By Christopher Maggio
Thanks to Yelp Reservations and Eat24, consumers have been able, respectively, to reserve tables and order food online. But it was a Pittsburgh-based tech company, Nowait, that completed the trifecta, allowing consumers to virtually get in line at restaurants.
It happened in October 2016 when Yelp announced it was integrating Nowait into its restaurant profiles. Yelp deepened its love when it announced in March of this year that it had acquired the company.
Millions of customers already use Nowait, but here’s a quick rundown of how it works: say you and five friends want to go out for brunch on Sunday morning. You call to make a reservation, but the restaurant doesn’t take reservations. Worse, for a party of your size, it will be 45 minutes.
You live 20 minutes away, and sure, there are closer restaurants, but this is the spot to get brunch after a Saturday night with friends. Alas, your stomach growls, and just when you’re about to set your sights on a lesser frittata, the host says they use Nowait.
You download the app onto your phone and get in line virtually by adding your name and party size, thus incorporating the 20-minute drive into your 45-minute wait. If you run behind, message the restaurant, and a host will bump you down the list. You’ll receive a text when your table is ready. Today, about 4,000 casual dining restaurants across all 50 states use Nowait.
For Robb Myer, a 45-minute wait for brunch is what sparked the company that he co-founded in 2010, initially as a text message waitlist system. Myer’s CV includes an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University, where he works as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence. He now sits on Nowait’s board of directors.
When Ware Sykes became CEO in 2013, another co-founder, Luke Panza, had the idea for him to work a few shifts at a Texas Roadhouse, one of Nowait’s restaurant-chain partners. Sykes said over email that he “jumped at the chance,” describing it as “the most exciting and harrowing experience of my life.” The company now requires everyone, from interns to venture capitalists, to work eight hours as a host at a partnered restaurant.
“It teaches us empathy for the customer, and helps us build better products every day,” Sykes said. “There are few things more exhilarating than working in the controlled chaos of the restaurant waiting scene—watching artisans at their craft, delighted diners, and watching restaurateurs make it look effortless. With Nowait, we try to make restaurateurs’ jobs just a little bit easier, and the consumer experience that much better.”
Nowait extends beyond maximizing business and reducing crowds for restaurants. After two weeks of use, the app’s algorithm begins predicting wait times two times more accurately than most hosts. Daily reports include traffic patterns and table turn times. Restaurants also receive guest feedback time-stamped to specific tables.
The magic happens in an unassuming office above Razzy Fresh Frozen Yogurt at 122 Meyran Ave. in Oakland. From outside, floor-to-ceiling windows reveal some computers, a whiteboard, and little else. But inside, software engineers, product makers, account executives, and customer success team members help people to save one of their most valued commodities—time.
Best of all for Pittsburgh, Nowait is keeping its office here even while growing its business in San Francisco and tapping into Yelp’s global network whenever it makes sense, Sykes said.
“We believe every consumer in America should dine out with the Nowait experience, because with the largest network on the planet, there’s no better company poised to do so,” Sykes said. “And complementing Yelp Reservations and Eat24 with Nowait in the Yelp app, we believe we will get there soon.”