How I Started a
Restaurant Rating Platform
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! I’m Serena and the Founder of Table Sage. We started out as a bigger-picture restaurant rating platform— one that would address the problems posed by current competitors while integrating solutions to world issues.
As Coronavirus took hold, we held the launch of that platform (that had been scheduled for the early Spring) and used the tech that we had built to go live first with a unique tool for customizing restaurant searches— one that allows users to filter by contemporary needs like plant-based diets and sustainable locations, and to select only from restaurants that we would recommend.
In the past month, we’ve found a way to integrate the two concepts (Table Sage Rate and Table Sage Locate) into one platform that focuses on Conscious Dining, now also with the introduction of a third service (Table Sage Plate).
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve had a strong interest in food and sustainability since adolescence. My parents were both always clear about the importance of eating healthfully and caring for the planet. (My father is American and my mother is Italian; both studied sciences and grew up in the ‘60s-’70s.) I carried this interest forward to university, where I studied Urban and Environmental Planning with a specialization in Food Systems.
During that period, I started a club called Students for Sustainable Communities, and created my own internship with the school’s food service corporation to introduce local products into its dining halls.
After college, I did (food) sustainability consulting for a number of American organizations, and then was prompted to start a social enterprise in the design and import sector by my partner at the time. We were successful very quickly and I realized that I had little knowledge of how business is “supposed to be” conducted.
At that point, I moved back to Europe to do an MBA, then got a job with Tesla in Amsterdam. After the degree and four+ years with the innovative company, I had the training that I needed to apply what I had learned to issues that I care about, and in my own way.
All the while, I had been continuing with my long-time hobby of travelling to eat at special restaurants— mostly from The World’s 50 Best and Michelin, and other similar sources. It dawned on me that many of the most highly rated restaurants were providing increasingly poor experiences. I began to look closely into why this was, realized that all “best of” guides focus only on judging the quality of food or the superficial aspects of a place, and it became clear to me that we need a better system— for eaters, yes, but also for our collective future, that necessitates that we address food-related topics like sustainability, diversity, and hunger head-on.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
I would say that I’ve faced two main challenges in our first year of business— one relating to gaining the respect and support of other successful business people, and the second relating to being an expat. My general feeling is that women in business still have a long way to go before they’re considered as equal players in Food and/ or Tech; the other is that community is difficult to create, and that it takes a lot of will, dedication, and time.
Luckily, the Table Sage Team is incredible and there is no doubt that we have what it takes to grow and to be successful with our idea.
Who is your target market?
Our current target market consists of females in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties who are educated, mostly urban, and care strongly about sustainability. In the next few years, we expect for both women and men of Generation Z to be our strongest supporters but also hope for a general expansion of user base to also include older foodies who will have tired of other old-world or unreliable offerings by that time.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
So far, we’ve only paid for one article to be written about us in order to increase awareness about the newest version of our platform. It was well worth it.
All of our other marketing has been unpaid, either through direct outreach to press or other communications agencies, or via social media.
We’ve also done our best to create real relationships with the restaurants that we feature by supporting those that we stand behind, and by keeping them in the loop of our offerings over time. Likewise, we’ve done a solid job of sharing what we’re working on with professional contacts, friends, and family— all forms of support are valuable and appreciated!
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
Speaking of users as customers here, we try to keep our platform and communications via social media of consistently high quality and relevance. While it is important to grow quickly and to keep people engaged, we are adamant about providing only useful and well thought-out information in all that we do.
In the meanwhile, we also work to provide a mixture of content that relates to food, food news, platform news, and other related topics. Thus, one day we may showcase a restaurant, another day how restaurants, in general, are coping with Coronavirus, the next day a new feature that we’ve released, and then we’ll add in something about sustainability and diversity. For us, it’s important to keep a balance of positive/ easy-going news and heavier topics.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
At present, everyone is working remotely from somewhere in Amsterdam and its surrounding areas. We are in regular communication, doing group video calls where appropriate and meeting for meals when celebrations are due.
Our team culture is mission-oriented, flexible, hard-working and also jovial. I’ve felt that this has come naturally by working with a group of honest, intelligent, and happy people.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
Our website/ platform was custom-built by our amazing developer, Gray Atkinson-Adams. The team uses a ton of Google documents to share research, notes, and tasks. To manage our accounting, we hired a great, local company (Founders!). Generally, everyone is organized and on top of his/ her own workflow— from here, the productivity again comes naturally.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
I think that it’s important to take everything—the positives and the negatives—as an opportunity to learn. As a result, there’s a constant birds-eye view of what is happening, and all moments become interesting and of value. It’s taken a lot of work to see things this way, but the mindshift towards objectivity and appreciation is priceless.
From Tesla in particular, I learned a lot about striving for perfection but being comfortable with “good enough”— this has been crucial to doing things well but also quickly.
I would strongly advise all eager entrepreneurs to work for at least one other start-up and one corporation in their career before going off on their own. Understanding the reality of both worlds is incredibly important to keeping both perspective and structure.
Lastly, I would advise others to launch and/ or grow their businesses in a place where they already have a strong network. In many ways, launching in Amsterdam has been twice as much (or more) work than the norm as we build not only the business but also personal and professional ties (not to mention language skills and knowledge of cultural norms) from scratch, and simultaneously.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
I love that as an entrepreneur, I can make ideas reality, and decide for myself which impact I have on the world every day. Being able to stay healthy by creating my own working hours is great too.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
There is a lot of responsibility involved in being an entrepreneur— mental, emotional, financial. This lessens the “wiggle room” that we have to have a bad day, take time off, or to splurge in other areas of life. However, the beauties of the role far outweigh the pressures, so it’s all good.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
Good question! Reading is critical for entrepreneurs to maintain a good gauge on trends and needs. I spend a large amount of time absorbing news from hard copy as well as online sources and love The Financial Times, Monocle, Eater food articles and Skift travel reports. Following companies like Forbes, Sweetgreen and goop also helps me to stay informed of what other great and related businesses are doing daily.
An old favourite source of inspiration is TED. Modern philosopher Ken Wilber and his books on Integral Theory also made it possible for me to mentally organize diverse inspirations, and to easily see overlap and commonality.
In addition, I found the book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson to be a worthwhile read years ago, both for the acquired perspective of how to distance oneself from societal expectations and also for the challenge to beat the social odds that the author describes.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
We have a strong yet flexible plan for the next years that includes a number of improvements to our current Locate tool, rolling out our next two services (Rate and Plate), and adding new cities. This growth will of course require additional staff and funding but will then result in a wider user base, heightened business value, and subsequent increase in revenue from partners and sponsors.