Entrepreneurial inspiration can strike you in the unlikeliest of places – as Torontonian Alex Barrotti knows all too well. He hit on the idea for an iPad app for wait staff while dining on sushi at a friend's restaurant in the Caribbean.
His friend "was looking for ways to take care of his customers on the patio," Mr. Barrotti explains. "In the Caribbean, they have issues that we take for granted – for instance, their power goes out three times a day, and they have no steady, reliable Internet connection.
"My friend was looking for a netbook solution, but that was too cumbersome. You can't carry a netbook around, and the iPhone is too small to provide a really robust experience. So by the time the iPad came out, I thought, 'This is a great solution.' "
And so TouchBistro was born. The iPad-based application allows wait staff to show off pictures of the food on offer, send orders to the kitchen and the bar while staying with the customer, and even split the bill by seating with just a swipe of the hand.
After assembling a team of marketers and engineers in their Toronto office, Mr. Barrotti's company launched the app last June. Since then, 35 bars, restaurants and cafés in the Toronto area have started using TouchBistro, and there have been 5,000 downloads worldwide.
With 20 years of experience in the tech industry, this isn't new ground for Mr. Barrotti – it's his fourth start-up to date, and the last one (online storefront generator INEX) sold for $45-million in 1999. After a hiatus spent starting a family, he's returned to the tech-heavy world of pushing businesses forward.
TouchBistro is one of a growing number of iPad-based restaurant software programs – a list which includes apps for drinks menus, such as Uncorked, or purely customer-facing apps, such as MenuPad.
What separates TouchBistro from others is the depth of the program, and how it works in a three-fold manner – for customers, for wait staff, and for the business back-end that keeps things running.
This last point is key to the program's success – the app can divide sales by section, waiter, food and drink, allowing restaurant managers to quickly figure out what's working and what isn't.
The iPad has by now worked its way into everyday life, and yet the idea of putting one in the hands of a waiter can still be an intimidating decision for business owners.
But as Mr. Barrotti says, "most wait staff are a younger crowd, a younger demographic – a lot of them have smartphones, or iPhones, and they seem to be pretty comfortable." TouchBistro is designed to be intuitive and user-friendly, and Mr. Barrotti's company offers video tutorials and support from their Toronto location.
"Everything is done here, all the creative work – talking to customers, meeting restaurants. We had one restaurant say that they wanted to work with us specifically because we're in the Toronto area."
The only barrier for many businesses may be the apparent cost of switching over to an entirely new system. But looks can be deceiving – while the system might appear flashy, it's actually a fraction of the cost of normal interfaces, according to Mr. Barrotti.
"We're much less expensive than traditional systems. For instance, we just got back from Texas, and there was a restaurant where eight stations were costing $50,000. For us, eight stations would cost $5,000."
The nature of TouchBistro's hardware and software (available on the iTunes store) means that it lacks the clandestine pricing of less publicly accessible systems; in addition, the company has deliberately gone for a pricing model that opens the field up to large and small clients.
Busy restaurants can opt for an iPad for every waiter, while small cafés and bars can just use one for the point of sale. The TouchBistro website offers packages for purchasing everything from single iPads ($519+) to adding a cash drawer, printer and AirPort ($1,499).
Mr. Barrotti believes the fact that users are free to source hardware locally will attract customers from further afield.
"They can get the Apple products from any authorized Apple seller. We have customers in South Africa, Portugal, France, Belgium, Taiwan – they all source the equipment locally."
And the app itself? It costs a dollar a day – which is why TouchBistro's customers range from high-end restaurants like L'Ouvrier to more low-key busy takeouts like The One That Got Away.
While customers may welcome how TouchBistro allows them to see their food in advance or make the awkward request to "split the bill"a little easier for wait staff, Mr. Barrotti maintains that the biggest attraction for everyone involved is time – as orders are sent directly to the kitchen, service is quicker.
"Normally, you have a set time for dinner. If you only have two hours, then you can use this to either turn around more time for yourself, or for dessert, or for another round of drinks. And for the restaurants, it increases turnaround of customers."
Not bad for a dollar a day.