Ware Sykes, the new CEO of NoWait, a startup company helping to change the way restaurants handle wait lists, spent a night last week at the Waterwork's Burgatory, greeting customers from the hosting station.
Sykes, 36, was hired Jan. 2 to help run the Pittsburgh-born technology business, which offers restaurants a tool for texting diners when their table is ready; it's designed to replace the flashing lights and vibrations of the industry's pagers.
The business was started two years ago and launched out of AlphaLab, a startup accelerator located on the South Side. It is one of several local companies updating the way Pittsburgh restaurants interact with their customers.
Sykes, a New Yorker, has never worked in the restaurant industry before. But he — like many of those trying to bring new technologies into the business — is eager to learn how he can help restaurants reach tech-savvy customers.
"I'm trying to get a crash course in restaurants," says Sykes, who will also be taking turns bussing tables as part of his orientation.
The restaurant industry can be a tough market to change, says Jim Ambrose, director of business development for LoyalTree, another Pittsburgh-born technology company launched out of AlphaLab. It offers restaurants a mobile rewards program tied to their point-of-sale systems, allowing customers to scan their receipts to recoup rewards rather than carry a separate card in their wallet.
LoyalTree launched early last year at the Crazy Mocha coffee chain, and is being used in about 100 city restaurants. NoWait is operating in nearly 50 city establishments.
Ambrose, who has held "every job in the restaurant industry other than owning a restaurant," was brought on board in part because of his experience, which has helped the product's focus on minimizing disruption to established workflows, he says.
"When you ask any given restaurant to change what they've known to be successful, it's very difficult," he says.
But entrepreneurs at both companies say Pittsburgh is a great testing ground. Both companies have used their experiences here to expand into other markets.
"We often say that if we can get it to work in the heartland ..." says Robb Myer, NoWait's co-founder. "That's enabled us to scale very quickly."