When Rajat Suri was an MIT graduate engineer student, he dropped out to become a waiter. The founder and CEO of the restaurant tech startup Presto spent a year and a half waiting tables and testing technology prototypes to improve restaurant operations.
“What I have learned from being a waiter is just how hard the restaurant business can be,” Suri told Restaurant Dive. “There are a lot of things that can go wrong in a restaurant that could be fixed with tech.”
Technology is quickly invading the restaurant space to improve the guest experience and staff productivity, better track inventory, reduce order errors, provide delivery and off-premise capabilities and make it easier to gives guests exactly what they want when they want it.
Suri ended up forming a technology company E la Carte, later rebranded as Presto, in 2008 and tested prototypes of what would become Presto’s tabletop devices. This technology allows guests to view menus, order their food, provide feedback and pay at the table via handheld server assistants that help staff place orders from the table. These devices are in 1,800 locations, including Applebee’s and Red Lobster. The tech company plans to double the number of its restaurant locations this year.
A decade later, his company has launched a smartwatch-like device that informs servers of guests’ needs and can notify management when a customer wants a manager’s attention, according to a press release. It also unveiled Presto AI, an artificial intelligence platform that analyzes data in real time — providing actionable recommendations and predictive modeling that allows operators to make data-driven decisions.
“Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen seismic shifts in the restaurant industry, especially in increased challenges with competition, rising labor costs and consumer expectations,” Suri said in a press release. “We see an opportunity to apply technology, with a focus on tabletop ordering and front-of-house [operations], to help operators effectively address these issues with turnkey solutions.”
The idea to create restaurant tech first came about when Suri and fellow engineering students went out to dinner to celebrate someone’s birthday. They had a great time until the seven engineers tried to split the check. He told Restaurant Dive the process took them nearly an hour, and they still didn’t get it.
“Basically it became a bad joke about how many MIT engineers does it take to split a check,” he said. “I also realized that that restaurant experience was a very universal experience. It affects everybody.”
Suri, who also co-founded Zimride, now known as Lyft, knew there had to be a better way. And the opportunity for success was ripe, since there weren’t many dominant tech companies working in the restaurant industry.
“I realized how messy the real world can be and how much opportunity there is for tech to make a difference,” he said.