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A recipe for connecting restaurants and customers during COVID-19

Mr.Red Cafe dish

Photo credit: Mr. Red Cafe

Posted 2020-09-24
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Rajesh Vijayaraghavan teaches Financial Accounting to students at UBC Sauder and in his spare time, he enjoys trying new restaurants and cuisines. This combined interest in business, food and the restaurant industry led to the creation of a technology platform to help restaurants stay afloat during COVID-19.

UBC Sauder assistant professor Rajesh Vijayaraghavan wanted to help the restaurant industry and give students an experiential learning opportunity.

“My parents ran a small business and I know about the importance of the customer,” says Vijayaraghavan. “When COVID-19 hit our city, I was trying to come up with a way to help small businesses cope and I could see that the restaurant industry was especially vulnerable.”

Vijayaraghavan began thinking about building an online food guide that displayed all the restaurants and cafes open for business and offering takeout during the shutdown. He envisioned a not-for-profit service that would direct people to businesses in their neighbourhood. He also saw an opportunity for UBC Sauder students to gain some relevant work experience.

An idea takes shape

UBC Sauder students Catherine Li and Aarti Kamat helped launch vanbctogo.

Catherine Li is a third-year student in the Combined Major in Bachelor and Computer Science (BUCS) program. She volunteered to build the website. 

“I wanted to leverage this project to learn new programming languages and frameworks, so I coded the website from scratch, says Li. “This project gave me the opportunity to gain hands-on experience on full stack web development.”

Aarti Kamat, a fourth-year BCom student majoring in Marketing, made hundreds of calls to restaurant operators, inviting them to advertise. She also reached out to local municipalities and restaurant associations. 

“Working on this initiative taught me a great deal about the importance of building an ecosystem of support and collaboration between small businesses and local governments,” says Kamat. 

The small team named their not-for-profit service vanbctogo. With 200 restaurants lined up, the site went live in April and immediately began attracting Vancouverites who were tired of cooking at home and looking for takeout options.

Learning the steps of scaling up 

The team also conducted market research on Vancouver’s restaurant scene. They learned that costs are so high in Vancouver, most small restaurants only keep 10 per cent of the bill they charge to their customers after paying rent, taxes, labour and food costs. In addition, restauranteurs shared that their expertise was in the kitchen, not in finance and accounting; making the financial pressures associated with a global pandemic feel overwhelming. 

Armed with their market data, the team developed a growth strategy for the summer. More students were brought on and a second site was created called canadatogo to facilitate national expansion. New interactive features were added, such as restaurant locator maps and live data on restaurants’ operating capacity; an important feature that allows customers to avoid busy periods and supports restaurants in their efforts to provide safe service. 

François-Clément Charbonnier joined the project as Lead Researcher/Data Collection and Sienna Lalonde took on Product Development and Marketing.

François-Clément Charbonnier, a fourth-year Sciences Po (L'Institut d'études politiques de Paris) and BCom dual degree student, helped add 13 new cities to the site and provided the French translation for the Quebec section. 

“Working on this project has been a steep learning curve, but what I will remember are the people we met along the way,” says Charbonnier. “Speaking directly to local restaurant owners across Canada and creating a platform that could help them recover from this unprecedented crisis has been the most rewarding experience.”

Sienna Lalonde, a third-year BCom student, created the site’s community stories page. The space offers food lovers a look behind the scenes and inside the kitchens of Canada’s remarkably resilient restaurants.

“I probably spent upwards of 30 hours chatting with over 25 Canadian restaurant owners,” says Lalonde. “Everything we're doing on the canadatogo website is an effort to help these local businesses, and being able to write articles on each of them was a cool experience.”

Mr. Red Cafe, specializing in Northern Vietnamese dishes, and Bandidas Taqueria, located on Commercial Drive, are featured on the canadatogo.ca.

Creating social impact

With 2,000 restaurants, 18 cities and seven provinces represented from coast to coast, Vijayaraghavan and his team have turned their attention to back office functions. 

“We want to help restaurants avoid getting into financial trouble, so we’re working on an accounting tool that helps business owners see and understand their cash flow so they can make better financial forecasting decisions,” explains Vijayaraghavan. “An important objective of the tool is to help educate restaurant owners on their revenue generation strategy, and inherent risks, under various scenarios.”

Sustainable and growing

Now that the new school term has started, the team is getting busier with their academic responsibilities, but canadatogo.ca continues to grow organically, attracting new restaurants and followers. 

What began as a creative endeavour to match businesses with customers and give students a hands-on learning experience has become a thriving online space; one where people throughout the country and beyond can connect over a universal appreciation for food, culture and community.