A new Bethesda business is trying to answer the common question of where you should eat tonight with a phone app and some big discounts.
Spotluck, the brainchild of CEO Cherian Thomas and CFO Bradford Sayler, is a phone app that allows users to take one “spin” a day of locally owned restaurants in two sections of town — Woodmont Triangle’s Cordell Avenue and Bethesda Row.
The spin will randomly select for users one restaurant and attach to it a discount that typically ranges from 10 percent to 30 percent off your final bill. The restaurants not selected in the spin will offer discounts typically about 5 percent less, and all the discounts are determined by algorithms that factor in real-time data such as the day of the week, weather conditions, the restaurant’s rating by previous Spotluck customers and other factors.
So the discounts on Monday before 6 p.m. will likely be a lot higher than the discounts on Friday after 6 p.m., when restaurants typically see more traffic and need to fill fewer tables.
If it’s pouring rain or snowing outside, the discounts will inch up. If a restaurant is getting four- or five-star ratings from Spotluck users, the discounts might go down.
It’s an all-in-one deals app, restaurant review app and reservation maker that’s unique from well-known services such as Groupon, Yelp and OpenTable in one very important way — its No. 1 focus is to entice restaurant-goers to Bethesda’s locally owned eateries.
“We market your spot to people above you and around you,” Thomas said. “We’re not telling people in San Francisco, ‘Hey, check out La Panatteria.’ We’re telling everybody here, ‘Don’t forget about them. They’re here, they’re great and they’re local.'”
Thomas, a downtown Bethesda resident, has spent much of the last few months pitching the service to restaurants. Despite the big discounts for restaurant customers, Thomas said Spotluck’s main goal is to drum up business for the restaurant owners and managers who use the service.
Thomas said Spotluck is paid a fee by the participating restaurants based on how much business the app brings in. If a restaurant is fully booked or has a special event, a manager or server can block out the app for that day on iPads that Spotluck provides.
“The merchant is our No. 1 stakeholder. Our success is dependent on their success,” Thomas said. “We don’t perform, they’re not paying. That’s a pretty reasonable value proposition for them. We want to find the minimum discount possible that will get people to go to them. We kind of believe that you shouldn’t have the same prices on a Monday that you do on a Friday, because things are different out there.”
So far, the pitch seems to be catching on.
Passage to India, Brickside, Yamas, Roof, 4935 Bar & Kitchen, Harp & Fiddle, MoMo, Freddy’s Lobster, La Panatteria, and Grapeseed have all signed on to be part of Spotluck’s Cordell Avenue hub.
Markham’s, Parker’s, Tyber Bierhaus, Redwood, Mussel Bar & Grille, Pitzze Table, Newton’s Table, Lebanese Taverna and Cesco Osteria have all signed on to be part of Spotluck’s Bethesda Row hub, which launched Wednesday.
The app uses a GPS locator on each phone to ensure a customer is in the restaurant before bringing up the discount. The customer then shows the discount to a server and the server will input a four-digit code provided to each restaurant to mark it on the customer’s bill.
It’s available on iPhones and Android devices.
“This idea can be applied in a lot of places,” Sayler said. “I think there’s a cool, young crowd — those early-adopters here. This area, Bethesda, D.C., Rockville, Arlington, has a lot of people who use this technology all the time. This is a Bethesda start-up and Bethesda people hopefully want to see us succeed.”
The duo also has eight restaurants signed on in Rockville Town Square.
It was in Rockville where they found the locally owned restaurants faced a bit of a marketing problem. Restaurateurs had observed many customers walking right past local places for national chains such as Buffalo Wild Wings or Gordon Biersch and many of the locally owned spots that first populated the Town Square were long gone.
A few months in to the Rockville hub, Spotluck-provided customer data proved perhaps one reason why.
“A lot of the users had no idea a restaurant like La Canela exists,” Thomas said. “We’re pulling way more users from outside zip codes than we are from the internal zip code. So that says something. That says, somebody was like, ‘Oooh, I didn’t know that was there.'”
Thomas said Spotluck brought in between 600 and 700 customers to Rockville restaurants in June, the first month it was live.
The idea is to expand the concept to other “hyperlocal” neighborhoods such as Dupont Circle, U Street and neighborhoods in Arlington. For now, Thomas, Sayler and a team of part-time programmers and marketing staff are refining the product, pitching restaurants and training restaurant staff out of their UberOffices space on Wisconsin Avenue.
In the future, Spotluck might be able to use its customer data not just as information to share with restaurant owners, but as a research tool for property owners recruiting restaurant tenants.
And for the restaurant customers, the idea is to provide daily deals with all the information available right away. Each restaurant selection on the app includes a menu, phone number, location and ability to make reservations.
Thomas and Sayler, who have spent much of their own money to get the app off the ground, said they think it will stand up because of the demand on both sides of the equation — restaurant owners and restaurant customers.
“We want to make sure we’re at your fingertips when you have that proverbial question of where you’re going to eat,” Thomas said. “And if you’re one of 200 restaurants in this area, you need to be seen.”
Photos via Spotluck