Made to order
NextChain is an ordering app for restaurants and suppliers that aims to help the hospitality industry recover from the pandemic. Article by Lucy Saddler.
Supported from its infancy by the Data Driven Innovation initiative (DDI) and accelerated by the Data Driven Entrepreneurship programme (DDE), NextChain aims to help the hospitality industry recover from the pandemic with a new ordering app for restaurants and suppliers.
Gauthier Collas and Armin Ghofrani (pictured), both former University of Edinburgh students, had originally intended NextChain to develop reusable packaging for food suppliers.
But when the pandemic engulfed the country in March 2020, they decided to build an app that would function as a short-term solution, helping closed restaurants and cafes in Edinburgh to recoup lost cash-flow.
Gauthier and Armin applied for funding through the DDI’s Covid-19 Response and Recovery small grant funding and used the money to build COVIDCollect – a free-to-use marketplace app that restaurants and cafes could advertise their produce on, which customers could then buy.
But, as Gauthier explains, the experience of scaling up COVIDCollect prompted a rethink:
“We were already working on NextChain but following COVIDCollect, we tried to think about how we could turn COVIDCollect – which was a short-term solution for restaurants and cafes – into something longer-term that could benefit the food industry.”
COVIDCollect provided the two young entrepreneurs with an invaluable learning experience, out of which NextChain evolved.
“What we learnt from CovidCollect was so valuable in terms of constraints to consider when developing software for the hospitality industry, and how to work with chefs.
“It’s thanks to the discussions we had with restaurants and suppliers that we ended up having what is NextChain today,” explains Gauthier.
NextChain is a two-sided business-to-business app that supports restaurants and suppliers with all aspects of their operations, starting with the ordering process.
Data Driven Entrepreneurship programme
Having received initial support for COVIDCollect from the DDI, NextChain has continued to grow and mature with support from the DDE programme.
Using funding from the Scottish Funding Council distributed via the university’s DDI initiative, the DDE programme is designed to boost entrepreneurship amongst staff and students.
NextChain has obtained monetary support in the form of a Graduate Enterprise Grant and DDE Seed Funding alongside pivotal network building initiatives such as the Venture Builder Incubator, which gives companies contact with investors, access to mentors and a link to the university’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.
So, as a two-sided platform with restaurants on one side of the app – just how would a restaurant make use of NextChain?
Gauthier Collas explains that for restaurants using the app, all of their supplier’s catalogues are available so that they can access the products they need and quickly place orders. Restaurants can make a repeat order if they’re buying the same produce on a weekly basis or they can order from multiple suppliers in one go, with the app dispatching these orders to the specified suppliers.
“Instead of having to place a phone call or write an email for each supplier, restaurants can order quickly and efficiently using the app,” adds Gauthier.
On the other side of the app are suppliers who benefit from a powerful user experience that NextChain offers for both themselves and their customers.
Current ordering systems used by many food suppliers are designed with them in mind and thus the user experience for restaurants is compromised, meaning that many restaurants must phone or email to place orders.
Indeed, Gauthier explains that suppliers will usually only receive 10% of orders on their own ordering system.
But by prioritising a more efficient user experience for restaurants, NextChain has been able to attract a wide range of food outlets, making it easier in turn for suppliers to buy into the concept.
“We can show the suppliers that we have many of their customers already using NextChain. NextChain also makes processing orders quicker for them, instead of having to manually process orders placed by email and phone,” Gauthier explains.
Closed for long periods by the pandemic and now battling staff shortages due to the knock-on effects of isolation rules, the hospitality industry needs all the help it can get to bounce back.
Whilst he is realistic that NextChain won’t solve the crisis altogether, Gauthier hopes that restaurants can use the app to alleviate some pressure.
“Our app makes it easy for other staff to order products and for the owner to have visibility on spending and the procurement processes. An immediate benefit for restaurants is that even if they are short staffed, they have this app that saves them hours on a weekly basis,” he explains.
Shared database at app’s heart
With regards to the technology that powers the app, Gauthier and his team have tried to keep it as straight forward as possible.
The app houses a shared database of suppliers’ products, with restaurants functioning as end users who can access this information and place orders. The data – which constitutes all the products as well as all the subsequent orders placed – is exchanged back and forth between restaurants and sellers via the app.
At the moment, the NextChain team are focusing on building up that database by attracting more restaurants and suppliers to use the app.
But, as Gauthier explains, the database of products and information about orders will unlock further opportunities to grow the company:
“Once we have this network effect [even more buyers and sellers using the app regularly] we will generate data that we can reuse to optimise the process for both parties by offering data-driven recommendations to users.”
Eventually the team hope to use the data generated to introduce a predictive analytics element to the app, so that orders can be automatically placed to suppliers when the data suggests that a restaurant might be about to run out of a product.
The team is also optimising the app so that it can integrate with a supplier’s Enterprise Resource Planning system – which manages a company’s day-to-day business activities. This will give NextChain access to even more data about product availability and pricing.
“Thanks to the data generated by NextChain, we will be able to benefit the industry and help the whole supply chain make better decisions,” says Gauthier.
University backing plays key role
Whilst Gauthier and his team are looking to the future, they say that the support of the university, the DDI and the DDE has been central in NextChain’s development up till now.
“To put it simply, NextChain wouldn’t be here without the support from the university.
The monetary support allowed us to take bold risks knowing that we had support behind us. That has been incredibly important,” Gauthier remarks.
In its ambition to make Edinburgh the data capital of Europe by supporting data centric start-ups like NextChain, the DDI is drawing on the capital city’s existing tech ecosystem and developing network of start-ups.
Gauthier explains that a thriving entrepreneurial community gives Edinburgh the edge when it comes to building a start-up.
“In Edinburgh you will find it much easier [than in bigger cities] to speak to other entrepreneurs and start-ups. You can build this network of young tech start-ups which is very advantageous.”
Young entrepreneurs are also able to benefit from an ethos of collaboration at the university.
NextChain is a member of TravelTech for Scotland – an initiative based at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, one of five DDI hubs at the university – which gives them access to not only industry experts but other likeminded start-ups.
How would Gauthier describe being part of this cohort of young entrepreneurs that are using data and technology to change the world?
“Powerful and very exciting,” he concludes.
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