SINGAPORE (Mar 4): It was a busy lunchtime crowd at the OLDTOWN White Coffee restaurant at Suntec City Mall. Waitstaff were bustling between tables serving steaming bowls of food and cups of the restaurant’s famous white coffee. The whole operation moved like clockwork — orders placed quickly, and food cooked and delivered correctly and promptly — as a result of the restaurant owners’ decision to inject a little artificial intelligence (AI) into what has traditionally been a very labour-intensive and people-oriented business.

“OLDTOWN White Coffee Suntec is the first outlet to utilise such a system as part of the company’s digital efforts to boost service excellence. With the facial recognition system, we are able to identify and authenticate customers, capture their past purchasing history and provide personalised recommendations according to their buying behaviour,” says OLDTOWN White Coffee Singapore.

“Moving forward, OLDTOWN White Coffee will be concentrating on expanding this new concept and TabSquare technology via a franchise system,” it adds.

However, not all restaurateurs were so enlightened, say the entrepreneurs behind the system, Sankaran Sreeraman, Chirag Tejuja and Anshul Gupta, who founded TabSquare in 2012. When the company first started, it focused more on dealing with labour and productivity issues faced by restaurants in Singapore. As a result, its initial products did not have AI capabilities. In addition, when they first tried to market their product — the early version allowed customers to place food orders on their own, freeing up staff — restaurants were cautious as it went against the philosophy of service.

But that practice has since taken off, and restaurateurs now want solutions to other challenges, particularly as the F&B industry gets more competitive. In response, TabSquare has introduced a range of tools — SmartTab, SmartApp, ­SmartKiosk and SmartWeb — built on top of its own AI engine, Aiden, to give restaurant patrons a more pleasurable dining experience, while helping restaurants manage their operations better as well as capturing meaningful data.

The kiosk, equipped with facial recognition, can recognise frequent patrons and personalise menus. When a customer walks up to the kiosk, it will pull up his or her profile and recommend items based on what the customer ordered previously. The aim is to making dining out a more convenient and engaging experience.

Sankaran says, “It’s not enough to just have a lot of data; we need something that is able to tabulate that data into something actionable and meaningful. That’s why we are incorporating data analytics and AI engine into our solutions.”

Location, location, engagement

The F&B business is famously risky. While managing labour and operating costs, mainly rental and salaries, is key to profitability, the success of a restaurant also hinges on location — somewhere with high visibility and human traffic, for instance. Of course, good food and ambience are a given, but what makes a restaurant stand out, Chirag says, is engagement.

“The driver of [profitability] for restaurants is not only productivity, but also [customer] engagement,” he says.

TabSquare offers clients information on their customers and a way to engage them. The AI platform captures and analyses data to generate a base profile of every individual who has placed an order on TabSquare’s products. Such information, for example, would allow merchants to tailor their marketing campaigns and promotions to suit these customers.

“The idea is not to hard sell the items to the customers. Instead, it is a balance between giving the patrons a good dining experience and increasing profitability for restaurant owners over time,” says Sankaran.

“We are in an industry that’s extremely competitive, where profitability levels are rather low, and which has big labour issues. And TabSquare’s solutions answer all three challenges,” says Chirag.

“AI helps to improve productivity over time, so that your business can become more profitable,” says Sankaran. “In fact, a lot of restaurants that are in expansion mode come to us to find solutions for their upcoming concepts.”

Hokkaido-Ya, a local Japanese restaurant chain operated by Sushi Tei, has implemented TabSquare’s SmartKiosk in its outlets. Since its soft launch on June 14 last year, Hokkaido-Ya has captured about 90% of its sales from transactions made via the SmartKiosk, with half of the sales placed by registered customers. Moreover, these transactions are more than 25% higher than the average bill value from orders placed on the point-of-sale system. In fact, more than 70% of returning customers select the personalised dishes that were recommended by TabSquare’s SmartKiosk.

Next on the menu

Last October, TabSquare announced that it had raised $10 million in its Series B financing, led by Japanese online service provider Kakaku.com. The round was also supported by Coca-Cola Amatil, Resorts World and existing investor Walden International.

The funds will go towards TabSquare’s product development, as well as expansion into Asia-Pacific. “We want to take all that knowledge [gained from restaurants] and build it into our engine, which can then be applied to menu engineering, on the fly. This is what we hope to invest in,” says Sankaran.

“We didn’t have a reference point, especially in the F&B sector. It is important that we keep challenging ourselves in terms of what we want to do next.” The company intends to double the number of its employees to about 110 from 45, by end-March, to support this growth.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 871, week of Mar 4) which is on sale now. Subscribe here