Why Menus Suck + Other Deep Thoughts on the Food Tech Revolution.

abstract: menus suck. we need less items, more pictures, and [just] a few recommendations. menus should be online, so they can integrate user data & purchase history to customize selection, offer discounts, and to connect with friends for favorites and referrals / group offers. the market is huge, purchase behavior is frequent, industry incumbents are old, slow, and easily disrupted. everyone eats, everyone is online; what the hell we waiting for?

Menus Suck.

disclosure: 500 Startups is an investor in E la Carte, and other food-tech startups like Blissmo, Chewse, ClubW, CraftCoffee, CucumberTown, CultureKitchen, DailyGobble, EcoMom, Farmeron, FoodA, FoodSpotting, KitchIt, GoSpotCheck, LoveWithFood, MileHighOrganics, NetPlenish, Ordr.in, ShopTouch, TeaLet, Ven.io, WholeShare. (yeah, we like food ;)

i’ve been thinking about writing some BS “predictions for 2013” post for the past few weeks, but have been rather significantly unmotivated… few reasons being: 1) i already wrote a predictions on tech investing trends for reuters two years ago & story is mostly the same, 2) most predictions are crap (including mine), and more importantly 3) i’m a lazy bastard, and there’s been some awesome football & basketball happening this holiday season.

so screw it – i have no grand predictions for the new year, except to say that consumer e-commerce and mobile apps are just getting started, and anyone deciding to leave this ballgame early is gonna punch themselves in the face hard in a few years when they realize how much they messed up / missed out… or, in other words: stay the course, bitches! – Q4 data from AAPL, AMZN, & GOOG shows the wind is still at our backs, even if investors think it’s blowing in our faces… they’re dead wrong, and/or they don’t understand how to take advantage of massive behavioral change in consumer purchasing, internet marketing, social platforms, mobile device adoption, and mobile monetization. yeah, it may be hard, but still easier than ever before.

however, for this post i want to focus on just one very simple & basic thing:

Menus Suck.

in the next few paragraphs, i will attempt to explain why i believe this is a manifesto for innovation & investing in the coming Food Tech Revolution, and why the market opportunity is nothing less than HUGE.

first, here are a few frequent problems i have when i sit down for a meal:

okay, that’s plenty of things to fix. let’s take a look at these in more detail.

Problem #1: Too Many Items, Not Enough Pictures, Simpler & More Obvious Recommendations.

The biggest problem with most menus is that there’s just too much stuff to choose from, and most of it doesn’t have associated pictures, certainly not high-quality pictures. While some smart restaurants do feature a few specials (some even with pictures), most places fail at this very simple (largely offline!) innovation. Fewer items with pictures & more obvious recommendations would streamline production, reduce cost, reduce time for customers to order, for kitchens to prepare, and increase customer satisfaction.

Funny thing; none of this even requires technology solutions! This is just common sense – shorter, simpler, more visual menus! Why isn’t this widely adopted, even if offline? Well, probably because no one has systematically demonstrated improved business economics / customer satisfaction that come from simpler, more visual menus. However, we’ve seen it proven in other industries (see: AirBnB), and seems likely high-quality pics of food will convert better, same way that high-quality pics of rentals convert better.

Less Stuff, More Pictures. Seems fucking obvious, right?

But 99% of restaurants don’t do it.

Problem #2: Not Online, No Order History, No Reviews, No Friends, No Loyalty Program. Also, No A/B Testing.

Many restaurants today have a website – though probably not a mobile website or app – and maybe a Yelp profile or Facebook page or Twitter handle – but probably no customer list, retention marketing, or frequency programs. They mostly have no on-premises connectivity, and very few currently have any kind of consumer-facing ordering technology or tabletop menu systems. But let’s presume sometime in the next few years, most restaurants figure out how to deliver connectivity on premises, some type of online ordering at the tabletop, and/or some integration with existing customer mobile devices.

Well, what could we do with that? What problems would that solve?

First, it would be great if the restaurant knew something about my order history and user profile data, and customized the menu selection to my favorite tastes and interests. Obviously if i’m a vegetarian or a person with special dietary constraints, it would be a high priority to match food options with my specific lifestyle choices or health needs. This would again streamline choice, reduce time & confusion, and increase customer satisfaction. Also, new dishes could be recommended that i might like to try for the first time.

Second, if there were any kind of online reviews, it would be great to combine this with the actual menu so i can see whether other people loved or hated specific dishes. (side note: i’ve never seen a restaurant provide negative reviews for its own menu… although occasionally if i ask the waiter, they might tell me whether a dish sucks and/or steer me to something better. If/when this happens, i immediately establish a better relationship with the waiter / restaurant. It builds such tremendous trust when someone tells me what they suck at, and invariably increases my customer satisfaction).

Third, it would be even better if i could see if any of my friends had eaten at the restaurant before, and whether they liked or hated anything in particular. My level of trust would go up even more, and likely our connection to the restaurant and each other would increase frequency / retention, without even doing any active marketing on this subject.

Fourth, by managing customer order history, favorites & specials, and social connectivity, it should be easy to implement a loyalty program and retention marketing program that could increase purchase behavior, customer satisfaction, and frequency. Both individual and group incentives / referrals could provide strong motivation to customers to visit and purchase more often. And, by aggregating data across the entire customer base, restaurants should be able to learn how to optimize their inventory, pricing, and marketing campaigns dramatically better than ever before. (note: why don’t we systematically A/B test restaurant menus, pricing, pictures, etc?)

Problem #3: Have to Wait FOREVER for Waiter to Order, Re-Order, & Pay. Also, Nothing To Do While I’m Waiting.

Obviously, one of the biggest pains in the ass when you’re at a restaurant is trying to get the waiter’s attention that you need something, and/or waiting around for them to notice that you 1) need a menu / are ready to order, or 2) have a question about something on the menu, or 3) need some water or another drink, or 4) want to order dessert, or 5) are ready to pay can we get the check? or 6) hey i’ve got a question about my bill, or 7) hey i’d really like that check now please? or 8) EXCUSE ME WILL YOU JUST FUCKING LOOK AT ME WAVING MY GODDAMN HANDS OVER HERE JESUS H. CHRIST ALMIGHTY MY KIDS ARE BOUNCING OFF THE WALLS / OUR MOVIE STARTS IN TEN MINUTES / MY DATE IS HAWT SEXY CAN’T WAIT TO GET HER HOME / SERIOUSLY, WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU AND WHAT IS YOUR DAMAGE?!?!?!?!

(ahem… sorry, lost the plot there for a sec… but you get the picture)

In a world filled with instant messaging, real-time tweets, alerts & notifications, we can’t seem to solve a basic attention/awareness problem – that is, getting some clueless, underpaid, overworked waitperson to pay attention to me and my annoying needs 24x7x365. okay, so maybe it’s not that bad, but i’m sure you’ve been there. and furthermore, the waiter/waitress probably thinks you’re the most thoughtless a-hole ever too, and probably aren’t going to leave a big tip anyway, so why should they bother? (another innovation: waiter reviews? waiter incentives? maybe even a-hole customer reviews?)

In any case, being able to message and connect with the wait staff / kitchen staff, and being able to pay online and whenever you want is likely to improve customer satisfaction (and worker satisfaction!) dramatically, as well likely to reduce turnover time and streamline overall operations. Not to mention, having the ability to check and confirm your order online, as you eat it, and the ability to modify and add/upsell as you go would be absolutely awesome. Again, being able to combine payment with purchase history, social referrals, and customized specials and time-sensitive offers (price optimization for inventory, etc) could be absolutely huge.

Furthermore, once you have connectivity / tabletop devices, the opportunity to do other things while you’re waiting can be a great benefit. Whether this is controlled by the restaurant or simply enabling connection to your existing devices is perhaps less obvious, but i’m confident many models will emerge that optimize for customer choice & enjoyment as well as for restaurant economics. Watching a movie or playing a game at the tabletop may not appeal to everyone, but for anyone who has kids getting fidgety halfway through a meal, you know what a lifesaver having a book or crayons or an ipad or a game can be when you’re about to pull out your hair or commit a family felony.

Summary: Food Tech is High-Frequency, Big Market, Mission-Critical Business. And It Can Be a LOT Better.

Well, i hope i’ve enlightend you and piqued your imagination about the opportunity to make an everyday experience like eating MUCH better via the use of technology and online menus. Note that the current incumbents are ill-equipped to provide most of this innovation – they are big, dumb, old DINOSAURS, much like the newspaper, music, and movie businesses which are getting disrupted as we speak. Yet nobody seems to notice we spend as much or more money on food as any of those other things, and current food technology blows. We can make this a LOT better, and very quickly.

As mentioned above, this is a HUGE market. Everyone eats, 1-3x per day, and many of us eat out at least weekly if not daily. We spend untold amounts of time waiting, waiting, waiting.. to execute a very inefficient and highly unsatisfactory ordering experience, when it could be an absolutely wonderful, amazing, and AWESOME experience – which is what eating food with friends & family should be in the first place. FOOD should be Awesome.

I’m sure i’ve missed a few great ideas, so why don’t you build a startup to address them?

Tweet me when you get a few customers… I’d love to hear what they think :)


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