Innovation in the Restaurant Space: 4 Hot Start-Ups to Watch

5 years ago · 5 min read

Despite all the Postmates and UberEats of the world—there’s something universally appealing about the in-restaurant dining experience. Whether it’s a fast-casual taco joint or a sit-down Michelin star outfit, patrons keep flocking to restaurants.

But customers’ expectations are changing. I’ve seen this in every industry I’ve worked with as the CEO of a fast-growing digital marketing agency that focuses on helping our clients meet the needs of today’s connected, empowered consumer.

And restaurants are having to adapt as much as any other consumer-facing industry. As the connected consumer becomes ever more dominant, restaurant brands are finding that customers are expecting faster service, more tech innovations, and a more seamless experience overall.

In this highly competitive industry, there are a few up and coming start-ups that really stand out. Here are four that that should be on your radar.

Nibble+squeak: Normalizing dining out with young children

I love the mission of Nibble+squeak, a startup that hosts food events for parents and caregivers with babies, toddlers, and young children across the world.

New York-based founder Melissa Elders was inspired to create the company as a response to the problem every parent has faced: the less-than-accommodating attitude of both restaurant staff and patrons when a family shows up with young children. Nibble+squeak partners with restaurants in various cities to create dining events that are truly family-friendly. Menus are designed to appeal to both children and adults, the dining area is reserved exclusively for families to prevent those judgmental stares from child-free patrons, and every event includes a kids’ room with toys and child-friendly snacks.

The events range in price from $44 per person to up to $300, but their offerings—and the number of cities where they host events—are expanding quickly.

OneDine: Revolutionizing tableside ordering, from both the server- and customer-side

The answer to every restauranteur’s prayers. OneDine creates a frictionless dining experience offering table-side ordering and payment at a fraction of the cost of competitors and up to 20x the speed…oh, and it works with their current infrastructure. Tableside ordering apps have been growing in number over the past several years, but I haven’t seen any that are as comprehensive as OneDine (Full disclosure: I was so excited about this start-up that I accepted an invitation to join the team as acting CMO!)

The platform offers dozens of customizable features and functions and includes an employee-facing app and customer-facing app (or mobile web app for those not inclined to download), both of which result in significant labor savings for restaurants. The consumer-facing app even offers allergen and dietary customization, so diners can find exactly the fare to satisfy their preferences or special needs.

Sweetgreen: Improving health with an ordering app

Veggie-centric fast-casual chain Sweetgreen knows its customers are health-conscious, so they’re making it as easy as possible for them to know how their Sweetgreen meals measure up.

In 2016, the chain launched a mobile ordering app that allows customers to customize meals according to not just taste, but caloric intake, as well. The app is compatible with Apple Health, so customers who are closely watching what they eat can track their Sweetgreen meals as easily as the ones they make at home.

What’s more, Sweetgreen restaurants have gone entirely cash-free, which means lines can move faster (up to 15% faster in some locations) and staff can focus more on food and less on transactions.

Homegirl Cafe by Homeboy Industries: Offering purpose-driven dining experiences

Los Angeles’ Father Greg Boyle is the visionary founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program that offers second chances to formerly incarcerated individuals and those involved in gang violence.

While Homeboy Industries has created many social enterprises over the years, one of the most notable is Homegirl Cafe, a restaurant that offers employment and on-the-job training to women affected by domestic violence, gang violence, and incarceration.

But a meal at Homegirl isn’t a charity mission. The cafe is Zagat-rated and offers delicious, modern food with a Mexican flair—food that would be worth seeking out even without the added bonus of helping staff members create new, hope-filled lives. The combination of the two, however, truly makes Homegirl Cafe an innovative and can’t-miss brand.

The restaurant industry can be a challenging one in which to innovate, especially when competition for customers’ dollars is so fierce. By keeping their eyes on what’s new and what’s next, and appealing to the connected consumer, these brands are ensuring their spots at the forefront of a rapidly evolving industry.