This Tiny NYC Restaurant Has a Huge Digital Advantage

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Levi Mandel
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It’s a typical night at Manhattan’s 2nd City: a couple canoodles over pork belly bao, three women on a couch devour short rib tacos, and a guy ponders the bar’s four custom hot sauces while another diner waits for his ube ice cream. The bartender, Aubrey, rapidly refills drinks and taps orders on a screen without rippling the venue’s relaxed vibe. A short line in the narrow pathway to a bathroom as big as the bar raises the question: how does a place this tiny sustain hundreds of devoted diners in a place that seats 16?

Answer: beyond the busy kitchen lies the way 2nd City has digitally leveraged its success, coordinating the back office work no matter where its owners are. Some of the most important utensils in this restaurant are mobile.

Levi Mandel

They put the “app” in appetizing

When it opened last spring, “The Original Filipino Taqueria” immediately united the West Village in praise of chef Jordan Andino’s fusion fare: classic Filipino ingredients with Cali burritos, burgers, and tacos. Andino partnered with David Sewell and Michael Ryan to form the hospitality group Chibama, and 2nd City was their first project: a short menu, a small space, and a big technological gameplan. Mobile tech touches nearly every part of their business, from processing sales to training staff.

It all starts with the app that the company uses. Andino will write down his new recipes and film video of himself preparing them no matter where he is. And no matter where they are, kitchen staff receive new dishes automatically that they can mentally rehearse or refer to. The cooks get trained well and trained fast. The net gain is a staff that’s pretty self-sufficient.

Even the bartenders have the app on their phones, though they probably won’t be whipping up any Cali burritos anytime soon. Ryan says the app lets servers answer questions about ingredients for customers who have food allergies or preferences without running to the kitchen and asking the chef.

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Everyone wins when money goes digital

2nd City is, refreshingly, credit or debit only, meaning customers are in and out with a swipe -- while the restaurant doesn’t have to worry about robbery, pay for armored truck services, or suffer any of the problems that come with employees handling cash. Heck, it even prevents the spread of germs since you can clean a touchscreen a lot easier than you can a dollar bill.

The team can see data on every swipe by looking at their phones: who ordered what, when the peak hours are, whether a particular ingredient is selling best, for example. Beyond tracking sales remotely, the same point of sale app lets the partners know exactly who's coming in and how often. This data set -- formerly unavailable to restaurants too small to have a maître d’ -- guides their business plan. That’s good for everyone, because it leads to repeat customers receiving coupons for their next visit via email.

Ryan and Sewell | Levi Mandel

The owners can be there... even when they’re not

The team also relies on a clear, sharp live video feed with that lets them be involved with the restaurant without actually being in the restaurant.

For Andino, video is an important way for him to interact with staff and vendors and customers. He also likes using video conferencing software to chat with fans who come in looking to meet him and try the latest taco. This is ideal for a guy who’s constantly being recruited for other culinary projects around the country, including an upcoming Food Network show.

“The technology that I have on hand allows me to manage and handle my business more effectively while I travel,” he says.

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Doing it their way saves money, time, and space

Digital tracking by the staff manages a list of supplies that need to be ordered, while letting Sewell or Ryan know which ingredients are in urgent need of a quick pickup at a restaurant depot.

Another app outlines the opening and closing shift duties, eliminating the need for a binder full of lists. “There’s not a lot of paper shuffling in the restaurant,” Ryan confirms. No important sheets ever fall behind the filing cabinet, and nobody ever wonders about their shift changes because they couldn’t be there to see it posted.

It’s all a more streamlined process that just works for 2nd City employees. “We found with the age range of our staff, they don’t respond well to a lot of checklists on paper,” Sewell says of the mostly young bartenders and line cooks. “Paper just doesn’t exist to them.” They intuit app functions without much need for training.

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It’s a new way for restaurants to thrive and experiment

Sewell and Ryan remember a very tedious learning process in restaurants before the digital approach took over. “Before, we would have to train everyone on all these software platforms on how to do everything,” said Ryan. And if something went wrong or the price of, say, a martini changed, it was a matter of getting a technician to the restaurant to make tweaks to a system that about 15 years ago cost between $30,000 and $40,000. Now, the major startup costs are little more than the cost of a few apps and the platforms they run on.

And that's precisely what Chibama wants. They sought out friendly, fun bartenders who can really shine once they're not worried about paper checklists. “They can just be themselves and hang out with the customers,” Ryan says, creating a relaxed environment for the customers who stay to dine in at the small but comfortable space.

They make the virtual world an extension of the bar

Visit the restaurant’s website, and find that same “chill but enthusiastic” vibe awaiting you. The dynamic background follows Andino to the restaurant on his skateboard, an expression of his style as both chef and cool dude with a million-dollar smile that makes the restaurant’s digital presence almost as much fun as being here.

In fact, whether online or in person, 2nd City is a portrait of Andino’s life and personality. With bouncy, bright design, including an energetic mural by the chef’s mom and uncle, the actual venue and its dishes cry out for an Instagram snapshot -- which quickly earns you a like from Andino’s IG account.

And of course, there’s the social media presence

Once you’ve tagged the restaurant’s official account, the lure is strong -- and rewarding -- to scroll through its feed. 2nd City curates its weekly special dishes on IG and Facebook to keep its feed visually interesting... and to draw the intermittent diners back for community-only “secret menu” items.

Instagram doesn’t just draw repeat business. Giving diners mouthwateringly plated food for the perfect Instagram photo turns their friends onto this new place to eat, as do likes of 2nd City’s own posts. This has been hugely helpful to the restaurant in its first year. “I would argue 95% [of our business] comes from Instagram, Yelp!, and word of mouth, versus 5% coming from the New York Times review,” Andino says.

“Mike and I started in the industry when a New York Times review was everything to your restaurant,” Sewell remembers. A good review from the Times is still valuable but, “in today’s age it’s all about the food blogger or photographer.”

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Even everyday customers can influence the menu. Some of the more Instagram-famous weekly specials have earned permanent spots on the menu thanks to enough double taps. In essence, the menu reinvents itself not just based on repeat sales customers chance into, but what a community of thousands looks at and drools over.

Plus, there are added bonuses for diners: if a customer is curious about what a menu item looks like, bartenders can easily show them on Instagram. If you enjoyed your meal, then with the right hashtags, an Insta-review can make it to the TV inside the restaurant for everyone to see (but of course, the owners vet it via an app first).

But the tech is only as good as the idea

But for all the power of Instagram and Yelp! to make changes at 2nd City, Ryan finds that dine-in customers are pretty phone-free. “They’re there for an experience. There’s not a lot of people on their phones at the bar; they all talk. We kind of created this little community, which is hard to get here in New York”. (Diners are, however, able to charge their phones with any of the several USB ports along the walls.)

The Chibama partners, who are opening their second 2nd City on the Upper East Side, say having the entire business in their pocket makes managing their restaurant much, much easier than it once was. And that ease may make all the difference between an open restaurant and a closed one. Sewell says, “The major thing that we’ve learned is that you can have a great menu but your innovation can never stop in this environment.”