The 'new economy' constantly throws up a multiplicity of entrepreneurial ventures trying to solve the problems of modern India. By telling their stories I try to catch a glimpse of the entrepreneurial evolution that India is going through. I have a weakness for the gloss of novelty and chase it in all experiences, from exploring new cities and restaurants, to changing what I read.
For Deepak Shahdadpuri, founder and managing director of investment firm DSG Consumer Partners, organising lunch or dinner meetings was a tedious task. Even though the restaurant services industry progressed by leaps and bounds since he returned from Singapore in 2007, the long-winding process of booking a table over phone through his secretary would often get his goat. As food tech platforms mushroomed, he wished there would also be an efficient table reservation platform. “I assumed someone would start and I thought it would probably be Zomato,” he says.
It didn’t (not until 2015, when it acquired US-based table reservation platform NexTable and subsequently launched Zomato Book). And, “when you tried through a couple of startups that claimed to offer the service, you would often be asked to email or call back to confirm”.
In early 2013, Shahdadpuri struck up a conversation with Rohit Dasgupta, deputy general manager of the Oberoi Trident in Gurgaon. Over the next few months, journalist and food writer Vir Sanghvi, who was a frequenter at the hotel, also joined in the discussions. In June 2014, the sale of OpenTable, the US-based online reservation platform, to hotel booking conglomerate, Priceline Group, for a whopping $2.6 billion, reaffirmed their convictions about a market for a restaurant reservation platform in India. On July 7, 2014, EazyDiner, a techonology-enabled concierge for booking tables, was born.
Explains Dasgupta, now the chief operating officer (COO) of the company: “We are an instant table reservation platform. Thanks to our allocated inventory in every restaurant, you get a confirmation in 30 seconds once you book through an app.” The business model is based on a commission that restaurants pay on every booking that the platform enables.
EazyDiner also offers a concierge option in which you can book a table over phone. It is an old-fashioned way of easing consumers into the habit of making reservations. “If you want to introduce a consumer behaviour change, you need to make the change comfortable,” says Dasgupta.
This is crucial as Sanghvi says, “People in India are not used to making reservations.” What makes it worse, he says, is the fact that there are only a handful of restaurants in a city that need you to make a reservation for. By offering an inducement in the form of a discount or a free beverage, the platform incentivises the habit of booking a table. These incentives come from the restaurants themselves, for one simple but oft-ignored reason: Restaurants would prefer it if you called first.
“Reservations always help from a planning point of view,” says Yash Bhanage, COO and co-founder of The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai. “They help you plan your kitchen as well as your service staff,” he adds.
Besides the concierge service, the app uses predetermined inventory from restaurants to enable instant bookings. This is what, the founders claim, differentiates them from not only fly-by-night food tech services, but also competitors like Dineout (with 2,500 restaurants on its platform). While, with 1,000 restaurants, EazyDiner is yet to catch up with Dineout in terms of tie-ups, it helps that EazyDiner’s founders are industry insiders with a network that runs deep in the hospitality sector.
Apart from Dasgupta and Sanghvi (lead critic), the founding team at EazyDiner consists of Sachin Pabreja and Shruti Kaul, both of whom have extensive experience in the hospitality sector. Sue Reitz, an industry veteran, is the managing director. The startup also boasts an enviable ‘advisory board’ with some of Indian hospitality’s most recognisable names, including Oberoi Group’s joint MD and CEO Vikram Oberoi, as well as Dinesh Nair, co-chairman & managing director of the Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts.
Dasgupta says the team’s background has allowed it to partner with restaurants in a way that makes them feel comfortable. Says Riyaaz Amlani of Impresario, also the president of the National Restaurant Association of India, “It’s an interesting startup and I think it’s also run primarily by restaurateurs and hoteliers rather than just tech people.”
The results of this integration are now beginning to show. This February, 20,000 diners used EazyDiner as opposed to 357 about a year ago. Last August, the company raised $3 million in a series-A round from DSG Consumer Partners and Saama Capital. With this, EazyDiner hopes to expand its operations from four cities—Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Pune—to 12 by the end of this year.
Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the platform is a crisp, informative expert review of restaurants. The fact that they are written by a team of journalists led by Sanghvi lends credibility. “The idea was to do the equivalent of a journalistic website on food. These were the kind of articles that would be found in a magazine that would try to explain what food was, how to order wine, and try to offer tips,” says Sanghvi.
As more and more Indians eat out, EazyDiner is making a concerted effort to create a better environment for diners. Besides getting diners to book a table, that is.