Nick Kozak for the Toronto Star
Case Studies

Toronto startup takes menus digital

Vital Stats
Aravinthan Ehamparam and Thaves Ponnampalam
10 Milner Business Court, Suite 400
Technology, food services
1 year
Tablet menus

Shortly after returning from a business trip to Malaysia and Singapore a couple of years ago, Thaves Ponnampalam found himself sitting across his good friend from the University of Toronto, Aravinthan Ehamparam, at a Boston Pizza, discussing a new innovation he had witnessed in his travels.

While out for dinner one night in Singapore, Thaves noticed the waiter punching codes into a palm pilot, which sent his order directly to the kitchen.

“Being both foodies, we thought the next logical step would be letting the customers take control of the ordering experience,” Ehamparam says. “That’s how the idea of Menyou was born.”

Today, Menyou is a tablet-based platform that allows diners to order their food directly from an iPad. It lets them arrange menu options by dietary restrictions such as meals under 500 calories or gluten-free options, and includes a “call server” button when they need more personal attention.

The platform also provides restaurant owners with detailed analytics about customers and their eating habits.

In the twelve months since that evening at Boston Pizza, Ehamparam and Ponnampalam have successfully built a prototype and began a trial at a Cassie’s location at Jarvis and Dundas last summer. They are also scheduled to roll out more trials at the Office Pub at John and Richmond, the Thai Room on King West and India 360 on Front Street.

They’ve even begun looking beyond the restaurant industry, and are in talks with event venues, golf courses and hotels.

But in spite of their early success, the two have recently begun running into roadblocks, and are now learning how difficult it is to innovate in an industry steeped in tradition. While they’ve had success pitching their product to those of a younger generation, “the old guard,” as Ehamparam refers to them, remain a gatekeeper to larger opportunities.

“In the restaurant space, especially the bigger ones, you have an older generation that is familiar with technology and have used it but aren’t as comfortable as the younger generation,” he says. “Although we can explain to them rationally the benefits of using technology, for them they believe it will ruin the whole experience.”

But for the younger generation of restaurateurs, Menyou is a potentially profitable innovation. The platform removes some of the pain points for customers, such as flagging down a server or filtering their menu options.

Ehamparam and Ponnampalam are working towards a partnership with Toronto-based mobile payment processor Lucova, which will soon allow customers to settle their bill without flagging down a server.

“You basically just click a ‘pay’ button on the tablet, and you will get a notification as you’re walking out the door that the restaurant has gotten paid through the credit card that’s attached to your profile,” said Ehamparam. “So it’s a very seamless payment process.”

The platform also provides analytic information about customers eating habits to restaurant owners, helps restaurants upsell pricier menu items, promotes specials, and can even provide additional revenue by offering advertising space for local events and post-dinner entertainment.

There’s no major investment required on the restaurant’s part, either. Following a free trial period, restaurant owners can lease each iPad for approximately the price of a cup of coffee per day, software included.

After finding some success with a few early adopters, Menyou recently partnered up with Dine.TO, an online dining guide servicing the Greater Toronto Area, as an alternative to going directly through the traditional gatekeepers of the restaurant industry.

“By getting this partnership we’ve bypassed the typical sales cost of developing that relationship,” says Ehamparam. “Dine.TO will be presenting our product exclusively to their customers. That was a big deal for us.”

While the new partnership will help Ehamparam and Ponnampalam get their product in the hands of restaurant owners around the city, the two still struggle to get past preliminary conversations with golf courses, hotels, and major event venues.

“I think one of the reasons why a company like this might be successful with younger and more agile companies is that they’re speaking the same language, and that is the language of the startup world,” says Aron Solomon, a senior advisor with MaRS Discovery District’s Information Technology Communications and Entertainment practice (ICE). “When you deal with some of these other companies, this old guard, startups need to make sure they speak the same language.”

In the mean time, Menyou is excited for the upcoming trial runs taking place around the city as well as the development of mobile payment processing capabilities.

“After the slow period during the Christmas break the new year has started with a huge surge of good news like the Dine.TO deal, the mobile payment processing partner we secured, the discussions with hotels. I think it’s going very well,” says Ehamparam. “There’s obviously ups and downs as a small company, but momentum has been building.”


As Interviewed by: Rosemary Westwood

Menyou has a great opportunity to grow this business over the next couple years. To fully capitalize on this opportunity they should work with restaurants that cater to customers who are more inclined to embrace tablet menus. Earl’s, Joey’s and Milestones all cater to these young, hipster and urban professionals. They are all staffed with youthful professional servers, who would be more willing to deliver this new dynamic service style. It will be important for Menyou to work closely with the restaurants who adapt their product, to ensure that management, staff and customers all understand this service and nobody is left intimidated or lost in the process. The key will be to garner acceptance and exposure, so guests will be seeking out restaurants that offer tablet menus. Menyou should move swiftly — they already face competition from similar startups in the U.S. Then, they can grow into the fine dining market once tablet menus are well established as an efficient, fast and friendly manner to deliver great service.

by Brian Heasman - Ryerson

Menyou has a timely, innovative, consumer-friendly product. The challenge is in selling the idea to staid companies in the hospitality industry. Proving Menyou's value to restaurateurs and hospitality managers will be about demonstrating the technology's ROI, showing evidence of consumer interest and uptake, and outlining the expected increases in efficiency and productivity as a result of installation. Further, the co-founders might do what they can to shift their thinking and language away from the entrepreneurial and technological side of things, and instead focus on being especially customer-centric: What do food and beverage managers struggle with? How could they be better helped? Where is there waste or challenge typically in restaurants? What are the metrics of a successful restaurant operation? Armed with an arsenal of relevant metrics, language, past successes, and expected business lift, Menyou will be sure to wet the strategic appetite of any restaurant manager worth their salt.

by Brynn Winegard - Ryerson

I think it’s a great idea. I know what Ehamparam means about the old guard in the Toronto restaurant industry. But eventually this kind of thing will be mandatory. It’s like point of purchase systems: Restaurateurs didn’t want it, the customers demanded it. So, Menyou should go to all the small places, the cool, funky spots. Read the restaurant reviews and hit all the up and coming restaurants. Then go to the clubs. They can still go after the big players, but if you want to start a buzz marketing campaign, you need to get the product into customers’ hands. Then the big places will seek you out. Get out to Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax, get a patent, and get into the U.S. I don’t think it will take away waiters’ jobs: You still need people to greet patrons, open wine, bring the food. So pull in some waiter groups and industry people and show them how that would work. It’s really important to get a patent because the evolution of this is a downloadable app. You’re going to be using your own phone or tablet. You’ll place your own order and pay, all on your own device.

by Deirdre Fitzpatrick - GBC