Episode 18: Avi Goren

Episode 18: Avi Goren

Marqii founder and CEO Avi Goren joins us to talk about how Google search can be the key to growing a restaurant. He touches on specific examples and also talks about how simple steps like updating Google My Business and keeping track of director listings can turbocharge a restaurant’s search results. His discusses the example of Gregorys Coffee in New York City that grew from 750,000 near me search to 10 million. 

Episode transcription 

James: Welcome to the show today, Avi

Avi: Thanks, James. Appreciate you having me here.

James: So you’ve been around the online review world pretty much since the early days of your career. Talk a little bit about your time with Yelp and Yext and how you got the idea for Marqii.

Avi: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, actually, before I even got into the online restaurant review space as a career, I was a Yelper. You know, I was I was in college. I loved food. I loved being able to kind of contribute to that community in a positive way. Right. I was a pretty heavy five star guy. And so when I went to the wrong job fair in college and came across the Yelp desk, it was a no brainer for me. It was opportunity was excited about. I love the restaurant. I had worked in, restaurants. I loved choosing the same. I loved the Internet, right. And it was a place that I knew I wanted to kind of learn more about from a career perspective. So I ended up joining Yelp, moved out to their Scottsdale office, and that was where I really learned the other side of the business. Right? I had been a pizza delivery boy. I had made pizzas, I’d done kind of the customer-facing side, but I never really worked with management. And this is, you know, 2012. It was truly the wild, wild west still right. Near me searches were coming. We kept talking about the iPhone’s ability to get near me searches. Local SEO was really starting to come to the forefront. Groupon mania was sweeping the nation. Right. And it was really where I got to learn firsthand both the do’s and don’ts of running a hospitality focused sales org. Right. Yelp did a ton of incredible things. They also did a few not great things. And that’s okay. Right? I got to learn from that. I was there for about 18 months and got to see under the hood of what the power of reviews can do, both good and bad. And of course, there’s this emotional element that you just you can’t remove from a restaurant to a really any business. But in restaurants, you’re putting your blood, sweat, tears, your emotion, your life, your love into your food. So to get a bad review, it hurts. And we get that. And it’s something that we acknowledge and talk about a lot internally.

After Yelp, I ended up getting to travel a little bit, and when I came back to the city and back to New York, one of my best friends was working at a company called Yext, and I had heard of them. We talked about them a little bit on the SMB side over at Yelp, and I was interviewing around, I ended up getting an interview over at Yext through one of my best friends at the time, Evan and I interviewed with this guy, Bryan Rutcofsky, and I was just funny. I was bar mitzvah tutoring at the time, so I really I had no money. I was trying to get out of my parent’s house. And I got a call from Brian in the middle of one of my my tutoring sessions saying, hey, you got the job. I don’t even remember what happened the rest of that session. I was out and so I spent almost two years at Yext, and it was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had in my career. I got to work with some of the most amazing people, some of my best friends I met at Yext. And now when I look at Marqii, my two other co-founders are Bryan Rutcofsky and Evan Perlmutter. Right. The guy who got me the interview and the guy who interviewed me. It was at Yext I really started to see the power of automation, having your data correct and this tool that was really accessible to enterprise brands, McDonald’s can do things with Yext that just your SMB, your mid-market restaurant group can’t. And the wheels started turning. I had known that I wanted to start my own business and I started to form this early idea of the power of content that you would see on Yelp, your photos, your menus, your reviews, incorporating this idea of automation and operational efficiency that you would see on the Yext side on enterprise and try to form this cohesive new product for restaurants and being purely hospitality focused and trying. I know it’s cheesy, but to democratize some of this tech for hospitality so that whether you’re a single unit mom and pop pizza place or 250 location mid-market with four people in your operations team, you can take this piece of your tech stack and make your life better and easier. And that’s where I kind of jumped into the Marqii side, which has kind of zig and zag to get to where we are today.

James: I would imagine a lot of restaurant owners don’t quite understand the abyss of the Internet and where your stuff can be listed and be found. Like how many of these places are randomly on the internet that your menus or your hours or your URLs or anything could be listed?

Avi: Yeah. I mean, look, I think the reality of being a restaurant owner is that you truly and really almost any business owner, you don’t always know where your customers are coming from. You don’t know where they’re finding you. You can’t make assumptions. And yes, Google has obviously has a massive presence, but end of the day, it’s a search engine. It’s a ranking system. I’m finding links and URLs to MapQuest, to City Search, to Dex, to City Squares, a coupon, who knows? And so it’s just part of your branding. You’re not going to have the wrong menu printed anywhere. You’re not going to have your long hours printed anywhere. Why would you have them displayed incorrectly where customers are truly searching either for you or your category. So end of the day, we can always prioritize if you’re doing this manually. Sure, you want to hit your Googles, your Facebook, your Yelp, but if you have an opportunity to automate this, get everywhere, be everywhere the right way.

James: So I’m developing a thesis that customer experience is kind of the foundation of marketing in the 21st century. The buying journey, it’s very different today now than it was, say, ten or 15 years ago. As you know, from being at Yelp and Yext, where studies have shown that like 70% of the buyer’s journey begins with online reviews. What do you think that means for restaurants today?

Avi: I think customer experience is really just a byproduct of expectation setting. There’s a place I would like to call out Two Brothers Pizza in New York. It’s a dollar slice. It’s open till like three in the morning. No one’s ever upset at their dollar slice at three in the morning because they know what it’s supposed to be. So you get these types of negative reviews when that expectation that you’ve set through your marketing, through your menus, through your hours and it’s not met. If you say you have a gluten free margherita pizza and I show up and it’s actually been off the menu for two months, I brought my celiac wife. Or you say you’re open till 10 p.m., but it turns out that was your hours from three months ago. Right. And there’s a piece of paper taped to the door, whatever it is. I completely agree with you that the reviews are kind of this new beginning place for the customer’s buying journey, but reviews are only the result of expectations being met or set.

James: Yeah, I mean, I think if somebody tells you about, you know, Oh, hey, I tried this place, it was great. Like, what’s the first thing you’re going to do, right? You’re going to go look on Google or, you know, look on Yelp or something and see if other people agree. Right. Is not a pretty common buying journey.

Avi: Yeah, absolutely. When I was at Yelp, a big talk track was the average user would check out four or five business pages before making a decision. Because you’re going around, you’re looking at third party reviews. And then we would always say the website, it’s like your mom, right? It’s always going to say the best. It’s not going to show you anything negative on the website. So that’s kind of that last step in making a decision. It’s review hopping that is such a crucial part, which is why we always talk about the response and the management piece of that and why it’s so important.

James: Yeah, you have to, like you said, meet customers expectations because I mean, people are more likely to believe a negative view than a positive review.

Avi: Yeah. I mean, look, people are inherently trying to avoid a bad experience. I do hope that a majority of customers out there are still kind of remembering to be human. And when you read one negative review, try to read three or four positive reviews because again, unless it’s a glaring low star count business, hopefully it’s just a one off experience. Right. And again, the restaurant has an opportunity to respond and show that, hey, this is not what we expect when you come in. Let us make it right. Come back. Give us another shot. I never suggest offering anything for free, but always invite them back again. It just shows that you’re aware of it and it’s a one off.

James: So now when you keep online menus and hours up to date, how does that impact the restaurant’s bottom line?

Avi: It impacts in a couple of ways, right? A, you no longer have to have your GM, your manager, someone in your office spend several hours updating this on all your relevant sites. Right. So immediately you can have that person going back to doing table touches and all the things you need to do in store on premise. And B, when you really break down local SEO from a restaurant. Right. What does it really come down to? And there’s all sorts of factors, but end of the day, it’s about relevancy and accuracy. And so if we get you consistent across all our directories that are valued by Google, right? There’s enough traffic happening on these 80 other publishers that they’re relevant for your search results. Plus, we get your menu data updated. Right. You’re updating your menu once a month. We get new photos added with captions matching your menu items. All of this is going to lead to a better customer experience because you’ve set the expectation of what you have and B, you’re going to see a bump in local SEO. We are not an SEO company, but it is a nice byproduct of what we do.

Avi: Absolutely. And we always like to say, right, that we’re a piece of that SEO puzzle. Reviews matter, you know, and we’ve said, look, one of our clients has four locations in the city. They just opened a fifth in New York City, rather. It’s just opened a fifth on the Upper East Side. And they asked us the other day, like, why aren’t we showing up how we should? And it’s because you have 12 reviews. You’ll get there, right? It takes time. It’s organic. Those reviews are great. They’re all five stars, but you’re going to get there. And for everyone listening, go ahead and do a search on Google. Open it up and do best pizza near me. When you look up at the factors at the top, you’re going to see one of the filters is four stars and above. As soon as you type in the word best, Google automatically filters it by four stars and up.

James: What are things I suggest for restaurants do to improve their online listings right no?

Avi: The cheesy thing to say is just give Marqii a call. All right. Well, we’ll help you out, but if you want to handle this internally, make sure you’ve claimed your Google listing. Make sure you’ve claimed Yelp, get Facebook live. Because again, with your Facebook address you’re going to be able to power Instagram, which you need. Right, obviously. And to get your restaurants tagged in other people’s photos, etc.. You want to have that live on those three for sure. And from there, take it one step further and try and get your menus up there. 90 plus percent of consumers check a menu before going. No one wants a surprise. They want to know what they’re expecting to spend. They want to know what they’re expecting to see on the menu. Right. So if you can just handle it on those three internally, you’ll be better than doing nothing. But again, you have so much going on as a restauranteur, you need an easy button in this moment. So marqii.com will help you out. We’ll get you up and running. Our support team is in another class and we’ll make it easier for you.

James: Now. How much do you think restaurants need to go one step further and actually have online ordering these days? Is that something you think customers are expecting?

Avi: I absolutely do. I think it is something where, you know, there’s a select type of restaurant that’s probably not as applicable for. But if you’re going to offer order ahead in any capacity, you have to have online ordering. If I can call ahead, I should be able to order ahead online. As a consumer, it’s something that I can multitask. I can get a list together and jump online and make it happen. From a restaurant side, it’s just going to be more efficient than someone taking it down. It is just a way to amplify your secondary revenue from from off premise. There’s so many options nowadays to make it work for you, right? Whether you want to go straight from your point of sale, like Toast or Square or you want to use a third party like ChowNow and if you go third party, right? But there are so many options to not have any. I was just at a trade show in Dallas yesterday, and I kept hearing from a few people, oh, we’re old school. We’re old school. That’s just an excuse, right? You want to be old school? You know, it just it doesn’t make sense right now.

James: Well, I mean, seems like you’re losing out on potential customers, right? Like, yes. I mean, I get it right. You still want to use paper and pen? Use the phone. But if people are going to go elsewhere, which is easy, you can go to a different restaurant. Why not just hold on to those customers?

Avi: Yeah. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times. Just as a consumer, I’m in Austin, Texas. There’s a place here called Loro that my wife and I love. I can place an order through their Toast Tab in 3 minutes. 3 minutes. The other day I had to call into a restaurant in Austin that we wanted. It took me almost 15. I’m going to order more from the place it takes me 3 minutes that I love versus the other spot that takes me 10 to 15 on a phone call. Just so much easier. There’s no surprises. There’s no miscommunications over the phone. It’s a better experience for everybody. And then when you do that online ordering piece, it’s so important on your listings to have it. We update your online ordering URLs on Google, on TripAdvisor, on Facebook, on Yelp to make sure that you’re sending business to the right link. You can have Toast Tab and third party delivery, but you still want to send it to your first party Toast Tab.

James: Yeah, for sure. Now, can you give me an example of, you know, maybe a restaurant that was just a mess as far as online listings go and you were able to help them clean it up and really systematize their whole directories and online listings.

Avi: I mean, there’s quite a few, right? But I think one of my favorites is one of our first customers, Gregorys Coffee in New York City. We started working with them June 2017 and they had about 20 some locations when we started and their data was a mess. These guys had, you know, amassed a ton of locations with one person on their operations team, Gary, and their listings were a mix of Gregorys coffee with an apostrophe. Gregorys Coffee without an apostrophe, Greg’s Cafe, Gregory’s Cafe, Gregory’s Cafeteria, Gregory’s Coffee and Bakery. It was just a mess. We came in, got everything cleaned up within 72 hours. Then we started connecting it to their Toast point of sale to pull menu data and photos in real time. Now you fast forward for some years and when they open a new location or one of the first calls are now at about 40 locations, we’re integrated fully into their website. So when they make a change in Toast, that menu update, which they do about once a month, filters through our system, updates all 80 publishers as well as their website, which is also pulling Toast photos to their website as well as hours widgets. So now Gregorys Coffee has to make one update in Toast and everything is done. That saves hours upon hours of time, for they’re still really lean operation operating team in HQ to move forward and grow right. It’s just a check on the box for them now. I mean, we’ve seen their local discovery searches. So people looking for coffee near me, coffee in the city, coffee in this zip code. We’ve seen that number go for about 780,000 month one with us. They hit a pre-COVID peak of about ten and a half, 11 million. It’s now climbed back to about nine and a half, 10 million post-COVID.

James: So that’s real. I mean, that’s straight up just able to find you online easier.

Avi: Absolutely. Again, when you think about it, such a competitive search is coffee near me. You got to be found. You’re competing with Starbucks, right? And in the city you’re competing with Blue Bottle, Joe & The Juice. Like you have to be everywhere. And this is all organic. These recently started paid ads probably about a year ago, but there was a couple of years ago of just true strong organic growth.

James: Yeah. I can’t imagine how competitive I mean, in New York City. Right. Like, I mean, it’s one thing to do a smaller or mid-sized town, but New York City coffee searches, I just can’t even imagine.

Avi: Yeah, and but the thing is, people are willing to walk an extra block if they see that. Oh, Gregorys Coffee with 480 reviews. Four and a half stars who’ve been on my list. They’ve got, oh, check out their menu. They’ve got a huge gluten free offering and vegan breakfast sandwiches. Oh, that’s perfect.

James: You know, you talked a little bit about Google My Business. What role do you think Google My Business plays in our restaurant today?

Avi: I mean, it’s mandatory. You have to have your Google listing claimed. There’s so much activity happening that to not have access to respond to reviews, not have access to make your updates. You know, it’s almost like not having the keys to your restaurant. You got to be able to control what content is being shown on your listing. Especially, because on Google you get one category, on Yelp you get three. So on Google, if you don’t claim it and someone has you listed as a pizzeria or an Italian restaurant, but really your a diner or deli or a right. It’s a huge missed opportunity to not be the best in a specific category.

James: Now, do you recommend your clients to Google Food Ordering or is that something kind of outside of your scope?

Avi: We try to avoid those types of operational advisory positions. When you look at the hospitality tech sector, so many options and so whatever works best for your business, we want to help you run faster. So if hey, you want to do GFO and you want to make Slice your primary, you want to make Menufy your primary, you want to make first party of your primary. We’re here to help you. Whatever you decide, if the numbers make sense for you, then great. We’re here to help you go faster. You know, we believe pretty heavily at Marqii we’re not here to tell you how to operate. We want to learn how you go and just give you that Mario Kart fast track to make you go faster.

James: Yeah. I mean, I think that it’s the thing for a lot of restaurant owners. I mean, they’re a little overwhelmed by the choices. I mean, I know, like, you know, I’m sure probably at the Texas restaurant show that you were at and then also the, you know, National Restaurant Show, the the choices in tech for restaurants are overwhelming. What advice would you give to restaurant owners that are looking to be a little bit more tech savvy these days?

Avi: Yeah, I would say don’t boil the ocean to start. We have a kind of a thesis here that the point of sale is your source of truth. Pick a point of sale that you can grow with, that you can build integrations into and try and tackle something every quarter. Right. Hey, we’re going to we’re going to launch. I want to give an example where to launch was SpotOn this quarter. Okay, great. Let’s get that live the next quarter. Hey, SpotOn rolled out. Well, let’s get online ordering going through them. Okay, perfect. Now we can also add in loyalty, which gives us an opportunity to reengage with our first party online ordering customers from last quarter. Perfect. Let’s make sure we get the marqii integration so that when we make a change in SpotOn, Marqii is pushing it out to all of our listings. Okay, great. And each quarter try and tackle something new, but if you don’t have a point of sale that you can grow with, it doesn’t matter if you’re 100 locations, one location or 300 locations, you need a point of sale that you can grow with that’ll get you where you need to be in five years.

James: Now, how many restaurants do you find still have legacy POS systems?

Avi: Too many. We’re seeing more and more move to cloud, but it’s oftentimes people who say they have one of these legacy systems it’s usually accompanied by an eyeroll from them knowing that it’s not going to get them where they need to be. And there’s that sense of frustration. We are seeing that shift. I think it’s important to remember that Toast, arguably the leader and cloud-based point of sales. I think we only have about 40, 45,000 restaurants. Right. So it’s just getting started.

James: Yeah. I mean, you think of Toast as being ubiquitous, right. But like, you know, then then you add in all of the legacy stuff that’s behind the scenes, right. And you realize how big and kind of fragmented the restaurant scene is.

Avi: Yeah. I mean, look, one of our strategic investors, they operate hotels and restaurants all over the globe. And we’re starting to roll out in their properties. And we’re talking about point of sales. And the head of F and B of food of beverage over there says, you know, I’m always to share this as broadly. We’re not only on Aloha, we’re on really old Aloha in all of our restaurants that we manage. And again, it’s it’s something they need to get off of. But it’s not a priority for tomorrow. Right, because there’s so many other things that pop up. But for those who are really looking to begin that process of becoming more tech savvy, it starts with that point of sale, Toast, SpotOn, Clover, Revel or whoever it’s going to be get on a cloud based one that fits your needs, it fits your price point, and that’s you going to lay a good foundation to grow.

James: Great. Well, thank you so much for the conversation today.

Avi: Yeah, of course. You know, always happy to chat outside of my my daughter, my chickens and my family. This is probably my favorite things to talk about. So always around the chat.