The ping-pong tables situated far at one end of Spotluck’s long office in Bethesda are quiet when I visit. It’s Friday afternoon but, at 2 p.m., perhaps a little early for fun and games. Plus, the team is busy prepping for the Democratic National Convention.
I find CEO Cherian Thomas in his office and he’s wearing an outfit composed almost entirely of different shades of green. This seems very on-brand and he greets me with one of his charming smiles before ushering me into a conference room at the opposite end of the office from those ping-pong tables. We launch in to a conversation about the company and local restaurants and how Thomas got here, to this stage in his company and to this office.
Spotluck, for those unfamiliar with the company’s thorough Metro ad campaigns, is a dining app that brings the concept of yield management to the restaurant world.
Should the cost of a meal be the same on a beautiful Saturday night as it is on a rainy Tuesday afternoon? Thomas and Spotluck don’t think so. The mobile app the company has created “gamifies” dining — giving customers discounts at different local restaurants based on surrounding factors like time of day and weather. The “worse” the day/time from a restaurant’s perspective, the greater the rewards on the customer’s end.
Restaurants love it, Thomas tells me, because it solves a problem that keeps them up at night — getting more butts in seats at more times in the day. And diners love it because of the rewards, and also because the “spin” to land on one location at which the user gets the biggest discount (they still get discounts on all the other locations, though) eliminates that hemming and hawing (or worse, arguing) over where to eat.
“It’s all about local spots with an aspect of luck,” Thomas smiles. That’s some wordplay.
Spotluck began as a capstone project during Thomas’ second master’s program at Georgetown. He and cofounder Brad Sayler each left cushy jobs (in commodities and law, respectively) to found the company, working their way up from a literal basement to an actual office. Investors love that, I’m told.
Despite this assertion, Spotluck remains very much a lean company. Over two years after launch the company has raised only seed funding and pre-Series A funding, and employs just 16 people.
Spotluck has accomplished a lot for its small size, though — it currently has participating local restaurants all over the DMV area and recently expanded to Philadelphia as well (hence the visit to the DNC). Spotluck is also consistently at the top of the app store list for dining apps — during a recent presentation at the General Assembly panel on food tech it was No. 2; on the afternoon of my visit to the offices it’s No 1. Thomas and I checked.
There’s so much more ahead, though. So many more features and funding and cities alluded to. Thomas tells me he’s gearing up for a real Series A to fund expansion into the mecca of all U.S. restaurant cities — New York City.
At some point Thomas asks if he can bring in a few of the 16 to share their stories with me. “It’s always me in interviews,” he shrugs, a little apologetically. I say sure and lob some questions at Ethan and Alex and Danny, who are joined by cofounder Sayler. We talk about startup life and Spotluck points and food and the atmosphere is congenial and relaxed, if a bit bro-y (I’m the only woman in the room).
Sayler tells me his favorite food has got to be pork, just pork, because that includes bacon, right? and Alex reflects on how cool it is to work for a company where you’re “able to immediately see your contributions come to life.”
For all the laughing and joking, though, Sayler and Thomas and Ethan and Alex and Danny seem passionate about local industries and the restaurants Spotluck exists (at least on one end of the equation) to serve. “Our success is predicated on their success,” Thomas tells me. I leave the office and everyone heads back to work — the ping-pong tables remain empty.