Popmenu opens restaurant to understand industry

A woman answers the phone at a cafe.

Written by James Shea

Popmenu CEO Brendan Sweeney has always listened to restaurants and built products around their problems. Now, Popmenu gets to experience the realities of running a restaurant — the company opened a restaurant in Atlanta.

Called R&D Provisions, the restaurant is “where the power of food, technology, and ideas converge.” It serves salads, burgers, sandwiches and other pub-type fare.

“Popmenu is focused on building easy, usable tech for restaurants, and what better way to ensure that we’re providing the most effective solutions to our clients than to use them in our own restaurant,” Sweeney said. “We’re testing and learning new things every day and applying those insights to our product suite to benefit the larger restaurant industry.”

Starting with a problem

Founded in 2016, Popmenu helps restaurants improve their online ordering and websites. The company started with a problem. Sweeney has worked in online product development for 20 years and became frustrated when he found most restaurant websites contained PDF copies of the menu. He thought the experience would be better if restaurants added online ordering, creating more functionality and a better customer experience. He began asking questions within the restaurant industry and saw an opportunity. He believed the restaurant industry was behind the travel industry by a decade and could benefit from improved websites and online menus.

Sweeney, Anthony Roy, Mike Gullo and Justis Blasco founded the company and began approaching restaurants about designing their websites and adding online ordering. The company grew, allowing Popmenu to raise a small amount of funds. A $65 million funding round took place in 2021, establishing Popmenu as a major player in the food tech industry.

Sweeney said customers want a great online ordering experience. That means food items must have color photos as well as reviews for social proof. Just as customers hunt for a restaurant using Yelp and Google, a restaurant’s website should be a similar experience, he said.

“That was our insight,” Sweeney said. “It was obvious. We had to take all of that consumer experience that the third-party platforms have and put it on the restaurant website and into their control. They’re going to have a better chance of putting their best foot forward instead of someone else telling their story for them.”

Sweeney said the pandemic completely changed the restaurant business, and that restaurants needed to have online ordering. No longer could a restaurant have a PDF menu. Customers demanded contactless ordering and delivery, and that fits right into Popmenu’s array of services.

“We were in business for three years before COVID, and we brought on thousands of clients,” Sweeney said. “Most of the time I would say it was the more forward-thinking individuals. Then it’s — let me do what I have to do to actually run a viable business long-term in the face of all this craziness. And what we love is where we are. The purchase pattern that we’ve seen over these past few years is people just begin by saying, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to have a digital presence.’”

Now, restaurants are taking a breath and being more calculated about their decisions. They started doing third-party delivery to survive, but now are trying to decide if that is a viable business. They are looking at other options and deciding how technology and operations fit together.

A company like Popmenu helps restaurants build around a customized website, and integrates social media, email and other forms of marketing. With Popmenu, restaurants can move away from third-party delivery and grow first-party ordering through the restaurant’s website. Popmenu’s dashboard gives restaurants control. They can make changes and enhance the presentation.

Sweeney said Popmenu also helps with user experience. Even if people never speak with a human being during ordering, a bad experience reflects negatively on the restaurant. They need to make sure the platform is robust and can give the user a quality experience. A recent study found that 38% of restaurant guests will move on after a poor online experience.

“You have to invest money in an online presence,” Sweeney said. “You have to invest in it or you’ll lose. We want frictionless experiences.”

Other product offers

Besides social media marketing, Popmenu also works to enhance Google search results. The company recently worked with the The Hampton Social for a website redesign and grew monthly sessions on the website from 175,000 to 311,000. The site now ranks in the top 10 for 500 keywords.

Popmenu’s newest product is AI phone answering. Calls to a restaurant are common. Customers want to know the restaurant’s hours or make a reservation. Popmenu’s AI helps to answer these questions and keep the customer engaged. A recent survey by the company found that 42% of diners will visit a different restaurant if they try to make a reservation and get voice mail.

“The phone system is incredible,” Sweeney said. “It is immediately providing relief to restaurants who can’t answer the phone.”

The goal is to improve the answering system so that eventually, it can take orders. When all the products are put together, Popmenu creates greater personalization for the customer, Sweeney said. The customer can be better understood through the various touchpoints and the experience can be customized. Each customer will get a unique experience.

But the reality is that the user experience does not end after the order is placed. Off-premise food has to arrive well packaged and warm. People do not want to eat cold fries or have a salad that is smashed. The same goes for in-person dining. People want a smooth, seamless dining experience.

And that is where Popmenu’s new restaurant helps. Popmenu can understand customer feedback from orders and learn what works and what does not. The restaurant puts the company closer to the restaurant business, allowing it to better understand the real problems that restaurants face.

“How well your technology performs comes down to how well you know your customers and their points of pain,” Sweeney said. “There are different paths to discovery, but the more you can walk in a restaurant operator’s shoes, the better you will be in understanding and solving their problems and identifying new opportunities to grow their business.”

Sweeney does not see Popmenu expanding the concept and building a restaurant chain. It is in the technology business.

“Our hospitality team has brilliant ideas for expanding the concept, but for the time being we’re too busy acting upon the feedback cycle from this initial location to consider anything further,” he said.

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