Ne­wark stu­dents head back to school

Newark Post - - FRONT PAGE - By JA­COB OWENS jowens@ches­pub.com

Che­rian Thomas could no­tice a trend on the hori­zon: dy­namic pric­ing was help­ing some of the in­ter­net age’s big­gest com­pa­nies swal­low up mar­ket share.

But he was trou­bled when some of those best prac­tices weren’t be­ing ap­plied to one of the most com­mon choices that cus­tomers make: where to eat.

“When you look at Price­line, Ama­zon, Uber, Ho­tels. com, they are all con­stantly chang­ing their prices to man­age their yield and max­i­mize their prof­its,” he said. “But then you go to a restau­rant on a Tues­day and there’s no wait and the ap­pe­tiz­ers are $10 and the en­trees are $15. You go back on a Fri­day when there’s a 45-minute wait and the ap­pe­tiz­ers are $10 and the en­trees are $15.”

So about five years ago, Thomas, then a grad­u­ate stu­dent at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, set out to de­velop an idea that would solve the dilemma. Two years later, he and a long­time friend Brad Sayler de­cided to in­vest all of their time and sav­ings into the idea that be­came Spotluck, a mo­bile app that com­bines din­ing mar­ket­ing with gam­i­fi­ca­tion.

Launched in June 2014, the Mary­land-based com­pany now has 20 em­ploy­ees, with Thomas serv­ing as Spotluck’s CEO and Sayler as its chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer. It al­ready part­ners with more than 1,200 restau­rants in Philadel­phia, Baltimore, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., New York City, New Jersey and parts of Vir­ginia.

Last week, it qui­etly launched in Ne­wark after rolling out in Wilm­ing­ton in July. The app quickly found a foothold in the First State, draw­ing 5,000 users in Delaware in its first two months, of which about 90 per­cent have been ver­i­fied as us­ing the app, Thomas said.

The app’s ap­proach is sim­ple: users iden­tify what kind of food they want, spin a wheel on their smart­phone and Spotluck will of­fer a ran­dom dis­count be­tween 10 and 35 per­cent to a part­ner­ing in­de­pen­dent restau­rant in the user’s lo­cal mar­ket. Spin­ning the wheel on a week­day or day with poor weather will likely yield a higher dis­count. The user then has 24 hours to take the dis­count to the restau­rant to re­ceive sav­ings worth up to $50.

“We truly be­lieve din­ing should be fun, it should be a game,” Thomas said. “You shouldn’t spend 15 min­utes ar­gu­ing over where to eat, but rather 15 sec­onds find a place and en­joy­ing it, while sav­ing some dol­lars.”

Spotluck’s “gam­i­fi­ca­tion” is what am­pli­fies the user base, ac­cord­ing to Thomas, who notes that dy­namic pric­ing is noth­ing new. In­de­pen­dent restau­rants have long boasted half-price burger and ap­pe­tizer nights, but if a cus­tomers haven’t come in the door to see that spe­cial, they often don’t know about it like they might with a chain’s spe­cials.

“It boiled down to a busi­ness prob­lem: busi­nesses have trou­ble be­ing seen and get­ting butts in seats, and they have fixed costs re­gard­less of whether the weather was beau­ti­ful or ter­ri­ble all month,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the com­pany prides it­self on the fact that while it has a pres­ence in the East Coast’s largest metro markets, it has also grown in smaller cities like Har­rison­burg and Rich­mond in Vir­ginia, Fred­er­ick in Mary­land, and more.

“When you’re not com­pet­ing with 20 other food apps and thou­sands of other apps spend­ing money to get in front of some­body, it’s eas­ier to get no­ticed,” Sayler added. “One unique chal­lenge has been col­lege cam­puses.”

Spotluck’s first large col­lege cam­pus was Univer­sity of Mary­land, Col­lege Park, which launched in Jan­uary 2015. It’s since rolled out in sev­eral metro markets that ser ve cam­puses like Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, Vir­ginia Tech, Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, Drexel Univer­sity and many more. The com­pany is aim­ing to repli­cate its orig­i­nal ef­forts from UMD in Ne­wark, how­ever, where the Univer­sity of Delaware pro­vides the largest per­cent­age of po­ten­tial users.

“We want to let peo­ple know about these great restau­rants and the best way to do that is not to knock on doors in a cul-de-sac, but tar­get high-den­sity ar­eas which often serve a col­lege cam­pus,” Thomas said.

As a UD grad­u­ate, Sayler said that he used some of the other lo­cal din­ing re­wards pro­grams, but he didn’t feel they pro­vided enough value or made choos­ing din­ing much eas­ier. He notes that sev­eral of the other apps in the mar­ket, such as GrubHub or Hun­gry Hens, are more tai­lored to de­liv­ery ser­vice, and he doesn’t think they’ll com­pete heav­ily with Spotluck’s ap­peal, which forces users to sit down in a restau­rant.

“We don’t make it a has­sle ei­ther,” Thomas added. “You don’t have to buy $20 to get $30, you just en­joy pre­ferred pric­ing.”

The co-founders said the back­bone of the com­pany is its cham­pi­oning of in­de­pen­dent restau­rants, ev­i­denced by its strict re­quire­ment that a restau­rant be lo­cal or lo­cally-owned.

“Users don’t want to spin a wheel and land on Burger King, they want to know where the lo­cals eat,” Thomas said. “We want to nudge peo­ple to ven­ture out.”

Its sup­port of busi­ness own­ers ex­tends to data pro­vided to them on users, GPSver­i­fied re­views and fair dis­counts — Spotluck’s sav­ings max out at 35 per­cent. On its end, Spotluck charges a fee to restau­rants to sign up to the ser­vice and it charges a small fee for each diner who shows up to a restau­rant to use a dis­count.

Thomas said that Spotluck’s ser­vice reaches any­where from 10 to 30 restau­rants in a neigh­bor­hood. In Wilm­ing­ton, there’s 15 restau­rants cur­rently signed up. At launch, Ne­wark will fea­ture seven restau­rants — Arena’s Deli & Bar, Caffè Ge­lato, Cather­ine Rooney’s, Home Grown Café, Klondike Kate’s, La Casa Pasta and Margherita’s Pizza — with more to fol­low.

“In Ne­wark, we’re ey­ing about 10 to 15 restau­rants,” Thomas said. “As a data com­pany, we know that a lot of our Wilm­ing­ton cus­tomers are com­ing from the Ne­wark area.”

Sayler said his knowl­edge of Ne­wark from his time at UD has helped the com­pany iden­tify tar­geted restau­rants, al­though he ad­mits Main Street looks a bit dif­fer­ent than when he grad­u­ated in 2004.

“The Stone Bal­loon was a great place to go watch mu­sic and get some drinks, and ob­vi­ously it’s gone through some changes since then and re­opened,” he said. “Get­ting Klondike Kate’s on board was ex­cit­ing for me, along with Margherita’s Pizza and Home Grown, so I’m def­i­nitely go­ing back to my col­lege days.”

For Gian­marco Mar­tus­celli, owner of both Klondike Kate’s and La Casa Pasta, the con­cept of Spotluck’s pre­ferred pric­ing was what caught his at­ten­tion and con­vinced him to sign on.

“It’s some­thing that I think will ap­peal to a younger cus­tomer who may be more spo­radic with their din­ing choices,” he said, adding he didn’t mind pay­ing the fin­der’s fee for din­ers. “If they don’t choose your es­tab­lish­ment, then you’re not mak­ing any profit.”

Mar­tus­celli, who runs a fre­quent diner pro­gram for his restau­rants, said he sees Spotluck as “some­thing com­pletely new in the way it works for a restau­rants.”

“You’re not pay­ing out of pocket un­til a cus­tomer buys a meal, which is good for our end,” he said. “They’re do­ing a lot of mar­ket­ing them­selves, which also helps spread the word on our restau­rants.”

While it’s just get­ting un­der­way in Ne­wark, Thomas said the growth of Spotluck in Delaware may not be done as the com­pany is still ey­ing a pos­si­ble ex­pan­sion to the Delaware beaches.

“With beach season com­ing to an end soon, we want to fill a need,” he said. “We’re get­ting a lot of in­quiries, and ac­tu­ally quite a few have signed up al­ready be­cause they share own­er­ship with a restau­rant in one of our other markets.”

To sug­gest a restau­rant to be added to Spotluck or find out more about the ser­vice, email con­tact@spotluck. com. For new users, sign up with promo code POST to re­ceive an ex­tra Spotluck sav­ings dur­ing the Ne­wark soft launch.

PHOTO COURTESY OF SPOTLUCK

Che­rian Thomas, left, and Brad Sayler founded Spotluck, a din­ing dis­count app, in 2014 and have grown the com­pany to many large East Coast markets.

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY JA­COB OWENS

Spotluck, a new din­ing app with a dash of gam­ing, re­cently qui­etly launched in Ne­wark.

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