A SoonSpoon Full of Sugar: On Tech & Hospitality with Travis Lowry
At 26-years young and already the founder of two successful companies, Travis Lowry has never been one to let life wash right over him. A Bostonian by way of Dallas, he graduated from Tufts University in 2010, majoring in International Relations and Arabic, and transplanted himself overseas to work for the United Nations in Syria. After returning to the U.S. in 2011, he founded OutGrade, a review site that let people rate businesses by how LGBT-friendly they were. In 2014, he started SoonSpoon, a last-minute reservation service that focused on same-day reservations at high-end, often small restaurants.
A passion for strong coffee (and a love of Taiwanese steamed buns) fuels this wunderkind and keeps his duties as Reserve NYC’s Restaurant Operations Manager in perpetual check. I recently sat down with him to talk about his entrepreneurial experience, passion for helping small businesses and the things he hopes never change.
You were working and traveling in the Middle East shortly before the Syrian Civil War began. To what extent did that experience affect your worldview and what you became passionate about professionally?
I think my time in Syria and Egypt definitely helped me grow as a person, but really it just reinforced a personality I already had. I love working with people to create solutions for ambiguous problems. Nothing happens in those countries without personal relationships and favors and struggle and creativity. After the revolution in either place there was no established orthodoxy or authority or hierarchy for anything. You achieved what you chose to create. To a certain extent you could really shape your reality.
What motivated you to start OutGrade, and what were you hoping to achieve?
I grew up in Texas, and while my particular household was very accepting, I generally grew up in a conservative atmosphere in which LGBT people faced pretty significant bigotry on a daily basis. After moving to Boston and going to Tufts, at perhaps the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, I saw a great opportunity to leverage the internet to empower a large number of people to enact social change by deciding where to spend their money. I raised two rounds of investment and with some co-founders spent several years growing that company to include reviews in all 50 states and 12 countries. The goal was to build a startup that measured impact in profit and social change.
How did you become interested in the restaurant industry, and how was SoonSpoon conceived?
I canceled a last minute 6-top [a table for 6] at a very small, very popular restaurant that I loved. I was buddies with the GM and he called me to tell me exactly the bind I put him in. Very popular restaurants book far out and as a result cultivate an image of impossibility around last minute reservations. However, guests cancel at the last minute all the time and as a result these small businesses have to suffer through a phenomenal pain point of unfilled inventory. On the diner side, I knew that people would have killed for a day-of table at this restaurant. With that, an idea, and another startup were born.
Why did you decide that being acquired by Reserve was the right move?
Joining Reserve was the right choice for my shareholders, my partner restaurants, my team and myself. Reserve represents a superior product in many ways and I saw it as a way to accelerate the vision I had with SoonSpoon. Ultimately, however, I knew it was time to make the deal happen when it became clear that the teams at SoonSpoon and Reserve viewed and valued hospitality in the same way.
In what ways do you think technology can improve or hinder restaurant operations?
With the proliferation of technology in the dining room, I think that the products that seek to improve or amplify a restaurant’s current vision of hospitality and current steps of service will succeed. Restaurants are complex, ambiguous, personal, artistic places. The thoughtful technologies can help wrest greater efficiency out of these dining rooms without introducing a prohibitive number of additional layers.
Given that the experience of dining out seems to have rapidly evolved with tech over the last few years, is there anything that you think (or hope) will never change?