Developing e-commerce capabilities and back-end web coding weren’t things that most restaurant owners worried about pre-pandemic. Now, amid lockdowns and myriad safety restrictions, finding innovative ways to connect with diners is the key to keeping their businesses going.
While COVID has not left any sector of the economy unscathed, the restaurant industry has been particularly hard hit. According to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, up to 60 per cent of the industry could fail within three months if social distancing measures remain in effect. And the second wave of COVID-19 in Ontario could spell even more uncertainty: Restaurants Canada forecast that commercial food-service sales could fall as low as $51.5 billion in 2020 down from $74.4 billion in 2019.
Sociavore, a tech venture based in Kitchener, Ont., is trying to make it a little easier for the thousands of small businesses navigating this new reality. Founded by Amina Gilani and her husband Thusenth Dhavaloganathan, Sociavore is an all in one e-commerce platform for food and beverage businesses with such features as online ordering, gift card sales, menu managers and reservations. “All the things that a food and beverage business needs for an awesome web presence,” said Gilani.
The couple has deep roots in the industry. Dhavaloganathan’s father came to Canada in the 1980s as a refugee from Sri Lanka; his first job was as a dishwasher in a Montreal restaurant. He worked his way up and eventually opened his own place, which is where Dhavaloganathan learned first-hand about the challenges that come with owning and operating a restaurant.
“When I was 12, I programmed the point of sale machine, did the logos, printed the menus, all that sort of stuff,” he said. “So, I’ve always been involved in the restaurant space, and I got a really good understanding of what restaurant owners like my family needs.”
It was that experience — figuring out solutions for his father — that sparked the idea for Sociavore. Accessibility and ease-of-use was top of mind for the couple. The platform doesn’t collect a commission off any of the businesses’ profits, and all the data gathered through Sociavore is owned by the businesses themselves. “When you’re owning a restaurant, especially independent family-owned, you’re very much heads down and trying to keep the restaurant operating,” Dhavaloganathan said. “And guests’ expectations are changing faster than ever, so being able to bundle up a set of tools that are built for the restaurant, and its day-to-day operations, is really what we’re about.”
Gilani and Dhavaloganathan had developed the platform in 2018, so they were able to act quickly when lockdowns were first announced in spring. Clients were able to immediately pivot to e-commerce, and Sociavore also sped up development on features like contactless dining at restaurants that could still serve customers.
Now the couple is starting their own venture. They signed a lease on a place for their own restaurant at the end of February, and they’re hoping to open YiaYia in Guelph in the next few months. It’s not exactly the easiest time to start a new venture, and it’s going to get even harder in the coming months. With plans for a full-service restaurant, the restrictions on space and guest numbers in particular will pose a challenge for the couple because they’re losing revenue on every seat they will no longer be allowed to fill, Dhavaloganathan said.
And then there is the complicated wrinkle of what is undoubtedly going to be an unusual winter season, a time of year that’s usually a peak period in the industry. “That’s the high season for restaurants,” said Gilani. “So for full-service restaurants, it’s a big concern. In order to be able to ride through this and make it to the end, restaurant operators are going to have to be very innovative again, and think of different ways to get revenue.”
For its own part, the company’s innovations have seen hugely positive results at many of the roughly 300 businesses who use Sociavore. The platform has helped these companies both adapt to more online-focused models and expand the kinds of services and products they offer, from a butcher shop that saw 150-percent increase over last year to a small brewery who started doing beer delivery and is now delivering across four or five cities in southwestern Ontario. One ramen shop recently started making ramen meal kits, and sold out within minutes of being tested on Sociavore. “They’ve completely changed their business,” said Dhavaloganathan. “Now half their business is their actual noodle shop, and the other half is going to be a meal kit product.”
“We had customers who did zero dollars in online ordering spin up to like $70,000 a month,” said Dhavaloganathan.
These features are helping establishments navigate these difficult months, and keep their businesses running. “That’s also another aspect as to why we are so passionate about the restaurant industry,” said Gilani. “The food and beverage industry really does so much for our community — it ties people together. When you have a restaurant, it employs a whole bunch of people. It really does help a community grow and thrive.”