The KCK startup creates online menus, ordering systems and websites for restaurants. The 10-person business began as a conversation three years ago. Desai and Hoang Nguyen were sitting in the dining room of what would become Menufy’s first customer: Stix in the Legends. Nguyen, Stix’s general manager, had been tasked with developing and launching a website for the Asian-fusion restaurant.
“We started this thinking about Stix,” says Desai, who remained the restaurant’s senior manager until last year. “But we quickly realized we could think broader, and this template would work for other restaurants.”
Desai and Nguyen had restaurant experience, but they needed a team to build the website. Desai approached his brother Sharmil, who at the time was working as a software engineer at Cerner. The duo had previously collaborated on several other business ideas; precut boxes of sod and tinted window decals were among their early endeavors. From these projects, they’d learned a lesson. “Market research was critical,” Desai says.
And what they discovered as they started Menufy was what anyone who has searched online for dinner options already knew: Restaurant websites are often an exercise in frustration, if they exist at all. Menus are outdated, the hours are hidden, or the website refuses to load on a smartphone. In a report issued earlier this year, the marketing firm Restaurant Sciences noted that 50 percent of restaurants don’t have a website and 60 percent don’t put a menu online. And even those restaurants with a Web presence don’t always understand how potential diners search for their next meal.
According to a Cornell University report released this year, though, 40 percent of U.S. adults have placed restaurant orders online. The Cornell study indicates that Web orders account for 10 percent of all restaurant business.
In the gap between these findings is where Menufy hopes to find its niche. It builds text-based menus for each client’s homepage, with templates that allow potential diners to look at a restaurant’s current offerings. Crucially, the design also lets search-engine crawlers index the site.
As Desai talks with The Pitch at Homer’s Coffee House, his cell phone chirps with the electronic sound of Nintendo’s Mario finding a mushroom. The text message alerts him that a new restaurant client has received an order. It’s a reminder that his company’s small size means that its clients get personal attention. Partner Shawn Lee inputs each menu manually, and he can verify updates and keep on top of substitutions.
And the staff can keep restaurants from being their own worst enemies online. “We see it all,” Desai says. “The worst is when somebody is trying to do everything on their site. And when they have music.” Desai shakes his head slowly and goes on: “Nobody wants to hear music when they’re searching for a menu.”
Unlike most of its competitors, including GrubHub, Seamless and Delivery.com, Menufy has so far made its services free for restaurants. The company instead generates its revenue by charging a flat $1.25 per each online order.
For some consumers, that fee represents a learning curve. A few times a month, Desai says, a diner calls Menufy to ask about a $1.25 charge. Desai explains the convenience charge, and the customer remembers that he or she did indeed order food online. “They didn’t think about it,” Desai says. “And that’s what we want” — to advance carryout ordering online until it becomes not just common but habit.
It’s an approach that emphasizes high delivery volume, and it appears to be working. (And restaurants can elect to absorb the ordering fees.) Menufy’s client base has quadrupled in the past 10 months, growing from 30 to 136 restaurants in 17 states.
Within that growth, Menufy has found another niche: Asian-owned businesses. So Desai has hired two salespeople who are fluent in Mandarin Chinese, the language of a major customer base. “It’s not a coincidence that if you look at our clients, half are Asian-owned businesses,” he says. “We’ve made a real effort to understand the cultural needs and practices of the Asian community.
It’s a world that is familiar to Menufy’s partners. Desai, Lee and Nguyen co-founded Lambda Phi Epsilon, a fraternity dedicated to promoting Asian American awareness, while attending the University of Kansas.
“Hoang is Vietnamese. Shawn is Korean. My brother and I are Indian,“ Desai says. “We have a programmer from Russia and another from Eritrea. I like to think we understand a lot about culturally owned businesses. It’s how we know so much about restaurants’ menus. We know to ask if they want dim sum on their Google Map entry or whether or not to even shake hands.”
Regardless of what’s on the menu, Desai believes that every restaurant can benefit from online ordering. “Pizza Hut or Domino’s can spend millions on an online-ordering app,” Desai says. “We just want to make the same thing possible for every mom-and-pop shop. Everybody has a Yelp. We believe that everybody should have a Menufy.”