App to help restaurant waitlists sees new surge during pandemic

A Chicago entrepreneur set out to improve restaurants’ waitlist management, and his app is helping restaurants and healthcare facilities adhere to social distancing.

Welcome back from the weekend!

Waiting in line is a common customer pet peeve. As frustrating as it is for the person waiting, it’s also frustrating for a service provider who has to make a customer wait. Chicago entrepreneur John Yi developed an app, NextME, to help businesses better manage waitlists and appointments.

The app launched in 2015 specifically to help restaurants that don’t take reservations. Yi began exploring the idea a few years prior and called upon his years of working in a restaurant: He and his brother, mother, and father all had significant hospitality industry experience and knew some of its challenges. He wanted to find an analytics-based solution to help restaurants better manage their wait lists to reduce customer frustration, which can be costly to a business.

“Inc magazine says $130 billion is lost per year because people have to wait for service… 33% of consumers stop using a service because of wait times, and it leads to negative reviews, which have a big impact on business,” Yi said. “This is a very real issue businesses face.

Yi started conducting research around 2012 when most restaurant hosts managed waitlists with pen, paper, and maybe a clipboard. Some were using a pager system, but those devices are limited in range and expensive to maintain. NextME moved the task to a digital platform and automated communication with customers via text. The text notifications also include a link to the restaurant’s browser page with its marketing content and menus.

Although Yi and his business partner brother initially targeted restaurants because of their knowledge in that space, the intention all along was to expand to other types of businesses. Soon after NextME launched in 2015 it began picking up a variety of non-restaurant clients. It now has hundreds of clients that serve walk-in customers including salons, repair shops, and urgent care facilities.

NextME has experienced a surge in business from healthcare providers during the pandemic. “We have a text-based service so what a lot of these healthcare workers are doing is leveraging our wait list app to triage patients in a more safe and efficient manner,” Yi said. For example, the system can manage patients who visit temporary COVID-19 testing facilities in parking lots and send texts when it’s their turn. “It’s awesome to see the versatility of the app and how it’s helping healthcare workers on the frontlines,” he said.

Other essential businesses are benefiting as well by helping to avoid people waiting in line and crowded into small spaces, which goes against social distancing guidelines. Even though dine-in food service is closed, restaurants still use the app to text customers for food delivery and pick-ups. “They’re adapting with the system and we’re trying to accommodate as best we can,” Yi said.

Yi credits his mother for his entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic. After immigrating to Chicago from South Korea in the 1980s when she was in her 20s, she worked as a restaurant server and then started her own salon and dry cleaning businesses.

John Yi, his mother, and his brother

ing Asian American applications, I feel like sometimes there may be some inequality” in designating resources for Asian Americans, Yi said.

He also mentioned the challenge of trying to raise capital as a tech business in the Midwest instead of on the coasts, and angels and venture capitalists often are more critical of Midwest entrepreneurs’ business models and long-term sustainability. Yi tries to turn that into a positive. “Even though it’s harder to access capital in the Midwest, it does discipline me as an entrepreneur to work harder at providing the model and building a company in the right way,” he said.

Do you know of other Midwest entrepreneurs trying to solve businesses’ problems with tech? Let me know so I can highlight them in a future newsletter. Email or connect on Twitter @centereddottech to share ideas.

Other stories we’re watching:

  • Ohio State University is partnering with Trusted Health, a tech company that connects nurses with jobs and resources, on a program to improve frontline nurses’ mental health and well-being(TechCrunch)
  • North and South Dakota are among the first states pioneering contact tracing apps to mitigate the pandemic. But a battle could be brewing between these states and Silicon Valley giants over the collection of sensitive GPS location data. (Reuters)
  • The Chicago City Council approved an ordinance to increase the city’s electric vehicle readiness. It expands EV charging requirements for new residential and commercial buildings and promotes equitable access to the technology. (City of Chicago)

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