In today’s hyper-competitive environment, Sara Polon feels like restaurant operators are forced to pair up with outside technology partners to provide everything from third-party delivery to office catering services.
“You have to. You have no choice,” says Polon, owner of Soupergirl, a Washington, D.C., soup concept. “It’s an unfortunate necessity that causes a lot of grumbling among the retail community.”
But while some tech providers seem to be out for nothing but a quick buck, others are looking out for operators’ best interests—and the community’s.
Case in point: TwentyTables, a mobile app that connects diners with a list of D.C. restaurants offering $6 lunches and $12 dinners. But the deals weren’t what caught Polon’s eye. From the beginning, the app’s developers sought to do more than just provide a great deal to customers. Rather, for every 20 meals ordered, the company donates five meals to the hungry and food insecure in the D.C. area. “Yeah, it’s an app, but they do good,” Polon says. “That just immediately made them stand out.”
Polon and her mother, Marilyn, launched Soupergirl in 2008 with a mission “to change the world one bowl of soup at a time.” Polon wanted to break down what she called the “industrial food movement” and offer diners healthy and sustainable food options. Soupergirl began with home and office delivery. Now the concept has grown to include two stores in the D.C. area, and its soups are distributed in major grocers like Costco and Wegmans.
Polon says customers want more than just good food, reasonable prices, and convenience.
“If you’re not trying to put your values first—identifying your values and communicating them—you’re going to lose,” she says. “Customers are demanding to know about sustainability [and] sources of food. And they’re responding with their dollars.”
She says that’s why the TwentyTables program makes sense for her brand. The app’s users are the kind of people she wants in her restaurants, Polon says—people who want to fight hunger in their community and give back.
SouperGirl couldn’t afford to offer $6 meals for all of its customers—Polon says she’s making a sacrifice to participate in the TwentyTables app. But while it’s possible that some customers come in just for the deal, she says, many others feel more connected to Soupergirl because of its association with the platform. In addition, she says customers who use the app are more likely to return to Soupergirl even when they’re not using the app.
For TwentyTables CEO Alex Cohen, the idea of providing free meals was always a major piece of building the app. “It was just part of the entire vision,” he says. “It was never a question of should we or shouldn’t we.”
But Cohen sees the benefits as multi-faceted, and says the beauty of the business model is that “everyone prospers together.” Restaurants can build dependable traffic with predictable, fixed costs. Diners receive a curated list of great meals at value prices. TwentyTables receives a small fee for every transaction—he says the cut is much smaller than that of third-party delivery services. And each purchase fuels much-needed meals for the hungry and food insecure.
He says he created the app to help consumers who can’t afford to regularly dine out. “Half of all Americans brown-bag their lunches every day,” Cohen says. “In large part, it’s because they can’t afford to find and avail themselves of professionally prepared food. While their friends are going out, while their coworkers are going out, they’re opening up their brown bag.”
But unlike coupon or discount programs, TwentyTables is designed to create long-term relationships between customers and restaurants.
“We are not a discount platform,” he says. “Discounts are transient and indiscriminate, meaning they create artificial relationships between the customer and the restaurant and they disappear.”
In addition to the automatic donations, TwentyTables allows users to donate meals directly. Consumers can purchase TwentyTables tickets in packs of five. They redeem one ticket for lunch or two for dinner and can donate as many tickets as they like. Last year, the company donated more than 10,000 meals to places like D.C. Central Kitchen and the Capital Area Food Bank.
The startup vibe of TwentyTables—so far, it’s serving about 3,000 customers and 120 restaurants in D.C.—fits well with the identity of the Well Dressed Burrito, a funky carry-out concept just south of the city’s Dupont Circle. Largely unadvertised, the restaurant can be accessed only through a back alley.
“I think [it] adds a little bit to the ambiance we offer. It’s a little speakeasy, if you will,” general manager Tom Dow says. “We’ve always been a very grassroots kind of operation.”
Dow says he’s constantly approached by third-party developers and vendors pitching ways to improve sales—while also taking a cut of the action along the way, making profit off the business that Dow and others have been doing for years.
But he felt like things were different when TwentyTables approached him. “I actually had customers upset with us because I wasn’t familiar with it,” he says. “TwentyTables seems to be a little more conscientious about giving back.”
He’s been happy with the program—even if the low price point cuts deep into his usual margins.
“In the grand scheme of things, I definitely get the feeling it’s trying to do good. And I probably feel a lot better working with them regardless of the business model and where my price point is with them,” he says. “It’s something that’s worth it.”
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