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Alex Canter understood his role from the beginning. As a fourth-generation restaurateur and heir to beloved Canter's Deli in Los Angeles, he was set to continue the family legacy. But running a restaurant in 2021 is very different than running one in 1981, let alone 1931.
As Canter saw it, his job was "bringing in new technology and proving to my family that change is good," he says with a laugh.
Within a few short years, Canter has undoubtedly succeeded, building a delivery platform, Ordermark, that not only brought the family business into the digital age, but helped thousands of other restaurants as well.
But as Ordermark expands into the worlds of 'virtual brands' and ghost kitchens, some are asking whether the company is creating more problems for mom-and-pop businesses than it's solving, and if the ultimate goal is to support restaurants or compete with them.
After a few years of working his way up from a dishwasher to managing the restaurant, Alex Canter set about bringing his family's 90-year-old deli online. He introduced Postmates, GrubHub and other delivery apps into Canter's service, and business for the kitchen picked up.
Alex Canter is the heir to L.A.'s beloved Canter's Deli and founder of Ordermark.
Photo by Dan Tuffs
"Fourteen online ordering platforms later, delivery accounted for over 30% of our revenue," Canter says. A substantial chunk, no doubt, and surprising for all, "but the staff in the back hated me because we had nine tablets, two laptops and a fax machine" to manage all the incoming orders.
"It was a very complicated process and very disruptive to our operations," he continues, adding that each third-party platform used its own device, and menus had to be manually updated across each site individually.
After talking with a few other restaurants around L.A., Canter came up with a solution: consolidate.
"Most brick-and-mortar restaurants are not set up for delivery," he says. From the in-and-out of delivery drivers waiting on their pick-ups, to the constant if disorganized stream of orders coming into the kitchen, "I really wanted to take a step back and reimagine the entire online ordering experience from scratch at a restaurant."
The result was Ordermark, which Canter co-founded in 2017.
The idea was to combine the various delivery apps onto a single OrderMark tablet. The device would allow restaurant kitchens to view incoming orders from Postmates, DoorDash, UberEats and others on one screen, and easily update menus from the same spot, too.
"When we started, we had no relationship with any of these companies," Canter says of the 50 or so online ordering platforms and point-of-sales companies that integrate with Ordermark. "And none of these companies wanted to be hardware businesses, anyway."
It was easy to see how Ordermark's system would be a win-win for restaurants and delivery platforms alike: driver wait-times were reduced along with order errors, while revenues increased.
And Ordermark seemed to have entered the online delivery market at just the right time. According to a report by Morgan Stanley, the total U.S. market for food delivery grew from $260 billion in 2017 (the year Ordermark launched), to $356 billion in 2019. Any company that could capture even a fraction of the market was poised for a windfall.
Then the pandemic hit.
Within a few weeks, the company went from adding about 300 new restaurants a month to their platform, to over 1,000 a month in March and April 2020. By then, 92% of restaurants' orders were coming from off-premise sales.
This explosion in growth, fueled by a once-in-a-century scenario, helped push Ordermark past $1 billion in sales in 2020 and sent a nascent service Ordermark had begun experimenting with into hyperdrive.
Canter and his team launched Nextbite in late 2019, envisioning a platform that partners restaurants with virtual brands designed by Ordermark.
"The restaurant industry is in the midst of the ecommerce phase where restaurants must get creative by embracing technology and new sources of revenue generation to reach customers outside of their four walls," Canter said in an October statement after securing a $120 million Series C round of funding.
Through Nextbite, a restaurant essentially does gig work using their kitchen and staff to fulfill orders for virtual brands.
The brands are designed from scratch, Canter explains, by "looking at a lot of data of what's performing well in which markets and what time of day, based on what we know is going to deliver well, and based on what we know will be non-disruptive to restaurants' existing business."
So, say you're a Thai restaurant with a kitchen operating at only 75% capacity on weeknights, Nextbite might partner you with HotBox by Wiz Khalifa to pump out burgers and BBQ tofu in addition to your Thai menu. If all goes well, you have a new revenue stream—you keep 55% from each order you've filled, and the remaining 45% gets split between the delivery apps and Ordermark.
"A big chunk of that [45%] goes to the third-party delivery services," says Canter, "and we use some of our take to invest in the marketing of that brand so that we can continue to drive more gross sales for the restaurant."
But all this begs the question: is Ordermark solving a problem that Ordermark itself helped to create?
The restaurant industry was already in a fragile state before the pandemic. Food delivery apps and point-of-sales platforms have been devouring the razor-thin margins of small operators for the last few years now. Is Nextbite creating a cannibalistic cycle by propping up smaller restaurants' while simultaneously ensuring that their margins continue to shrink?
"It's an inevitability that dining occasions are moving off-premise," begins Zach Goldstein, founder and CEO of Thanx, a customer engagement platform.
Faced with that inevitability, many restaurants are rushing to adopt various platforms and technologies to capture whatever revenue they can from outside sales. The problem, Goldstein continues, "is that's all well and good in the medium term. But in the long term, if you have incubated a new class of restaurant [with virtual brands] that has taken on a disproportionate share of dining occasions, then we will see far fewer traditional restaurants able to survive."
Restaurants should be creating their own digital channels instead, Goldstein states.
"Every restaurant should be focused on, 'how am I building my first-party digital channels under a brand I own so that I gain the brand equity?'," he says. And the technology is there for even the smallest and least savvy players to do it, Goldstein adds. "The only proven model, in my opinion, for long-term sustainability as a restaurant is to own your own digital channels, to own your own brand or brands, and to own your customers directly so that you can talk to them."
It's a notion Canter pushes back on. He says Nextbite is plugging businesses into a national virtual restaurant marketing system.
"A mom-and-pop restaurant can't just go partner with George Lopez," he says. With the resources a small business has, "they're not going to be able to even get in the door with Wiz Khalifa to say, 'hey, let's collaborate and co-market a brand together'. But we're doing that for them, and turning it on for them, and driving all the demand for them, and basically paying them to make the food for this concept."
Investors seem to agree. SoftBank Investment Advisers, which led Ordermark's Series C raise, said in a statement that their firm was "excited to support [the company's] mission to help independent restaurants optimize online ordering and generate incremental revenue from under-utilized kitchens."
$120 million is a sizable sum of cash if neither Ordermark nor their big-name investors are looking for anything more than assist struggling mom-and-pops.
Canter's famous pastrami sandwich.Photo by Dan Tuffs
Still, Nextbite has already helped save certain restaurants during the pandemic. "It's given me a way to hire some of my staff back, get a stream of revenue, and leverage the fact that I have a kitchen and a health permit and all that, when previously I wasn't able to make any money," says Mitch Edelson, owner and operator of Jewel's Catch One in Los Angeles.
Since the city of Los Angeles mandates an establishment with a liquor license to also serve food, Nextbite has helped Catch One turn the burden of a nightclub's kitchen into a profitable proposition. Yet, Edelson is aware that the platform is something of a double-edged sword for operators. He says that bars, music venues, and restaurants should adopt the technology "before their neighbors do and they kind of lose out on opportunity."
Xandre Borghetti, co-owner and operator of Nossa LA, is even more skeptical. As he sees it, Nextbite definitely could be a band-aid for a one, two, six-month period, he says, "but at some point, it's not going to last. And then you're gonna be back to where you were, probably worse," because you've been distracted from your core business by an outside concept.
"You want to be investing in the people that you have hired to get better at your own business," Borghetti notes. "This it's kind of a distraction, and not really worth it. Especially during this time when it's pretty difficult to hire people."
It's a sentiment Jesse Gomez of restaurants YXTA and Mercado echoes. As the owner/operator of two concepts and multiple locations, "why would I want to invest energy into a concept that isn't my own?" Gomez asks. "And what if one of those outside concepts should take off?"
So, does integrating a Nextbite brand into a kitchen distract small owner/operators and potentially push them into a losing cycle of chasing revenue streams from competing virtual brands whose recipes and IP they don't own?
"Absolutely not," says Canter. "We're not in the business of competing with restaurants, we're rather enabling restaurants to do more with their existing operations." All Nextbite brands are designed specifically to be non-disruptive to the restaurants they're partnering with. Canter says the first question Ordermark asks a potential fulfillment partner is "can you handle an extra 10 or 20 online orders a day in your restaurant? If the answer's no, then why would you sign up to throttle extra orders in your kitchen if you're already at full capacity?
For those struggling to bring in revenue, Ordermark has positioned itself as a life-line in a time of flux — even if it means trimming their margins and feeding concepts that aren't their own.
The rise of delivery apps and the pandemic shutdowns have left the restaurant industry irrevocably changed. But will off-premise orders remain at 2020 highs, or will diners clamor back into seats desperate for face-to-face interaction? The continued growth in revenue among the various ordering platforms suggests delivery is here to stay. Meanwhile virtual concepts and ghost kitchens will have to prove that they're not as ephemeral as their names suggest.
According to a Forbes report last April, both the viewership and dollars behind women’s sports at a collegiate and professional level are growing.
In 2022, the first 32 games of the NCAA tournament had record attendance levels, breaking records set back in 2004, and largely driven by the new and rapidly growing women’s NCAA tournament. WNBA openers this year saw a 21% spike in attendance, with some teams including the LA Sparks reporting triple-digit ticket sales growth, about 121% over 2022’s total. In 2023, the average size of an LA Sparks crowd swelled to 10,396 people, up from 4,701 people.
Women make up half the population, but “also 50% of the folks that are walking into the stadium at Dodger Stadium, or your NFL fans are just about 50% women,” noted Erin Storck, a panelist and senior analyst at Los Angeles-based Elysian Park Ventures.
Storck added that in heterosexual households, women generally manage most of the family’s money, giving them huge purchasing power, a potential advantage for female-run leagues. “There's an untapped revenue opportunity,” she noted.
In the soccer world, Los Angeles-based women’s soccer team Angel City FC has put in the work to become a household name, not just in LA County but across the nation. At an LA Tech Week panel hosted by Athlete Strategies about investing in sports, Angel City head of strategy and chief of staff Kari Fleischauer said that years before launching the women’s National Women’s Soccer League team, Angel City FC was pounding the pavement letting people know about the excitement ladies soccer can bring. She noted community is key, and that fostering a sense of engagement and safety at the team’s home venue, BMO stadium (formerly Banc of California Stadium), is one reason fans keep coming back.
Adding free metro rides to BMO stadium and private rooms for nursing fans to breastfeed or fans on the spectrum to avoid sensory overload, were just some of the ways ACFC tried to include its community in the concept of its stadium, Fleischauer said. She noted, though, that roughly 46% of Angel City fans are “straight white dudes hanging out with their bros.”
“Particularly [on] the woman's side, I'd like to think we do a better job of making sure that there's spaces for everyone,” Fleischauer told the audience. “One thing we realize is accessibility is a huge thing.”
L.A. Tech Week has brought venture capitalists, founders and entrepreneurs from around the world to the California coast. With so many tech nerds in one place, it's easy to laugh, joke and reminisce about the future of tech in SoCal.
Here's what people are saying about the fifth day of L.A. Tech Week on social:
#LATechWeek has been on 🔥🔥🔥. Yes the events are super cool at amazing venues. But, I’m blown away by the people. I’ve met so many founders building generative AI companies from the ground up. I’m so bullish on LA right now🥳. LA is for builders #longLA
Thanks @rpnickson 📸 pic.twitter.com/B6rT2jJYIs
— Dr. Kelly O'Brien (@Kvo2013) June 8, 2023
Successful LatinxVC Avanza Summit 2023 in LA! It’s been an amazing few days near the beach w great company. Thank you to our panelists & participants.
Huge thanks to our incredible sponsors SVB, Chavez Family Foundation, Annenberg Foundation, PledgeLA, Fenwick & West, Countsy! pic.twitter.com/oVuGIgFurk
— LatinxVC (@LatinxVCs) June 9, 2023
30+ gaming startups presented at the A16z Speedrun Demo Day in LA yesterday. Great thanks to the @a16zGames team for an awesome day of events! #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/DKq8IFo5QZ
— Grace Zhou (@graceminzhou) June 9, 2023
📣🤩 What’s the buzz? It’s #LATechWeek from @TechstarsLA & @TechstarsHealth joint demo day with the #Techstar HC team where our @fyelabs founder/CEO Suvojit Ghosh mentored both cohorts! #TechStars demo day highlighted 12 amazing emerging #startups in #healthtech #innovation. 🩺 pic.twitter.com/0RXClCtfDQ
— FYELABS (@fyelabs) June 9, 2023
Another successful Coffee On Slauson in the books for #LATechWeek.
Special thanks to the good people at Pledge LA, SVB and @GundersonLaw for the ongoing support and the @findyourhilltop staff for providing the space, eats & vibes. ♻️ pic.twitter.com/51cMDoEn30
— Slauson & Co. (@SlausonAndCo) June 9, 2023
The perfect combo to start #LATechWeek Day 5: pastries, coffee, and great convos with industry founders ✨
Fireside chats with @enriquealle, @wp, and @robynpark pic.twitter.com/booYPdekVV
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Of course @designerfund has the most amazing pastries at their event. #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/PjyWlGTQI4
— Jesse Pickard (@jessepickard) June 9, 2023
My favorite event from @Techweek_ has to be "Modern Storytelling & Business Building." Hosted by @STHoward #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/SV1eexMJ4k
— JonnyZeller (@JonnyZeller) June 9, 2023
And the finale of the night was courtesy of the one and only @zedd for an unforgettable end to the "City of Games" party! Hosted by @a16zGames and @100Thieves #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/hliI9yLKse
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Excited to be at the @a16zGames Speedrun Demo Day! Loved the energy and excitement from the companies that pitched there. It was also great to see @Tocelot and @ndrewlee at this amazing #LATechWeek event pic.twitter.com/NfLQO5lR27
— Andy Lee | andypwlee.bit (@andypwlee) June 9, 2023
Thank you to everyone who joined the Sony Venture Fund US team at #LATechWeek for our screening of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Last summer, we started building a presence in LA. Today, it's exciting to host such an event with the @Sony family and the LA VC community. pic.twitter.com/wdDm6qtHdL
— Sony Innovation Fund (@Sony_Innov_Fund) June 9, 2023
Time to eat, connect and build while @remi_rodney provided the vibes. 🙏🏽#LATechWeek @BuildOnBase @developer_dao @WeAreRazorfish pic.twitter.com/QIPh1gjvoA
— Hola Metaverso-Blockchain & New Web Tech Events 🎪 (@holametaverso) June 9, 2023
@Lux_Capital at #LATechWeek advancing the impossible to inevitable, from..
..defense primes partnering with cutting edge defense tech startups, to..
..hardware x LLMs improving mental health.
From the rich and diverse LA ecosystem stems generational companies: pic.twitter.com/v5S5r8JtbU
— Shahin Farshchi (@Farshchi) June 9, 2023
LA Tech Week has been a blast! Met some amazing creators, founders and investors from all over the world! #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/AAh9JFELhe
— Chris Germano (@netslayer) June 9, 2023
Had such a blast at LA Tech Week and hosting events for @brexHQ
Top highlights were collabing with @pulley on an Emerging Managers / Founder mixer at the @poplco House, rooftop event in Venice, creator panel with @thechangj & proper Korean food with in KTown.
Exhausted is an… pic.twitter.com/mGQnSYGPdg
— Τyler Robinson (@TyyRob3) June 9, 2023
Did you have fun at @sophiaamoruso’s launch party for @trustfundvc? #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/gbrbXRQ9Xx
— Kay (@KaySnels) June 9, 2023
y00tilty in every city with @KaylaLor3n & @cryptochrisg813.
Welcome to the LA @y00tsNFT fam! #LATechWeek #3XP week. pic.twitter.com/6wWKlsTacx
— VanG0xH (@CryptoVanGoghs) June 9, 2023
Really enjoyed #LATechWeek. Here are some observations I made 👇
— s.personal.ai (Suman Kanuganti) (@SumanPersonalAI) June 9, 2023
Thank you @TheKofiAmpadu for including me in #demoday with the latest @a16ztxo cohort! It was a real full circle moment to witness the brilliance of both @ChrisLyons & @ZMuse_ & #PledgeLA very own. She’s why we’re #LongLA 🚀💕 #LAtechweek pic.twitter.com/itkKXMxQRb
— Qiana Qiana! (@Q_i_a_n_a) June 9, 2023
@upfrontvc Gaming Founders Podcast #iLOVELA #LATechWeek @Techweek_ @KatiaAmeri @mucker @fikavc @bonfire_vc @TenOne10 @WatertowerGroup @ganasvc @IAmRobRyan @john_at_stonks @eva_ho @dereknorton pic.twitter.com/LCbaGXCoW7
— Sean Goldfaden (@seangoldfaden) June 9, 2023
Hosts Kevin Zhang, Partner at @upfrontvc, and Eden Chen, CEO of @pragmaplatform, interviewed two special guests from @raidbaseinc Stephen Lim, Co-Founder & Product Director, and Trevor Romleski, Co-Founder & Game Director. 🎙 #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/hxHEAoELZ6
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Kicking off @a16zGames @100Thieves City of Games party at #LATechWeek 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/zQcZedG15f
— Jon Lai (@Tocelot) June 9, 2023
Yesterday at @socinnovation I got to have this AWESOME conversation with @iamwill — musician, producer, technology entrepreneur, and Founder & CEO of https://t.co/D60y1e2JOu #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/KBxK6rXyTG
— Anna Barber (@annawbarber) June 9, 2023
I absolutely love this game. Proud moment for the team @investwithatlas. #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/fPZvKXU7TC
— Tobias Francis (@TobiasFrancis) June 9, 2023
Had a blast at LA Tech Week this year with @brexHQ
From hosting & moderating my first creator panel featuring @BlakeMichael14, to a fun rooftop night in Venice, and to attending some amazing events such as Watertower’s emerging manager panel and a VC/founder tennis tournament pic.twitter.com/udjfmLHE0L
— Jonathan Chang (@thechangj) June 8, 2023
At Lowercarbon Capital’s LA Tech Week event Thursday, the synergy between the region’s aerospace industry and greentech startups was clear.
The event sponsored by Lowercarbon, Climate Draft (and the defunct Silicon Valley Bank’s Climate Technology & Sustainability team) brought together a handful of local startups in Hawthorne not far from LAX, and many of the companies shared DNA with arguably the region’s most famous tech resident: SpaceX.
Here’s a look at the greentech startups that pitched during the Tech Week event, and how they think what they’re building could help solve the climate crisis.
Arbor: Based in El Segundo, this year-old startup is working to convert organic waste into energy and fresh water. At the same time, it also uses biomass carbon removal and storage to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in an attempt to avoid further damaging the earth’s ozone layer. At the Tech Week event Thursday, Arbor CEO Brad Hartwig told a stunned crowd that Arbor aims to remove about five billion tons of organic waste from landfills and turn that into about 6 PWh, or a quarter of the global electricity need, each year. Hartwig is an alumni of SpaceX; he was a manufacturing engineer on the Crew Dragon engines from 2016-2018 and later a flight test engineer at Kitty Hawk.
Antora: Sunnyvale-based Antora Energy was founded in 2017, making it one of the oldest companies on the pitching block during the event. Backed by investors including the National Science Foundation and Los Angeles-based Overture VC, Antora has raised roughly $57 million to date, most recently a $50 million round last February. Chief operating officer Justin Briggs said Antora’s goal is to modernize and popularize thermal energy storage using ultra-hot carbon. Massive heated carbon blocks can give off thermal energy, which Antora’s proprietary batteries then absorb and store as energy. It’s an ambitious goal, but one the world needs at scale to green its energy footprint. According to Briggs, “the biggest challenge is how can we turn back variable intermittent renewable electricity into something that's reliable and on demand, so we can use it to provide energy to everything we need.”
Arc: Hosting the panel was Arc, an electric boating company that’s gained surprising momentum, moving from design to delivering its first e-boats in just two years of existence. Founded in 2021, the company’s already 70 employees strong and has already sold some of its first e-boats to customers willing to pay the luxury price tag, CTO Ryan Cook said Thursday. Cook said that to meet the power needs of a battery-powered speedboat, the Arc team designed the vehicle around the battery pack with the goal of it being competitive with gas boats when compared to range and cost of gas. But on the pricing side, it’s not cheap. Arc’s flagship vessel, the Arc One is expected to cost roughly $300,000. During the panel, Cook compared the boat to being “like an early Tesla Roadster.” To date Arc Boats has raised just over $35 million, according to PitchBook, from investors including Kevin Durant, Will Smith and Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Clarity Technology: Carbon removal startup Clarity is based in LA and was founded by Yale graduate and CEO Glen Meyerowitz last year. Clarity is working to make “gigaton solutions for gigaton problems.” Their aim? To remove up to 2,000 billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere through direct air capture, a process which uses massive fans to move chemicals that capture CO2. But the challenge, Meyerowitz noted in his speech, is doing this at scale in a way that makes an actual dent in the planet’s emissions while also efficiently using the electricity needed to do so. Meyerowitz spent nearly five years working as an engineer for SpaceX in Texas, and added he’s looking to transfer those learnings into Clarity.
Parallel Systems: Based in Downtown LA’s Arts District, this startup is building zero-emission rail vehicles that are capable of long-haul journeys otherwise done by a trucking company. The estimated $700 billion trucking industry, Parallel Systems CEO Matt Soule said, is ripe for an overhaul and could benefit from moving some of its goods off-road to electric railcars. According to Soule, Parallel’s electric battery-powered rail vehicles use 25% of the energy a semi truck uses, and at a competitive cost. Funded in part by a February 2022 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Parallel Systems has raised about $57 million to date. Its most recent venture funding round was a $49 million Series A led by Santa Monica-based VC Anthos Capital. Local VCs including Riot Ventures and Santa Monica-based Embark Ventures are also backers of Parallel.
Terra Talent: Unlike the rest of the startups pitching at the Tech Week event, Terra Talent was focused on building teams rather than technology. Founder Dolly Singh worked at SpaceX, Oculus and Citadel as a headhunter, and now runs Terra, a talent and advisory firm that helps companies recruit top talent in the greentech space. But, she said, she’s concerned that all the work these startups are doing won’t matter unless we very quickly turn around the current trendlines. “Earth will shake us off like and she will do just fine in 10,000 years,” she said. “It’s our way of living, everything we love is actually here on earth… there’s nothing I love on Mars,” adding that she’s hopeful the startups that pitched during the event will be instrumental in making sure the planet stays habitable for a little while longer.