000 establishments pay for a traditional pager system (and the subsequent hundreds of dollars for replacement pagers).
Ensuring customer privacy
One thing that both owners think differentiates Table’s Ready is their fierce dedication to customer privacy. Unlike some of their competitors, Table’s Ready does not allow restaurant staff to store patron phone numbers. Once a customer is messaged by the system, his or her number is deleted from the host interface. While the number is stored on Table’s Ready own servers (for purposes such as the future aforementioned VIP program), that is as far as it goes.
“Privacy is something we built around from Day One,” D’Alessandro explained, noting the application’s use of hashing algorithms to ensure solid encryption. “People are afraid that they’ll be texted the next day. When you give your number to a restaurant using Table’s Ready, we later shield it from the restaurant. Table’s Ready controls the servers, not the restaurants.”
While nothing can prevent a participating restaurant from physically writing down the number, the Table’s Ready terms of service expressly forbids it, D’Alessandro said. He admitted that he and Ellis have lost some potential clients because of the company's focus on privacy, but they feel that the risk is worth it.
Outlook in a foundering economy
Table’s Ready has clients in Chicago, Boston (most notably Cheers), Dallas and Pittsburgh. Ellis and D’Alessandro are determined to expand slowly, mainly forgoing larger franchises in favor of smaller, independently owned restaurants, such as Mickey Finn's Brewery Pub and Food in Libertyville.
"It seemed like an interesting concept and had low-risk on our part," Grano said.
"So far the response has been positive," Grano said. "It’s just the start of more technology that will be introduced at Mickey Finn’s to make the customer experience more accessible and pleasant."
Rick Wells, owner of the Wells Hospitality Group, two of whose several Texas restaurants use Table’s Ready, also is pleased with the system. Fed up with what he described as wasted time at the host stand and physical pagers’ tendency to “walk away,” Wells initially planned to develop a text-message-based paging system himself. When he discovered the existence of Table’s Ready, he quickly signed on with Ellis and D’Alessandro.
“It’s so much faster than what we were doing before,” Wells said. “These guys have done a fantastic job. They will do well, for sure.”
Endorsements from clients like Wells demonstrate one aspect of the two-pronged approach that Ellis and D’Alessandro are taking: Make customers and restaurant owners happy.
“It’s about making things smooth and efficient for restaurants and giving guests better experiences,” Ellis explained. “The guests will be more likely to spend more money while they’re there because they’re happy — or come back again, which is the ultimate goal.”
“We want to serve our restaurant clientele extremely well, not serve a bunch of people only kind of well,” he said.