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4food gets interactive, eyes growth

Expansion is at hand for 4food, a year-old New York City restaurant marrying alternative quick-service fare like lamb burgers on brioche with interactive technologies that make guests key to the creative and marketing processes.

Opened in August 2010, multi-level 4food is known for its signature “(W)holeburgers.” They are typically priced from about $6 to $9 and are made from rings of different proteins, including ground beef, turkey and salmon, that are filled with the buyer’s choice of one of 25 different “Veggiescoops,” such as shaved and roasted Brussels sprouts or butternut squash–garlic mash.

But beyond its menu of alternatives to conventional fast food — which also include rice and salad bowls adorned with sandwich makings; vegetable, grain and potato-based sides; soft drinks; sangria and beer — 4food is known for its Web-based and mobile-device friendly software. The operation uses in-restaurant digital menus and marketing displays and iPad tablets for guest self-ordering. The tools aim to spark guest interaction and competition.

“I would hope that you would see simultaneously this time next year a second location in New York City and one somewhere else in the world,” said Michael Shuman, 4food LLC co-founder, architect and managing partner.

Shuman recently told Nation’s Restaurant News that while 4food’s suite of technologies is currently scalable, the restaurant’s development team nevertheless is taking a reflective “step back, now that we’ve built all of this and seen how it is working, how we want to use it and how customers want to use it.”

“We’re rebuilding a few of the components from the ground up with that hindsight,” he said.

Select components of 4food’s community-building software:

The online “Build-A-Burger” interface. Users assemble personalized sandwiches, rice bowls or salad bowls by clicking on the restaurant’s extensive list of ingredient options. In a defining twist for 4food, guests can name and market their customized creations to entice other customers to order them. Guests will earn 25 cents in “4food dollars” royalties, or purchase credits, each time their proprietary item is ordered.

“We Know You Better.” 4food account holders’ profile information and ordering histories can be used to make customer-specific food recommendations aimed at helping guests reach specific nutrition or weight-related goals.

• The “BuildBoard Chart” of top 10 ordered burgers created by 4food customers and the “Trending Burgers” table of most recently purchased and branded user creations.

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Both the BuildBoard and Trending Burgers lists are displayed online and in the restaurant on a media wall that plays content from multiple sources, including 4food’s website, feeds from Twitter and Foursquare, and YouTube videos tied to the restaurant or its customers’ attempts to market their culinary creations.

The media wall and dynamic digital menu board system — which, among other features, removes ingredients from the display as they are no longer available — use third-party Scala digital signage software and 4food’s own scripted feeds.

While 4food employees behind the front counter use five touch-screen point-of-sale systems using modified Firefly POS software for order entry, Shuman said other staffers augment those terminals with hand-held iPads during rushes. He said the line-busting iPads, which use an edited version of the online ordering application and Square payment-card readers, are also useful for helping customers order additional items.

Guests can also use six table-top-mounted iPads to place orders via the restaurant’s online ordering interface or to create an online account, Shuman said. However, he added that the web-based workaround for in-restaurant guest self-ordering might soon be a thing of the past.

“We will be in the near future proving a customer-facing POS engine, which will eventually become our in-house employee-facing POS engine,” Shuman said.

The majority of in-restaurant orders are still placed by employees interacting with guests at the service counter, he said, but “we’re definitely headed more in the user-ordering touch-screen [terminal] direction.”

Shuman said approximately 40 percent of the orders received by the restaurant are placed online, with nearly two-thirds served as pickup orders. He said a little more than a third of those orders, or about 15 percent of the restaurant’s total orders, are for delivery.

4food’s recent decision to work with third-party, customer-aggregating service providers — and — is expected to boost online orders for eat-in and takeout foods, as well as enhance the delivery business, Shuman said.

He said his company is fluid about how it grows the enterprise, in terms of self-operating or licensing the 4food concept or its underlying technologies.

“We consider ourselves a health and technology company that builds burgers,” he said. “We plan for our technologies to scale with us as well as potentially to be a licensable asset within and beyond the food industry.”

As for 4food’s place in the world, Shuman said, “We know it is very much an event space and a destination space for urban markets and large college towns.”

Shuman said his partners in 4food LLC include co-founder Adam Kirdon; Bill Niman, founder of natural-meats purveyor Niman Ranch; Dr. Woodson Merrill, founder of the Beth Israel Center for Integrated Medicine; and Ed Winter, chairman of advertising and marketing agency TracyLocke.

He said the opening of 4food and its aspirations to build business with the help of a social network was timed very well in light of the convergence of new web and mobile device technologies and social media.

“A turning point for us, when we really knew we were on the right path, came when we were three months into being open and user-generated [menu] creations were outselling our own [chef-driven] creations,” he explained. “It’s pretty cool that a customer would take the experience offered by another customer before that of a corporate entity. To date, seven of the top 10 best-selling items have been user created.”

Shuman explained that according to 4food’s business plan, the restaurant does not spend money on traditional marketing and advertising. Instead, 4food uses such expenditures to invest in higher quality ingredients.

While Shuman did not disclose specific business metrics for 4food, he remarked, “I can tell you that on the business front we’re definitely trending in the right direction.

“It is a very new concept, not just for our market, but for the marketplace in general,” he said. “We’re getting better at what we do every day … we have a handle on the cost of food and labor matrices.”

Contact Alan Liddle at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @AJ_NRN

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