Whether we are talking, texting, emailing or even ordering our next meal – the majority of communication is through a screen. Thriving in a fast-paced society means not only having, but also knowing how to maneuver the latest technology. Cash is nearly obsolete – debit, credit and Apple Pay have made our finances easier to transport and track.
Derin Alemli, founder of Square Roots Kitchen, knew he had to create an establishment that is as evolved as our technologically advanced society. What better place to start than in the bustling city of Chicago? SRK’s tech goes beyond their tablet-ordering platform.
Alemli has found a way to integrate their technology into all facets of the business, from prep predictions to assembly efficiency and everything in between. We caught up with entrepreneur, Derin Alemli, to get the scoop on how the idea for Square Roots Kitchen was born, how SRK utilizes technology in nearly every facet on both the customer and business end and tips for aspiring entrepreneurs to navigate rough waters.
What is your background in the industry?
My restaurant background started many, many years ago, but took a long hiatus. Restaurants were my first job, originally starting as a dishwasher in my hometown in central Florida, working my way up to fine dining and eventually as a corporate developer for the busiest Macaroni Grill in the country. However, my original life’s goal was to work in investment finance, so after graduating from UCF in 2005, I went into that realm until 2012. While a lucrative career, I became bored with my role at the hedge fund where I was working and ended up starting my first business, DownBeats, on the side in 2012. That “side” business ended up becoming a career unto itself, and once I shifted my track towards startups – that is when SRK came to me. I had the rare skill set that combined actual industry experience, a strong financial background, and the technological literacy to implement the Square Roots vision. We launched catering in 2016 and have been running full speed ahead ever since.
What were the steps before launching SRK?
While I had experience both managing a restaurant and operating my own business, fully opening and operating a restaurant is from scratch a much more involved and complex undertaking. I did a good amount of research before launching DownBeats and was at market in under six months with that product. With SRK, I did close to a year and a half of research before we got to just catering, and then another two years before we opened the storefront. There are just so many facets to this concept. From the menu itself and how that appeals to customers, to how people interact with technology and discover us through a variety of sales channels, how to get customers used to ordering from touch panels rather than a person. Even the little details, like how to handle cash or if we needed to at all – which ultimately we decided not to.
Is there anything you wish you would’ve known, or had been better prepared for before taking the leap?
I far underestimated how long it would take to raise capital. Even after a year of operation with a decent run rate in year one, it was still tough sledding. Year 2 more than doubled year one, and once we were underwritten by a bank loan, we were off to the races. Past organizing the idea, laying out the numbers in a detailed business plan, and even operating with a sizable amount of revenue, there was still more work to do with the development of our technology and build out of the restaurant. The technology side is always going to be an area that needs focus and updating as well, as we are building this business to scale and are always working to perfect the interface to be as intuitive and easy for our customers as possible.
What was the motivation behind the idea for Square Roots Kitchen?
I have always been a healthy eater, and for me, that means low carb. When I was launching my first business, I was noticing how hard it was to find a healthy low carb meal, with quick service, that actually tastes good. It was here that I saw that there was a real gap in the market. Healthy diets mean something different to most people, and a full 50% of Americans are on a diet at any given time. However, at the time, restaurants did not take the time to catalog their menu and allow customers to filter and choose their meal that could be personalized to their diet with transparency. It also struck me that building the technology to do this wasn’t reinventing the wheel – we simply had to customize the wheel with efficiency and technology involved in the thought process from day one. While I had trepidation about getting back into food service as I more than anyone knew how hard it was from my experience, I knew there were few people as suited to the undertaking as I was.
What sets SRK apart from restaurants moving toward a technology-driven restaurant design or ordering system?
What customers see is an ordering system, and so far, the feedback has been great. It gives our customers total personalization, dietary filtration, and real-time nutritional transparency. With the launch of our apps, our options allow them to save their profiles and keep ordering what they love from us for delivery, pickup, or in-store dining, in addition to catering options.
SRK’s tech is not just about an ordering platform. Behind the scenes, we are integrating this technology into all facets of our business, from prep predictions to assembly efficiency and everything in between. We have eight different channels for the individual ordering process. We have three additional channels for the back of house applications, which are running our expediting, delivery, and database, with more to come as we start to integrate inventory and personnel management. We are the future of restaurant tech, and we are implementing that culture into every facet of the business that we can.
Any advice for those aspiring to be a food entrepreneur?
I will not be the first to say that the food business is hard. All startups are hard – you will hear a lot of “no’s” and struggle a lot before seeing profitability in almost all cases. The food business is growing to be more demanding than ever before as customers have a high expectation for quality of both product and service in this space. The biggest piece of advice that I can give is to take emotion out of it as much as possible and approach everything analytically. You are going to have bad days. When you do, figure out what went wrong and how to fix it for the next time, while always making sure the customers are satisfied even if things are going crazy in the kitchen.
What is the five-year plan for SRK?
Our primary goal is to grow this brand into a multi-unit franchise. We may go with a fully owned approach or look for strategic franchises, but we see our brand being applicable in a wide variety of markets, and we are excited to continue to manage this business through scaling. In five years, I hope we are at 10 units at least, if not many more.
However, through the capital raising process we always get the question – are you a food company or a technology company? We define ourselves as a technology-driven restaurant. We are continuously growing the business with that mindset. As with any entrepreneurs, we understand that there may be potential acquirers that value our technology much more than our retail business. Rightfully so, we’ve already seen industry-leading gains to profit margin because of it. If such an acquirer is out there that wants us for that purpose, we are certainly open to the conversation.
About the Author
Jenna Rimensnyder is a staff writer and content specialist for Entrepreneurial Chef, having studied Journalism, Media, Food Writing & Photography from the University of South Florida, she combines her love of writing and passion for food to capture stories of inspirational food entrepreneurs and spread across the web. Follow along at JennaRimensnyder.Com.
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