Until recently, it took 10 phone calls to 10 different vendors to order a week’s worth of food and supplies for District Taco’s four locations.
It was — said Chris Medhurst — a pain.
“There really was no system,” said Medhurst, director of operations for the Arlington-based restaurant chainlet. “It was a constant problem we were dealing with.”
These days, all it takes is the touch of a button for Medhurst to order cilantro, beef, napkins, light bulbs and everything in between, thanks to Siftit, a two-year-old technology platform that made its Washington-area debut last month.
The Atlanta-based company was founded in late 2012 as a way to help independent restaurants make back-of-the-house operations — which have long been driven by clipboards, scraps of paper and phone calls — more efficient. Instead of having to place individual orders with different vendors, Siftit’s software allows restaurateurs to place one order that is distributed to appropriate companies. The master list, which is pre-programmed with the restaurant’s preferred vendors, also helps users compare prices.
“When it’s time to place an order, all they have to do is walk through the kitchen with a tablet and put in the quantities they need,” said Mark Haidet, founder and chief executive of Siftit. “They hit send once, the order goes off to all of their suppliers and they don’t have to worry about it.”
Suppliers, for their part, receive a text message alerting them to new electronic orders.
“We’re trying to make it easy and fill a hole in the market,” Haidet said. “This is an industry that just hasn’t moved forward with technology.”
While front-end technology to help restaurateurs process payments or handle customer loyalty programs, for example, have picked up in recent years, systems to handle back-of-the-house logistics have been slower to arrive.
Competitors such as the Android app Inventory Tracker and EZchef have also cropped up in recent years, but local restaurants say a clear favorite has yet to emerge.
“We didn’t find anything that met the needs of independent restaurants,” Haidet said. “We spent several months looking to see if there was technology we could invest in, but there wasn’t.”
Early last year, he set out to create his own software system. Haidet — who owns a couple of restaurants in Atlanta and has spent much of his career in the tech industry — said he spent months talking to restaurant owners and watching them place order after order.
“We wrote the product working in restaurants,” he said. “Eventually we took over their purchasing process, ugly as it was, and began to automate it, piece by piece.”
By the end of 2013, about 15 restaurants were using Siftit. Today, that number is closer to 100 eateries in Atlanta, Dallas and Washington.
Nearly a dozen local restaurants, including Smoke & Barrel in Adams Morgan, Agua 301 in Southeast Washington and Theismann’s Restaurant and Bar in Alexandria, currently use Siftit.
“The Baltimore-Washington market has been great because there is a growing population of independent restaurants,” Haidet said. “And it’s a market where we can bridge the technology gap between the local restaurant and the local supplier.”
The company’s revenue, now in the low six figures, is expected to grow about five-fold next year, Haidet said.
Restaurateurs pay a monthly fee between $100 and $400 per location, depending on sales volume, to use the service. There are no transaction fees.
At Rebellion D.C. in Dupont Circle, owner Brian Westiye said Siftit saves about a dozen hours a month in labor costs.
“We used to spend a lot of time doing things in a very old-fashioned way,” Westiye said, adding his former paper-and-phone technique used to take about 45 minutes per order. “Now it’s 15.”
Siftit also has another advantage, local restaurateurs say: They can see exactly where their money is going.
“We can see all of the [financials] in one place and use that to figure out how we’re doing on a per-taco level,” said Medhurst of District Taco. “It helps us determine if people are never buying a certain special or never using a certain topping.”
At Sixth Engine in Northwest Washington, chef-owner Paul Madrid says Siftit has helped juggle the restaurant’s six vendors.
“This saves me hours and hours a week,” Madrid said. “And it’s much better than writing down items on paper.”
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