We’re supposed to be celebrating the arrival of spring by sharing a laugh while we wait for another round of drinks. We’re supposed to be enjoying the game with a brew and a slice. We’re supposed to be spending our Sunday mornings eating brunch downtown with visiting friends and family.
Instead, millions of us, amid a global pandemic that has forced us out of public places and turned the restaurant industry entirely on its head, must learn new protocols for interacting with our favorite places to eat and drink.
Once merely a convenience for patrons, delivery and takeout are now essential offerings for small businesses, as they must offset the loss of foot traffic brought about by social isolation guidelines and shelter-in-place orders while meeting the demand of steadfast customers.
All of this is a sad kind of kismet for tech entrepreneur Carl Turner, who started his company Swipeby a little over a year ago in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Because Turner built an app and platform that allows restaurants to quickly and inexpensively establish a tech-based solution to curbside takeout, he has spent the last three weeks watching his dreams come true during a global nightmare. His app turned—almost overnight—from a convenient option for mom and pop restaurants to their life preserver.
Like many tech startup stories before him, Carl Turner’s story starts in a dorm room, just not at Stanford. And he built his app in a budding startup community, just not Silicon Valley.
Turner started what would become Swipeby with a couple of college buddies in late 2017, while still aWake Forest University. He later refined his idea while coworking in Winston-Salem’s Innovation Quarter. After Swipeby got legs and a business plan, the company settled in a spot just down the street in Winston-Salem’s newest startup accelerator, Winston Starts. Turner then spent the next few years perfecting his tech stack, signing up local restaurants and building his team.
His idea was simple but significant: give small restaurant owners the ability to convert to app-enabled curbside takeout at a low cost of entry, with more economical fees than popular delivery services like Grubhub and DoorDash. Just like with other apps, customers can browse menus, order food and pay over the app, but with Swipeby, one pulls up to a restaurant’s curb or sidewalk and picks up their takeout from the safety and convenience of their car.
With Swipeby, you don’t have to open a door or invite a delivery person to approach your home.
“There’s nothing like our model in the market, as we’re creating such a low point of entry for these small businesses,” says Turner. “Whereas popular delivery services charge (or pass on to the customer) anywhere between $5 to $8 to the consumer and 25% or more to the business, Swipeby costs nothing to the customer, and business fees are typically just south of 4%.”
Onboarding is turnkey as well, with no expensive hardware or tech background requirements—and close to no training. The company even supplies a curbside takeout sign so customers know where to park to pick up their orders.
By late 2019, Swipeby was in several hundred restaurants in North Carolina, with an eye on attracting venture capital. Turner was already considering early 2020 as the right time to begin scaling Swipeby nationwide.
Then, all hell broke loose.
With departments of health, the CDC and state governments issuing new health guidelines nearly every day, including a ban on in-store customers at restaurants and eateries, Lady M Confections owner and CEO Ken Romaniszyn knew he needed a safe and effective way to get his signature cakes to customers. That’s when he stumbled upon Swipeby.
“We were researching different and safer methods of delivering cakes and came across an article about a grocery store in North Carolina,” says Romaniszyn. “It was important to us that this method be safe for both Lady M clients and our employees.”
Lady M, which operates 14 boutiques in five cities across the country, including Boston and LA, adopted Swipeby in just the last two weeks, after having to close most of its locations. After just a week of use, more than 10% of Lady M business was coming through the app, and that number continues to go up each day.
“Clients feel confident about driving out for a cake,” says Romaniszyn. “They don’t need to leave their car, and it is a contactless purchase. Employees feel safer at work. The safety of clients and employees is our top priority at Lady M.”
Back in Winston-Salem, local clean food and raw juice company Village Juice has been on the Swipeby platform for over a year. During this upheaval, they have pivoted the majority of their business to takeout almost seamlessly because of Swipeby’s technology.
“It’s kind of ironic that we were one of the early adopters when this concept was more novel, and now it’s an absolute necessity,” says Siler Southerland, the head of business development at Village Juice who helped implement Swipeby at three locations in Winston-Salem and Charlotte. He says business through their various app services has increased by almost 2,000% since the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“Everyone in the food service industry, we’re all taking this crisis day by day, minute by minute, trying just to do the best we can,” he says. “Anything like this that can help bring in a paying customer is huge right now.”
Most tech entrepreneurs and investors would salivate over the type of growth that Swipeby has experienced in the last several weeks. The app was growing at a month-to-month rate of 30% before coronavirus swept its way across the U.S.
Now Swipeby is experiencing 100% growth day-over-day.
The platform will soon be in more than 2,000 restaurants across the country. This week, Turner even plans to launch in his home country of Germany. It’s the kind of scaling he hoped for—just not under these circumstances.
“As a startup, it’s always nice to see growth, but in times like this where it’s hard, our attention is truly not focused on the app’s success,” Turner says. “Right now, our sole focus is on how we can help the biggest number of people and businesses.”
Swipeby responded quickly to the pandemic’s decimation of small businesses, immediately slashing fees, charging nothing to onboard while working overtime to get their service in the hands of as many restaurants and small retailers as possible. “Even $100 out of the pockets of these small restaurants is a hard decision right now,” says Turner. “Workers are losing their jobs left and right. Owners are having to make impossible decisions about keeping the lights on. This isn’t fun for anyone.”
Turner also brushes aside questions about venture capital and the future of Swipeby. None of that matters right now. His only focus is keeping the app functional in the face of exponential user growth—it went down for a few hours last week—and getting it in the hands of the many small businesses that need to respond quickly to this crisis.
When he thinks about the food service and hospitality industries impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, his thoughts turn briefly to what might lie ahead:
“Right now, the biggest opportunity I see potentially down the road is to be able to provide jobs for some of these people who have been laid off. This is the kind of platform that makes so much sense for them. They know the industry. They know how a restaurant runs. They know what customers need and how they shop. If we can turn this growth into more jobs for more people down the road, that would be a very small win.”