As Food Delivery Apps Struggle, Playa Vista-Based ChowNow Seizes The Moment
Rachel Uranga covers the intersection of business, technology and culture. She is a former Mexico-based market correspondent at Reuters and has worked for several Southern California news outlets, including the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Los Angeles Daily News. She has covered everything from IPOs to immigration. Uranga is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and California State University Northridge. A Los Angeles native, she lives with her husband, son and their felines.
When the coronavirus struck, Jerry Garbus was compelled to close all but one of the three of the Manhattan Beach restaurants he managed: a steakhouse called The Arthur J. He funneled all the orders from his new takeout business to their kitchen and hoped for the best.
"Nobody had any data as to what kind of support or what kind of demand there would be during the pandemic," said Garbus, a director of operations for Manhattan Beach-based Simms Restaurants.
As part of the revamp, the upscale restaurant, which is co-owned by Michelin star chef David LeFevre, invested in new packaging Garbus called "vessels" to keep food from wilting and turning soggy. It also added family meals to its menus — plates ranging from $60 -$90 to feed four to six and a new farmer's market box was added to the lineup as well.
Garbus fared better than some of his peers. Simms eventually reopened the other two restaurants, Fishing with Dynamite and Manhattan Beach Post. Part of the reason the business was successful is because it had a loyal local following in an affluent neighborhood. But Garbus also knew, if the business was to survive, he had to do something different.
The company retooled their entire model, moving takeout from an afterthought to the center of their business. Garbus watched as delivery orders went from 1% of his business to nearly 100%.
Garbus was already using delivery apps, but he knew he couldn't rely solely on them; many orders required special handling so that the presentation and the food's freshness wouldn't be compromised. Moreover, there was a cost and efficiency factor.
"A lot of companies are paying 20% to 30% fees, which is extremely prohibitive," he said.
Garbus wouldn't say how much the cut is for the popular upscale restaurants he manages. It hardly mattered before the pandemic because delivery was such a small slice of business.
The company found itself needing to do more to automate their takeout orders.
"We signed up with ChowNow as soon as we were shut down for dine in," he said. "We needed to pivot very, very quickly and they were a big part of that."
Delivery Apps' Run on Restaurants
The lockdowns spurred by coronavirus have been a boon for delivery apps. With diners trapped at home and many too nervous to return to dining in, restaurants have had little choice but to rely on the apps for distribution. Still, the apps — and many of the restaurants they serve — have been losing money and are struggling to make their business model work. Grubhub just agreed to be acquired by Just Eat Takeaway.com, a European food delivery company, in a $7.3 billion deal that would make it the largest food delivery platform in the world outside of China. Many see the move as a sign of more consolidation to come in food delivery.
Earlier this month, Postmates, Uber Eats and other apps got hit with another blow. Citing longstanding complaints from restaurant owners, Los Angeles capped service fees they could charge at 15% for the duration of the pandemic.
The move has put even more pressure on the delivery apps and follows similar efforts in other big cities, including San Francisco and New York, where demand for at home dining has spiked.
It's also opened up opportunities for competitors like ChowNow, a platform that helps restaurants build out their own ordering platforms, rather than rely on those built by services like Postmates and UberEats. The company has seen a surge in new business.
The Playa Vista-based company offers a flat-fee service that begins at $99 and offers online ordering for pickup and delivery through third parties. It has about 12 million diners on its platform and processes $200 million in orders monthly, and it has added thousands more restaurants as owners scramble to add delivery and takeout service.
"We were typically doing about 500 signups a month. Now we are doing 2,000," chief executive and co-founder Chris Webb said.
Webb took advantage of the moment to grow his nearly decade-old business. As ChowNow added members, the company hired nearly 100 new employees and is working on a series of new features that will make pickup and delivery services easier, including adding contactless orders and doubling down on building marketing for business.
The company had been in growth mode — having $62 million in venture funding under their belt— when the virus broke out. The recent surge in business helped it get to profitability, although Webb said he's not making any prediction for the year's end.
Still, he thinks coronavirus shifted the paradigm.
"Takeout is going to be a much larger percent of restaurants' business going forward," he said.
Some diners will be too nervous to head back to restaurants while the coronavirus rages; others who never purchased food online have now been converted to mobile ordering.
Takeout is Here to Stay
Garbus agrees. ChowNow helped him transform his business toward takeout. It's set up to be compatible with Instagram and Yelp, which allows restaurants struggling to gain visibility to build a profile on social media.
With some restrictions lifted, his restaurants are once again packed, but now at only 60% of their capacity. Takeout accounts for about 20% of his business and he said there are some menu items created during the pandemic that have gained popularity as to-go orders, including a giant shareable seafood plate named the "Mother Shucker" and a cheese and charcuterie spread.
"It's a huge, huge change. There is still a lot of demand (for takeout order)," Garbus said.
Webb thinks ChowNow can become the Shopify of the restaurant world, the ubiquitous ecommerce platform that powers online storefronts for small businesses and processes billions of dollars in sales worldwide. Its approach has made it simple for companies to set up an e-commerce infrastructure without having to give away a percentage of sales.
But its standalone nature is arguably the platform's biggest weakness, said Jared Drew Coven, co-managing director of LDR Ventures, which invests in consumer products, food and beverage, as well as online marketplaces.
"Shopify was a SaaS platform that allowed anybody to create a website. The problem is awareness," he said. "These bigger platforms (like Grubhub) create a lot of awareness" for small restaurants.
These delivery apps provide powerful marketing features for small companies that a simple app or software application can't match. That means that deep-pocketed restaurants and chains will always have an advantage.
ChowNow has been trying to counter that by developing better engagement tools for restaurants to keep customers coming back, working on contactless orders for open restaurants and making pickup more seamless.
Elyan Zamora, the owner of Cooks Tortas — a popular Mexican sandwich shop in the San Gabriel Valley — said she came to ChowNow because she didn't want to have to pay delivery apps.
"I like the fact they don't charge 30 percent," she said.
Zamora, who is in the process of franchising her restaurant, said the application helped her during the pandemic, when phone orders might have overwhelmed her staff because they can take longer to process. The company maintained most of its pre-COVID-19 business and she didn't have to lay people off.
With a software system in place, she could process pickups faster and she set up a pick up spot in front of the store.
"The phone is a lot more time consuming," she said. "They want to know what ingredients there are.
With this everything is right in front of them."
**Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect more recent data on the number of users on the ChowNow platform. An earlier version also mis-stated a comment from ChowNow's CEO. It's since been corrected.
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Though Silicon Valley is still very much the capital of venture capital, Los Angeles is home to plenty of VCs who have made their mark – investing in successful startups early and reaping colossal returns for their limited partners.
Who stands out? We thought there may be no better judge than their peers, so we asked 28 of L.A.'s top VCs who impresses them the most.
Mark Mullen, Bonfire Ventures<p>Mark Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures. He is also founder and the largest investor in Mull Capital and Double M Partners, LP I and II. A common theme in these funds is a focus on business-to-business media and communications infrastructures.</p><p>In the past, Mullen has served as the chief operating officer at the city of Los Angeles' Economic Office and a senior advisor to former Mayor Villaraigosa, overseeing several of the city's assets including Los Angeles International Airport and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Prior to that, he was a partner at Daniels & Associates, a senior banker when the firm sold to RBC Capital Markets in 2007.</p>
Dana Settle, Greycroft<p>Dana Settle is a founding partner of Greycroft, heading the West Coast office in Los Angeles. She currently manages the firm's stakes in Anine Bing, AppAnnie, Bird, Clique, Comparably, Goop, Happiest Baby, Seed, Thrive Market, Versed and WideOrbit, and is known for backing female-founded companies.</p><p>"The real change takes place when female founders build bigger, independent companies, like Stitchfix, TheRealReal," she said this time last year in <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/greycrofts-dana-settle-on-closing-funding-gap-for-female-founders-2019-12" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Business Insider</a>. "They're creating more wealth across their cap tables and the cap tables tend to be more diverse, so that gives more people opportunity to become an angel investor." Prior to founding Greycroft, she was a venture capitalist and startup advisor in the Bay Area.</p>
Erik Rannala, Mucker Capital<p>Erik Rannala is a founding partner at Mucker Capital, which he created with William Hsu in 2011. Before founding Mucker, Rannala was vice president of global product strategy and development at TripAdvisor and a group manager at eBay, overseeing its premium features business.</p><p>"As an investor, I root for startups. It pains me to see great teams and ideas collapse under the pressure that sometimes follows fundraising. If you've raised money and you're not sure what comes next, that's fine – I don't always know either," Rannala wrote in <a href="https://www.mucker.com/more-funding-wont-magically-fix-your-startup/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a blog post for Mucker</a>. </p><p>Mucker has a portfolio of 61 companies, including Los Angeles-based Honey and Santa Monica-based HMBradley.</p>
William Hsu, Mucker Capital<p>William Hsu is a founding partner at the Santa Monica-based fund Mucker Capital. He started his career as a founder, creating BuildPoint, a provider of workflow management solutions for the commercial construction industry not long after graduating from Stanford. </p> <p><a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/3048173/the-unexpected-and-hard-earned-lessons-from-a-dot-com-flame-out" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with Fast Company</a>, he shared what he learned in the years following, as he led product teams at eBay, Green Dot and Spot Runner, eventually becoming the SVP and Chief Product Officer of At&T Interactive: "Building a company is about hiring correctly, adhering to a timeline, and rigorously valuing opportunity. It's turning something from inspiration and creative movement into process and rigor."</p> <p>These are the values he looks for in founders in addition to creativity. "I like to see the possibility of each and every idea, and being imaginative makes me a passionate investor."</p>
Jim Andelman, Bonfire Ventures<p>Jim Andelman is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, a fund that focuses on seed rounds for business software founders. Andelman has been in venture capital for 20 years, previously founding Rincon Venture Partners and leading software investing at Broadview Capital Partners.<br><br>He's no stranger to enterprise software — he also was a member of the Technology Investment Banking Group at Alex. Brown & Sons and worked at Symmetrix, a consulting firm focusing on technology application for businesses.</p> <p><a href="https://dot.la/la-venture-podcast-jim-andelman-of-bonfire-ventures-2648143780.html" target="_self">In a podcast with LA Venture's Minnie Ingersoll</a> earlier this year, he spoke on the hesitations people have about choosing to start a company.</p>"It's two very different things: Should I coach someone to be a VC or should I coach someone to enter the startup ecosystem? On the latter question, my answer is 'hell yeah!'"
Josh Diamond, Walkabout Ventures<p>Josh Diamond founded Walkabout Ventures, a seed fund that primarily focuses on financial service startups. The firm raised a $10 million fund in 2019 and is preparing for its second fund. Among its 19 portfolio companies is HMBradley, which Diamond helped seed and recently <a href="https://dot.la/hm-bradley-2649022900.html" target="_self">raised $18 in a Series A</a> round.</p><p>"The whole reason I started this is that I saw there was a gap in the funding for early stage, financial service startups," he said. As consumers demand more digital access and transparency, he said the market for financial services is transforming — and Los Angeles is quickly becoming a hub for fintech companies. Before founding Walkabout, he was a principal for Clocktower Technology Ventures, another Los Angeles-based fund with a similar focus.</p>
Kara Nortman, Upfront Ventures<p>Kara Nortman was recently promoted to managing partner at Upfront Ventures, making her one of the few women – along with Settle – to ascend to the highest ranks of a major VC firm.</p><p>Though<a href="https://upfront.com/thoughts/announcing-upfronts-new-co-managing-partner" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> Upfront had attempted to recruit her</a> before she joined in 2014, she had declined in order to start her own company, Moonfrye, a children's ecommerce company that rebranded to P.S. XO and merged with Seedling. Upfront invested in the combination, and shortly after, Nortman joined the Upfront team.</p><p>Before founding Moonfrye, she was the SVP and General Manager of Urbanspoon and Citysearch at IAC after co-heading IAC's M&A group.</p><p><a href="https://dot.la/moving-from-the-passenger-seat-to-the-drivers-seat-upfronts-kara-nortman-named-managing-partner-2648493740.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, she spoke on how a focus for her as a VC is to continue to open doors for founders and funders of diverse backgrounds.<br></p><p>"Once you're a woman or a person of color in a VC firm, it is making sure other talented people like you get hired, but also hiring people who are not totally like you. You have to make room for different kinds of people. And how do you empower those people?"<br></p>
Brett Brewer, Crosscut Ventures<p>Brett Brewer is a co-founder and managing director of Crosscut Ventures. He has a long history in entrepreneurship, starting a "pencil selling business in 4th grade." In 1998, he co-founded Intermix Media. Under their umbrella were online businesses like Myspace.com and Skilljam.com. After selling Intermix in 2005, he became president of Adknowledge.com.</p><p>Brewer founded Santa Monica-based Crosscut in 2008 alongside Rick Smith and Brian Garrett. His advice to founders <a href="https://crosscut.vc/team/" target="_blank">on Crosscut's website</a> reflects his experience: "Founders have to be prepared to pivot, restart, expect the unexpected, and make tough choices quickly... all in the same week! It's not for the faint of heart, but after doing this for 20 years, you can spot the fire (and desire) from a mile away (or not)."</p>
Eva Ho, Fika Ventures<p>Eva Ho is a founding partner of Fika Ventures, a boutique seed fund, which focuses on data and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies. Prior to founding Fika, she was a founding partner at San Francisco-based Susa Ventures, another seed-stage fund with a similar focus. She is also a serial entrepreneur, most recently co-founding an L.A. location data provider, Factual. She also co-founded Navigating Cancer, a health startup, and is a founding member of All Raise, a nonprofit that supports and provides resources to female founders and funders.</p><p><a href="https://medium.com/@John_Livesay/when-google-bought-my-startup-81f1ee21488c" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with John Livesay</a> shortly before founding Fika, Ho spoke to how her experience at Factual helped focus what she looks for in founders. "I always look for the why. A lot of people have the skills and the confidence and the experience, but they can't convince me that they're truly passionate about this. That's the hard part — you can't fake passion."</p>
Brian Lee, BAM Ventures<p>Brian Lee is a co-founder and managing director of BAM Ventures, an early-stage consumer-focused fund. <a href="https://dot.la/brian-lee-los-angeles-venture-capital-2645125301.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, Lee shared that he ended up being the first investor in Honey, which was bought by PayPal for $4 billion, through investing in founders and understanding their "vibe."</p> <p>"There's certain criteria that we look for in founders, a proprietary kind of checklist that we go through to determine whether or not these are the founders that we want to back…. [Honey's founders] knew exactly what they were building, and how they were going to get there."</p> <p>His eye for the right vibe in a founder is one gleaned from experience. Lee is a serial entrepreneur, founding LegalZoom.com, ShoeDazzle.com and The Honest Company.</p>
Alex Rubalcava, Stage Venture Partners<p>Alex Rubalcava is a founding partner of Stage Venture Partners, a seed venture capital firm that invests in emerging software technology for B2B markets. Prior to joining, he was an analyst at Santa Monica-based Anthem Venture Partners, an investor in early stage technology companies. It was his first job after graduating from Harvard, and during his time at Anthem the fund was part of Series A in companies like MySpace, TrueCar and Android.</p><p>He has served as a board member in several Los Angeles nonprofits and organizations like KIPP LA Schools and South Central Scholars.</p> <p>"Warren Buffett says that he's a better businessman because he's an investor, and he's a better investor because he's a businessman. I feel the same way about VC and value investing. Being good at value investing can make you good at venture capital, and vice versa," Rubalcava said in <a href="https://moiglobal.com/alex-rubalcava-interview/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Shai Dardashti of MOI Global</a>.</p>
Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures<p>Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures, is arguably L.A.'s most visible VC, frequently posting on Twitter and on his <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blog</a>, not only about investing but also more personal topics like weight loss. In more normal years, he presides over LA's biggest gathering of tech titans, the Upfront Summit. Before Upfront, he was the founder and chief executive officer of two software companies, BuildOnline and Koral, which was acquired by Salesforce. Upfront backed both of his companies, and eventually he joined their team in 2007.</p><p>In a piece for his blog, "Both Sides of the Table," <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/finding-an-investor-who-is-in-love-with-you-d0badf1a3998" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Suster wrote about the importance of passion</a> — not just for entrepreneurs and their businesses, but for the VCs that fund them as well.<br></p><p>"On reflection of the role that I want to play as a VC it is clearly in the camp of passion. I really want to start my journeys only with people with whom I want to work closely with for the next 5–7 years or more. I only want to work on projects in which I believe can produce truly amazing change in an industry or in the world."</p>
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Despite — or in many cases because of — the raging pandemic, 2020 was a great year for many tech startups. It turned out to be an ideal time to be in the video game business, developing a streaming ecommerce platform for Gen Z, or helping restaurants with their online ordering.
But which companies in Southern California had the best year? That is highly subjective of course. But in an attempt to highlight who's hot, we asked dozens of the region's top VCs to weigh in.
We wanted to know what companies they wish they would have invested in if they could go back and do it all over again.
Hottest<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzIyNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTQ3MjQ2OH0.JYCNMjYvosYa5SI7701CH_jMFbeFdMcRCChXt442cq0/img.png?width=980" id="4a086" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f2f18f0bc4400a388e43736c560ff87f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="PopShop Live logo" />
Boiling<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzIyOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MzI5MjYwMn0.h7Nq7GiwXTcg_7Io5WEXblFX0rWQHxn69RzluTh7n_Q/img.png?width=980" id="44eea" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d02c4cad650c987721ff91ee939a5bf7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Scopely logo" />
Simmering<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzMxNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjM4MjQ5Mn0.XSHQfru9tTpdeBqd_ecb--8DiZg_vdyOtF9ZV9zAG78/img.png?width=980" id="f1665" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc0b78dd8ae8cda9bf95979e83506fd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Warming Up<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzYwOS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1MzE4OX0.fS5XtGx4M-tqWecrth6NCHawGSg2aSkb-yR-cY3wbtU/img.png?width=980" id="c6334" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa7476f8a6216fed6b372d8a59876a6b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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