Startup Offers New Way to Dine Locally

COURTESTY CHERIAN THOMAS Spotluck co-founders Cherian Thomas (GRD ’14) and Brad Sayler hope to promote business at  local restaurants by offering discounts to customers based on a special algorithm that changes based on demand.

Spotluck co-founders Cherian Thomas (GRD ’14) and Brad Sayler hope to promote business at local restaurants by offering discounts to customers based on a special algorithm that changes based on demand.

When Jack Segelstein (COL ’18) goes out to eat with friends in Georgetown, his group sometimes encounters a dilemma.

“A lot of the time we just can’t agree on what we want to eat,” Segelstein said.

To help solve this problem, Cherian Thomas (GRD ’14) and Brad Sayler created Spotluck, a dining app that allows users to spin a virtual wheel of local Washington, D.C., restaurants and then receive a discount at partner restaurants.

Thomas initially thought up Spotluck while working on a project at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business and then developed the idea into a full-fledged dining platform.

“It just was an idea when I was at McDonough, and it didn’t really become a product or transform into what it is today until we got the right people involved,” Thomas said.

Thomas and Sayler started running their startup from Thomas’ basement, filing for a patent in late 2013 and launching the company in June 2014. Spotluck now employs 12 people in three offices and celebrated its first birthday June 10. Spotluck is currently the most popular free dining app on Apple’s App Store, beating such established players as GrubHub and OpenTable.

Within the app, when a user spins the virtual wheel, the restaurant that the wheel selects offers the largest discount — sometimes up to 35 percent off the price of a meal — while all the other featured restaurants on the wheel offer discounts of at least 10 percent. The app’s discounts do not apply to some special offers at restaurants, and a group’s savings are capped at $50 per table. Users can spin the virtual wheel once a day.

In turn, the user supports one of the 250 and counting local businesses that are featured on the app and earns in-app points for spinning the wheel, dining or posting a review of over 100 characters about their experience on the app. The points can be used to earn additional spins over the one that the app allows each day.

According to Thomas, the app uses an algorithm to calculate the exact discount that a user receives.
“There’s actually software that we created that constantly changes prices based on day, time, weather and consumer behavior,” Thomas said.

Using the algorithm, the app awards greater discounts to users at times when restaurants are typically not extremely crowded, for instance, offering a greater discount on a rainy Tuesday afternoon than on a warm Saturday night.

Spotluck users currently generate 50,000 spins per month, according to Thomas. The app’s restaurants are organized into various “hubs” in neighborhoods stretching from Frederick, Md., through the District and into parts of Virginia. Georgetown comprises one of these hubs and includes restaurants such as Paulo’s Ristorante, Martin’s Tavern and Clyde’s of Georgetown. Thomas said Spotluck is also attempting to add The Tombs as a partner restaurant.

As Spotluck continues to roll out new hubs and restaurant partners in D.C., Thomas said that the platform hopes to expand into other markets in the future.

“We’ve been written up in Philadelphia,” Thomas said. “We also have Chicago and New York on our short list.”

In addition to promoting local businesses, Spotluck has a strong commitment to community service, according to Thomas.

“Every couple of months in one of our hubs, all of the restaurants donate a tray of food,” Thomas said.

“All of these local restaurants [give] back to create a true potluck for those who suffer from food inefficiencies, or to support a great cause.”

Past beneficiaries of Spotluck’s community service include the Children’s Inn at the National Institute of Health and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Dean Cibel, a manager of Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place in Georgetown, which contracted with Spotluck about two months ago, said that even a well-established local business can benefit from appearing on the app.

“We’ve been here for 28 years, so we’re pretty well-known, but it still helps for people, especially in the modern world with the tech age … to look at something as they’re on the go,” Cibel said. “It’s another chance to penetrate that market.”

Cibel also said that Spotluck’s discounts do not necessarily impact a restaurant’s profit margin.

“Well, as far as we’re concerned, it would go down as a promotional expense,” Cibel said. “We see it as an opportunity to get a new customer that becomes a loyal customer for the future because once they’ve tried us, we feel that most people would love to come back because it’s a great experience.”

David Del Bene (COL ’93) the general manager of Clyde’s of Georgetown, which contracted with Spotluck early this past summer, said that the app seems to be slowly becoming more popular among customers.

“They seem to think that it’s a pretty neat idea,” Del Bene said. “It is kind of slow to start because it’s one of those things where they introduce it and they have to sort of do the leg work of promoting it, so it’s getting better. We’re getting more business, I think.”

Emily Brown (COL ’17), who occasionally goes out to eat in Georgetown with friends or visiting family members, said that Spotluck’s discounts would be beneficial for college students in particular.

“I think that Georgetown restaurants can obviously be quite pricey, and so a discount, especially for a group of college students ,would be helpful,” Brown said.
Segelstein said that Spotluck might encourage Georgetown students who download the app to try new restaurants.

“I’m sure a lot of kids at Georgetown eat at a couple of places, really like them and then just keep going to those same places,” Segelstein said. “But it seems like Spotluck can kind of help people to branch out.”

Hoya Staff Writer Andrew Wallender contributed reporting.

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