Last week marked one of my first date nights at a fine dining establishment in the District since March, and while my husband and I were thrilled to have a reason to get dolled up and visit Barcelona Wine Bar‘s 14th Street location, we were pleasantly surprised by how safe we felt. Seated in a cozy nook of the restaurant’s outdoor patio, we were appropriately spaced from surrounding guests, had a lovely server who kept his mask on at all times, and ordered all of our food through contactless ordering and payment app GoTab.
As we savored our Summer Street Sling and Bourbon Spice Rack cocktails and an assortment of cheeses (the whipped burrata will forever be one of my favorite items), we started to wrap our heads around this new wave of D.C. dining. District Fray caught up with GoTab founder Tim McLaughlin about the rapid growth of his business mid-pandemic – he now has about 500 clients in the hospitality industry nationally – and why it’s been succeeding since 2016.
District Fray: Can you walk me through your experience working in the D.C. hospitality industry?
Tim McLaughlin: We opened our first restaurant in 2015. I say “we” because it’s my wife [Jennifer] and myself, and another partner as well. That was called Caboose Tavern. It was much smaller. It is actually on the bike trail in Vienna. It started as a quaint-ish, not-supposed-to-be-huge endeavor. It got to be pretty popular and then it sort of exploded into the Mosaic District, which is our new one. So there’s two locations, and my wife took them over when I started GoTab.
What inspired you to found GoTab?
GoTab was really a result of our experiences at Caboose, which was there’s a slow time in business when nobody’s there and then there’s the time when everybody wants to be there. But unfortunately, due to limitation of tables, seats or ability of servers to get to customers, you just [can’t accomplish] a good enough service level and not everybody gets what they want. GoTab originally started as a way to take care of customers faster so they didn’t have to wait around for someone to get to them.
How has the app changed over the past few years?
Caboose has been using [GoTab] for two years. We’re all over the country. We focused GoTab on counter-serve places. The second brewery my wife owns is a counter-serve brewery. The product has changed a lot since then. Now, it commingles with servers. We’re rolling that out into some other restaurants now that are full service-based. The server – although we prefer to call them guides – the guide would walk you through the restaurant experience. But then as the guest, if you want to reorder, you can reorder and/or pay from your phone. It’s really up to the comfort level of the guest if they want to talk to a guide or not.
How has the business been impacted by Covid?
The biggest thing is we’ve rapidly moved into full-service restaurants because they need the help. They can’t get staff. Every full-service restaurant is short-staffed for a number of reasons – not only economics, but safety concerns. They’re looking at how to reduce the number of customer contacts. If you’re going to contact the customer, is it a good experience? We’ve had a ton of growth because the market has demanded it. We were actually growing pretty well pre-Covid. We just had a more limited market because the perception was you either had a server or you had technology, but you didn’t have both. We’ve always tried to mix the two because we think that hospitality and people are part of that experience.
Are there any spots in the D.C. area you’re particularly excited about partnering with?
We’re really excited to go into the ThinkFoodGroup, into Oyamel. That’s pretty exciting to work with the José Andrés group. Barcelona, we’re very excited about, and that’s a strong partnership. One thing that’s been really intriguing is a lot of great hospitality operators were telling us “No.” Many of those have actually come around and now they are big advocates. A perfect example would be Josh [Phillips] at Espita. A year ago, or maybe 18 months ago, he told us, “No, this doesn’t match. It’s not hospitable. Who wants to talk to their phone?” Josh was just on the news talking about how guests actually enjoy [GoTab] and [servers] can still have time to talk about the food or the mezcal they’re serving.
Where do you hope GoTab is in the next year?
I would see it as a double win. Obviously, we’d grow our business but we’d also help our clients grow their businesses and recover and figure out how to operate in the new world that is Covid. But candidly, this model will work beyond Covid. We’ve been doing this for four years, and we believe the restaurant business was due for some innovation.
Click here to find out what GoTab-friendly restaurants and bars are within 50 miles of your location for pickup, delivery or dining in, and follow GoTab on Instagram @gotab.inc.
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