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What industry can you think of that hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic in one way or another? Probably none, right? This means that every industry has had to embrace adaptability and flexibility to some extent in order to overcome the effects of COVID-19.

In fact, customer experience is all about adaptability. However, it’s not your customers’ responsibility to adapt. It’s yours. And you need to adapt to the new truths of the environment and market – no matter what gets thrown your way.

Among the industries most affected and forced most to adapt this year are restaurants and commercial real estate. And today’s guest operates at the intersection of both.

To this episode of The Customer Experience Podcast, Alex Grace brings more than a dozen years of sales management and sales leadership experience that he brings to restaurants and logistics.

He said that the amazing innovation in hospitality can be traced back to the inherent warmth and personal relationships (far beyond delicious and evolving menus) that small businesses provide. He is full of descriptions and predictions about what’s new and what will be offered in hospitality and real estate in the next year.

Alex is Director of Sales at Fooda, a pop-up restaurant program for office buildings, as well as a SaaS startup mentor and advisor through Techstars and MassChallenge.

When most restaurants are operating at 50% max capacity and nobody’s working in an office right now, innovation and service have to adapt. Finding and owning new revenue streams amid the pandemic is at the heart of how to thrive. Alex said we’ll be seeing the end of full capacity restaurants, but just the beginning of the heyday for local restaurant options in takeout and delivery.

In this episode, you’ll hear about…

How restaurants can embrace new revenue streams going forward
What Alex’s most unique restaurant experience was like
What the current reality is for commercial real estate
Why there’s much to learn from startups about adaptability
Why an MVP approach and feedback loops are key to adapting and growing

 

 

What’s Next for Restaurants and Offices

Hear the entire conversation with Alex Grace of Fooda right here:

 

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Full Transcript: What’s Next for Restaurants & Offices

 

Ethan Beute:
When I think about businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic, here are two that come to mind: restaurants and commercial real estate. Today on the podcast, we’re operating at the intersection of both. Our guest brings to this conversation more than a dozen years of sales management and sales leadership experience in restaurants, recruiting, transportation and logistics, and events and conferences. For the past few years, he served as director of sales at Fooda, which connects local restaurants with corporate headquarters in multi-tenant buildings. Alex Grace, welcome to The Customer Experience Podcast.

Alex Grace:
Hi. Thanks. Man, that was a great intro. It’s kind of like, can we just stop there?

Ethan Beute:
I’m really looking forward to this conversation. We had a nice time chatting before we hit record. We can’t have this conversation without talking about the pandemic. Obviously, it’s a very fluid situation. So to kind of timestamp this, we are almost exactly halfway through the year here at the next to last day of June as we record. You’re in Dallas. Just kind of set the scene. What has this been like for you? I know a lot of your team is up in Chicago. How has this affected you or your team, your workflow, or even your customers at a high level?

Alex Grace:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny when you kind of read that intro, I realized that I’ve pretty much worked in all of the industries that are affected by COVID and it’s been interesting. So we were already a very distributed company before COVID. We were different markets, headquartered in Chicago. So we’ve always had a very market-centric business. So I think that to answer the question, that aspect of it hasn’t really changed.

Alex Grace:
If anything, we’ve really leaned into it a little more. Our business obviously has changed, not so much because of COVID, but more of the stay-at-home orders, the quarantines, the closing of businesses. It has affected us just like everyone else. And we’ve really looked at it as an opportunity to kind of double down on what it is that we do.

Alex Grace:
As I’ve said in many calls with colleagues, we stand right now saying that we’re never been at a stronger position for coming out the end of this because we really are the safest option for… The reality is people are not going to stop going to the office and people are not going to stop eating, and we’re right at the intersection of that. We are going to be able to provide other revenue streams to local businesses, which is now, with everything going on, more important than ever.

Alex Grace:
The interesting thing is, as we talk, last Friday, the governor of Texas shut down all of the bars and has reduced role back, I should say, the opening of restaurants to 50% occupancy due to the spike in Texas that we’re seeing. There are a lot of businesses that are struggling, local restaurants, mom and pops, through no fault of their own. I mean, the restaurant industry and the restaurant business as a whole has always been very thin margins, with the exception of the Gordon Ramsey’s of the world.

Alex Grace:
It’s not a real great place to get rich or an easy way to do it. So these are businesses that were already living month to month, and it’s sad to see. I say that to frame it that whatever hit food has taken pales in comparison to the hit that our partners, the restaurants, have taken. And so we are… And our CEO, Orazio, said it best. I mean, we are dedicated and determined to survive this so that we can help our restaurant partners on the other side.

Ethan Beute:
That’s awesome. I feel like that’s a really good preview of the conversation that we’ll get into a lot more detail on. And to get into it, let’s start where we always start here, which is your definition of customer experience. When I say customer experience, what does that mean to you, Alex?

Alex Grace:
Yeah. It’s funny. I’ve always had this definition in my head, and I think COVID really kind of set it in stone, which is I believe customer experience is adaptability. And I don’t mean that on the side of the customer, I mean that on the side of the business. Your job as a business with customer experience, I mean, obviously aside from the ten… They call it 10 commandments that are set in stone for customer experiences, is the ability to adapt: adapt to customer, adapt to the market and what’s going on, adapt to the environment and the new truths.

Alex Grace:
And that’s never been more important than right now. Especially at Fooda, we’ve been a customer experience business. The whole reason that we started the business was to make something like lunch a fun experience again, and getting away from the delis and the corporate cafeterias and those bland club sandwiches and salads and stuff like that, and bringing cool local restaurants into the buildings.

Alex Grace:
And so adaptability is so important because now we… I see two types of businesses reacting to COVID. There’s the ones that are deciding what their customers are going to want and making the pivot towards that, and then there are those that are just listening and saying, “Okay. Hey guys, what do you want? What is important to you after this? Are you worried about masks? Are you worried about crowds? Are you worried about social distancing? Are you worried about…” The list is a mile long. And so adaptability to me has always been the key tenant and the key definition of customer experience.

Ethan Beute:
I love it. And it’s easy to point to the pandemic as something that has forced all kinds of businesses, whether they’re directly affected or not, to be adaptable to the situation. But really, as you alluded to in your response there, sometimes market conditions could be a long slow move that all of a sudden things have shifted a little bit and you have to adapt. It’s really good.

Ethan Beute:
And you also previewed where I wanted to go next, which is for folks who aren’t familiar, I love this model and I love your mission. Tell people who aren’t familiar with Fooda kind of who are you, what are you about, who’s your ideal customer and what problem do you solve for them? And maybe you have two customers. Do you think about the worker who’s getting lunch from the local restaurant as a customer same as the restaurant, or is the restaurant really your pure customer?

Alex Grace:
We have a lot of customers, which makes my job fun. So, at a high level, Fooda is a pop-up restaurant program for office building lobbies for lunch. So what we are is, at a simple level, we connect restaurants in the area with opportunities for new streams of revenue, whether it be catering. We have expanded into cafeterias and running large scale cafeterias.

Alex Grace:
But our key tenant is the pop-up, which is if you think about it in a large office building in, name the city, a different restaurant every day popping up for launch in your lobby, cool local restaurants that have been vetted by Fooda, both for safety and compliance, but also for fit in the program food quality. I’ve gained 15 pounds since I started with Fooda because I have to test all the food, which is a terrible job, but somebody has to do it.

Alex Grace:
And so our customer is really both the employees in the building, but also our restaurant partners. Also the property management companies and the property managers of the building, the companies in the building, the owners of the building. We provide a lot of things in our model, which is so cool because it’s very rare that you get win-win-wins in business. But we’re giving customers, the employees of the building, the tenants of the building a great lunch option that changes every day so you never get menu fatigue.

Alex Grace:
We’re giving the restaurants an opportunity to make money at a time, lunchtime when their restaurants are generally not as busy. They really focus on the dinner service, and to test menu items and to test areas of the city that they’re not in to increase their customer base around from more than just the walkable area that they’re in. But also we’ve got companies, because this is a recruitment tool for them, being able to say that if we’re inside of their company or inside their building, that they have this wonderful program that they can sell to potential employees that they’re trying to hire.

Alex Grace:
And then building owners and property managers, because this is an amenity that they get to use to either, A, charge more rent, B, differentiate themselves from the market, the other competitive leasable space that’s out there, and C then it’s also increasing the value of their building.

Ethan Beute:
Again, like I said, I love the model. I like this idea of new revenue streams and the exposure for the restaurants to just create some name recognition. And of course, it can be sold to a variety of constituencies. Before we kind of get into some of the details of where the restaurant business is and where it’s going, just talk a little bit about your sales team. Is your sales team distributed and how big is it? How is it approximately structured and who directly are you getting to sign contracts as a sales team?

Alex Grace:
Yeah, absolutely. So our sales team is distributed within the markets. So we have both national sales teams on the restaurant side and on the client-side that are going out there and working on national partnerships with some of the larger companies that are a little bit more distributed. On the restaurant side, we’ve got a sales team that’s out there doing the same.

Alex Grace:
And then we also have sales teams locally in market that are distributed in so far as we don’t have an office and they’re out and about on the field. But that’s how we’ve generally run them. It’s a very small sales force. I mean, markets will have anywhere from one salesperson to five salespeople, but it really it depends on the market and the size of we call it the TAM or Total Addressable Market.

Alex Grace:
But in terms of who we’re getting to sign them, it could be anyone from an HR person in the company to the CEO of a company, a property manager for a building, a leasing person for the building. We have some that we go into where we deal directly with the owners of the building or the owner’s representative, the asset manager. Really just anybody that is able to make decisions about the building, whether it’s multitenant or single tenant. I mean, that really and truly is kind of how complex or, I would say, spread out the people who sign our contracts are.

Ethan Beute:
Cool. This is just out of personal curiosity, then who selects/recruits the restaurants and manages the restaurant relationship? Is that marketing? Is it customer service? Is it like a product team? Close that loop.

Alex Grace:
Yeah. So everyone is the short answer. At the end of the day, we are all passionate about our restaurants and putting our restaurants in opportunities to succeed and making sure that they have the best possible experience with Fooda. I mean, there are so many other streams or new streams of revenue for restaurants out there. Some are less focused on the restaurant experience than others.

Alex Grace:
And so we’ve really taken the approach that everyone in the company is responsible for that relationship. But to answer directly, I mean, we have a restaurant sales team that reaches out to and fields inbound requests from restaurants through recommendations or customer referrals. We’ll go out and we’ll initiate that restaurant relationship. And then it’s handed off in market to either operations and market or myself, overseeing the markets.

Alex Grace:
And then we kind of work on that relationship, get them going in our program, hold their hand along the way. I mean, there’s a lot of onboarding that we go through. And also making sure… One of the simplest things is like their first event, we’re always there. And whether or not we feel like we need to be, it is so important for us to be there and at the end of the day, they know we’re aligned to the same goal, which is their success. We are nothing without our restaurants and we remind ourselves of that every day.

Ethan Beute:
Awesome. Gosh, and what a cool and complex situation to manage for all the parties involved. It’s a really… Again, I’ll say it for the last time, except maybe at the end, I really like the model. It’s cool. I wish we had similar here.

Alex Grace:
No one has ever said to me that it’s a bad idea. They’ve always said, “It’s such a cool…” That’s the responses that I get is like, “Oh, I wish I had something like that in my building,” Or, “Oh, that’s such a cool idea,” which is such a great company to work for and such a great thing to be a part of.

Ethan Beute:
Yeah. When the BombBomb team is in office, probably 95% of us are in an office tower in downtown Colorado Springs. Of course, we haven’t been there in months. And we typically cater our own lunches on Fridays. But it’d be so much more fun to have it available to people. I won’t name names of restaurants, but you see the same two people delivering overpriced sandwiches every day and it’s so much more interesting and dynamic.

Ethan Beute:
So let’s take a little bit of a look forward. I would guess that you would answer this question differently today than you would have maybe a month ago, but kind of where are we with restaurants in general and where are we going like three months, six months, 12 months? What’s ahead here from a revenue standpoint, I guess, and an experience standpoint, the trust, and confidence in showing up to dine?

Alex Grace:
That’s such a loaded question, but what I can tell you is that it is truly an interesting time for restaurant owners, either single unit or multiunit restaurant owners right now. One of the things that I can say from kind of watching it from the sidelines is that I’m so impressed by what our restaurants have been able to do. They were essentially given two days’ notice to open in the state of Texas back in May and were able to scramble to get some truly great compliance and safety measures in place with truly, very little insight direction from local government other than open, socially distance and 25% occupancy.

Alex Grace:
And so one of our restaurant partners in market that I’ve seen do it really well is a company called Refined Hospitality Concepts. One of the things, I went the first week they opened one of their restaurants. I had my temperature taken. They take down your name and phone number. All of the menus are QR codes so you’re pulling them up on your phone. You’re not sharing menus. You have to wear a mask whenever you’re not sitting at your table. There’s no congregating at bars or standing around.

Alex Grace:
No groups larger than, at the time it was four. I think now it’s like 10. So you can’t come in and have a huge party. And all of the waiters are taking it seriously. We’re being tested regularly. I’ve been very impressed with how the restaurant industry has kind of taken it upon itself to self-police. It’s such a small industry. No matter how big your city is, the restaurant industry has always been very small. The staff is very transient. The owners will know each other.

Alex Grace:
And so it really has been a really good push. I’ve been to some restaurants that weren’t taking it as seriously as others. And what I noticed was one, people were more likely to just leave. And two, other owners were reaching out to those restaurants saying, “Hey guys, come on. You need to step it up and here’s why because if it goes bad at your restaurant, it affects us too.”

Alex Grace:
We’re all in this together and we need to make sure that not only are we providing a consistent product and experience, but that we’re helping each other out. So to answer the question in terms of what does that experience look like, I think it’s interesting. Because having grown up around restaurants and I’ve always been an avid consumer, is what I would call it, it’s all been about warmth and hospitality and feel and the high fives, the hugs, the “Hey man, how was your week?” The cheers, they know your name kind of mentality.

Alex Grace:
And I think the struggle for restaurants has been, how do you do that while maintaining social distance? And even with those people who are a little bit more comfortable with a hug or a high five, understanding that that person may have it and not know it. And then I get it from that hug, transmit it to my staff, which affects my business, which affects their paycheck. So it’s like having to almost say like, “No, I’m sorry.” But selfishly, no hugs, but elbow bumps.

Alex Grace:
I see a lot of those, elbow bumps, and the air fives that were so popular in the ’90s. So there’s a lot of uncertainty at the get-go. And the cool thing is we’re now, in Texas, two and a half months into it and so it’s become a little bit more normal. I mean, I was telling you when we talked earlier that I went to brunch with my parents for Father’s Day, and I think this was my parents’ second time out of the house. It was not my second time.

Alex Grace:
But we go to this restaurant and it was a little full. I know in Texas 75% occupancy was kind of the norm at the time, but it just felt full. So I think one of the things that’s going to change in the next 6 to 12 months is the customer, i.e., the consumer, is not going to be okay with fully packed restaurants or fully packed bars or fully packed nightclubs. One of the things that…

Alex Grace:
Especially in the bar and nightclub industry, it has always been the norm. It’s like you get the highest occupancy that the fire marshall will give you, and you go 20% over that and hope you don’t get caught. And I think that those days are over. I think that some sort of reasonable kind of call it packing or reasonable occupancy numbers are going to be the norm moving forward.

Alex Grace:
And I also think that new streams of revenue. I think a lot of restaurants today have to forget about yesterday. What happened in 2019 and the first quarter or first half or the first quarter in 2020 is no longer going to happen again. And so how do you adjust to this new model where take out is a necessity and a decent part of your revenue stream, especially in Texas where we can do takeout alcohol, and then embracing other streams of revenue.

Alex Grace:
So whether it’s having a full restaurant with a huge occupancy or a small restaurant with a huge takeout business. Ghost kitchens. Travis Kalanick’s new venture is a ghost kitchen business in San Francisco that I think has probably never been more well-positioned.

Ethan Beute:
What is a ghost kitchen?

Alex Grace:
So ghost kitchens are the WeWork of kitchens. So it is essentially a main kitchen that is permitted by a company, and then a lot of different restaurants can come in and use that space. And then it’s generally for the use of delivery platforms. So you’ll go into Uber Eats and see a lot of restaurant names that you’ve never seen before that don’t actually have physical locations. Those are coming out of a ghost kitchen. And so that model and other sorts of revenue streams, catering, events, although not so much events now. Also things like Fooda.

Ethan Beute:
A variation of takeout, which is the kind of prepare at home. Obviously not all cuisines lend themselves to that, but I’ve been seeing that. I’ve been seeing people essentially doing the online coach consultant training model where they’re putting subscription-based education and engagement and activity online for people. It’s been really inventive.

Alex Grace:
It’s so cool. One of my favorites is Alinea. So Alinea in Chicago, it’s one of the top restaurants in the U.S. It’s a two or three Michelin star, I forget, and the last in the world I would have ever thought would do take out. And they did. And they did these really cool. I bought one for my sister for her birthday. It was like a steakhouse meal and you could watch a video of Grant Achatz, the head chef, doing it in his house.

Alex Grace:
The funniest thing was that first iterations of their takeout were all being fulfilled out of Grant’s house in Lincoln Park. They’ve since moved it to their restaurant. But I think that personal touch is… Again, if I could go and that’s really… Not to tie back to Fooda. But one of the real cool things, I mean, there’s a reason that we decided at our events, at all of our pop-ups, that the restaurant staff those events, and it’s for this exact reason. If I have Grant Achatz walking out of his house and handing me a take out me meal, I would pay 20% more for that, number one.

Alex Grace:
And number two, I’m more likely to reorder that and tell my friends like, “Hey, the head chef came down and actually handed it to me and it was at his house. And then there was a video in it that told me how to do it of him doing it.” And with Fooda, that’s one of the great experience things, is you have the head chefs or the managers or owners of the restaurants that are manning these events and telling you about the food and the story of their restaurant.

Alex Grace:
And so you go back up to your office, you come down wanting lunch that’s not from a deli and you go back to your desk and you’re like, “I just had a head chef cook me a meal, essentially, and hand it to me.” This is such a cool experience. You tell 10 friends and then they all come down the next time.

Ethan Beute:
Yeah. It’s not like you just got some caloric and nutritious sustenance. You had a full and proper experience.

Alex Grace:
Calories don’t count anyways, especially lunch. I stand by that. That’s not scientific or doctor recommended, but it’s got my standard of approval.

Ethan Beute:
Yeah. So you cover a lot of the key themes, and I think we all experience it differently. There’s this kind of trust and confidence level on the customer side. Do I feel comfortable here? And I think, by the way, for folks who are listening, one of the themes that we’ve been talking a lot about on the show is that customer experience is a lot about how people feel working with you.

Ethan Beute:
What does it feel like to work with your product or your service? And I think in a situation like this where your health and safety is a legitimate issue, besides just like the ratings on the restaurant doors. Is it a clean kitchen or not, which is a big deal. But it’s even more heightened now. And so you can really generate a lot more love and appreciation for your team and your brand and your product and your service, or you can do the opposite.

Ethan Beute:
And so we need to be sensitive to that in particular. And then, of course, the other thing that we just spent some good time on is this adaptability theme, new revenue models, new experiences that we’re creating. Flip it a little bit and talk about what you’re seeing out there from your other customer, the building owners, the office managers, the HR people. What’s the feeling out there from a… You need both sides to work for the core part of the business model. What’s going on on that side of the business?

Alex Grace:
Yeah. If you were to ask me in February what I thought, I wouldn’t have thought any of this would have happened. But if you had asked me who would respond better, the billion-dollar commercial real estate companies or restaurants, I wouldn’t not have answered restaurants. But I think that the restaurants have responded, given the circumstances, pretty well. And I think that the commercial real estate side is still trying to figure it out. And they have a lot more at stake.

Alex Grace:
Obviously, you go to a restaurant once, or if you’re like me, five times a week. Don’t tell my financial planner. But you’re in your building a lot more and for a longer time. So I think that they’re taking the slower and steadier approach. Also kind of at the will of their employers too, who are reacting in so many different ways. You’ve got companies like Google and Twitter saying that they’re going to go work from home permanently.

Alex Grace:
You’ve got AT&T which is said that it’s going to bring 6% of its workforce back until there’s a cure, which are the polar ends of the spectrum. And then you have companies that I won’t name, but the call centers that have been working either through the whole thing or have brought them back as quickly as possible and have done so in a responsible manner.

Alex Grace:
But I think a lot of what it is is that there’s no, in a vacuum, a clear and concise, centralized plan. I’m trying to stay apolitical. Everyone is left to figure it out for themselves. And there’s not a lot of people sharing… It’s everyone’s standing on the edge of the pool and dipping their feet in and nobody’s willing to jump in. And as soon as one person jumps in, especially one person that everyone else trusts, I think people will follow suit. So it’s been interesting.

Alex Grace:
It’s been interesting to watch purely both in my role and as a casual observer. I think that the commercial real estate companies are trying to do what… Managing a lot of chiefs and trying to figure out, okay, well, this company A wants me to do this thing, which is crazy, far into the spectrum. Company B wants me to do something that’s in the middle. Company C doesn’t really care. How do I manage all of those?

Alex Grace:
And how do I also be a good partner to some of these companies when it comes to rent abatement and making sure that they’re able to keep their buildings full. So that’s that one side. And then I’ll also say on the restaurant side, commercial real estate leasing I think has shifted. There’s been a shift in the last two years with kind of the massive openings and closings of restaurants from a flat rent to a percentage rent.

Alex Grace:
I think that that shift is going to continue at an accelerated rate, for sure. I think it makes more sense for restaurants to sign percentage rents versus… Depending on the percentage. But a percentage rent versus a flat rent in most cases, because then you’re truly partners. And so I think that that kind of trend is going to continue to kind of progress.

Ethan Beute:
Any other high-level trends that you’re seeing? Because that one is really, really interesting and I love the way it does set up a true partnership. Some of our relationships with a couple of companies that we partner with for access to their communities, one of them is just flat and you get the feeling that they don’t care as much about your success within their community in terms of getting them to subscribe and use BombBomb.

Ethan Beute:
Whereas the other one is a shared revenue piece, which ultimately we pay that company more, but it also generates a lot more for us. I like the partnership model, in general, a lot more. It’s interesting. Obviously, as someone who doesn’t visit a restaurant five times a week and doesn’t work in the business, I didn’t know that detail, but I’m excited to hear that it’s a trend.

Ethan Beute:
I want to get your take on a couple other topics. But before we do, are there any other kind of high-level trends that you’re seeing, or maybe even something that you would predict as regards kind of where we’ve been the past 15 minutes?

Alex Grace:
Yeah. I made this awesome little kind of switch during this quarantine from predicting or trying to predict. And mind you, I clearly don’t bet on me because a lot of them were wrong. Some are right. But just not predicting because I don’t know. And that’s the scary thing about what’s going on, is there’s so much uncertainty, and who knows?

Alex Grace:
So I think that barring any changes in the kind of direction or momentum that we have right now, I think that there will be a little bit of a rollback. I mean, I don’t see waiters wearing face masks two years from now. Once there is a cure or a vaccine, I think that a lot of that will change a little bit. I do think that the occupancies and the willingness to go to a place that is packed.

Alex Grace:
I mean, that is one thing I don’t miss, is being six deep at a bar and having to scream at a bartender to get a drink or wait 20 or 30 minutes. I don’t miss that. I don’t think that’s coming back. I think nightclubs are going to be a tough business. I think restaurants that serve… One of the cool things, so part of my background, I lived in Montreal. And Montreal has doesn’t do nightclubs.

Alex Grace:
They do, they call it dinner clubs essentially, which is all of the restaurants at 11 o’clock pull the tables or most of the tables and turn into a nightclub or a dance club or a social club. And I think that was probably what ends up happening is your multi-use spaces. So restaurants that have a late-night kind of concept within them. But yeah, other than that, I don’t know. Anyone who says they do has a 50/50 chance of being right.

Ethan Beute:
Yeah. And just when you start to feel like you might know, all of a sudden the rug is pulled out or the wall is shifted or all of a sudden everything looks different. So it’s a good position. I wanted to, for the sake of listeners and just out of, again, curiosity, you’re a mentor and judge for Techstars and mass challenge. That’s a very, very strong pivot, by the way. This is a whole new topic.

Alex Grace:
I like it.

Ethan Beute:
Talk a little bit about that. Maybe for the benefit of listeners, what are some things that you tend to see as a mentor or a judge that you wish like, gosh, if I could just get more people to stop making this mistake, or if I could get more people turned on to this idea, we’d have more successful businesses more quickly?

Alex Grace:
Yeah. It’s been such a great experience and I feel almost as if I’m stealing from them because I truly have gotten more out of it than I think I’m putting in. And I put in a lot. For example, Techstars did, this was probably two or three months ago, a COVID-19 focused startup competition where they… I think it was 50 or 100 startups that were businesses built around COVID and how to either fix a problem or… And it was so cool. And for me, obviously, with our business and everything going on, it was a lot of like medium good to like you’d have one day that’s good, one day that’s bad.

Alex Grace:
It’s like standing in front of a fire hose but not being able to turn it off. And so it was nice to see a positive term. People taking it and making it positive and it really changed my outlook. I’ve kind of changed from, when are we going to get back to what it was like in February and how are we going to fix it now? To like I’m on a rollercoaster ride, and unfortunately, it stops when it stops.

Alex Grace:
I’ll try to predict where it’s going to the best of my abilities, plan A, plan B, plan C, but I really don’t know where it’s going or when it’s going to stop and I can’t get out. So just buckle up and grit your teeth and you’ll make it. So I think what I’ve seen in a lot of these startup competitions, there’s a lot of great ideas. I think that to borrow the Shark Tank analogy, there’s a huge difference between an idea and a product and a company.

Alex Grace:
I think what I’ve seen a lot is two things. One, being completely almost designing your business or your product in a bubble, completely ignoring the world outside. Now, during COVID, I understand that there is some validity to it. But in a normal world, you can’t ignore what’s going on. And so making sure that you don’t design perfect scenario, perfect outcome, perfect response.

Alex Grace:
And then the second thing I see is almost like an over designing of a product. One of my favorite podcasts, other than this one, is Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale. And he’s written a book. Obviously, he has a background a mile long, and I took one of his classes through Harvard Business School as well. He talks about minimum viable products. And I cannot stress that enough.

Alex Grace:
Build something that you are ashamed of and then release it. And then you iterate. Instead of trying to figure out what… It’s like we were talking about earlier, the companies that are trying to figure out what their customers want, or the companies that are listening and asking. With a minimum viable product, you can actually build it, release it, and then your customers will tell you what’s great about it and what’s bad about it. And it’s okay.

Alex Grace:
Feedback is key. Whereas if you are trying to assume everything and you sit on it for two years, A, the chance has probably passed you by, and B, it’s almost over-designed and then you start getting defensive when people give feedback like, “Oh, no, you can’t insult my baby.” You did some things to your baby that you shouldn’t have designed in it and we’re just telling you that.

Ethan Beute:
Yeah, it’s really interesting. And the longer you go without creating a tight customer feedback loop, the more attached to it you get, because if falls into this trap of perceived perfection, which of course is completely unattainable. But really interesting cautions that you offer there. It’s really good. It reminds me of an episode we released a while back with Aaron Weiche, who is a CEO at GatherUp.

Ethan Beute:
We talked a lot about customer feedback loops and tightening them for faster iteration, especially in times like this, where the situation’s very fluid. But this early stage stuff that you’re doing with. Techstars and MassChallenge obviously is supercritical too because there’s that same existential quality to it. If you’re listening to this episode and you’ve enjoyed it so far, it means that you’re okay listening to conversations about the effects of the pandemic.

Ethan Beute:
So I’ve got a couple of other really constructive ones that we’ve released. Episode 76 with Todd Hockenberry, who’s a business advisor, coach, and mentor with Top Line results and co-author on Inbound Organization, a book that I highly recommend. And that one was called When Customer Experience Becomes an Existential Experience. Again, that’s episode 76. And he has some really good stories, like Alex does, about how people are adapting to the situation and staying in touch with their customers and changing the way that they’re generating revenue and providing value.

Ethan Beute:
And then episode 83 was with Brian Gilman, who’s VP of product and solutions marketing at Vonage. That one was pillars of post-crisis customer communication. We talked about pre during and post-crisis. Obviously, the pandemic continues, but we’re… Even though there are all these unknowns around it, we have a few more knowns today than we did.

Ethan Beute:
And so we talked about the stages of progression there and you brushed by some of it, Alex, with talking about contact centers and things like that, like these large groups that are handling these increases in call volumes and how do we manage all of that? And so episode 76 and 83 are both episodes you might enjoy because you’re with us at this point of this conversation.

Ethan Beute:
Alex, relationships are our number one core value here on the customer experience podcast and at BombBomb. And so I’d like to give you the chance to do two things. One, think or mention someone who’s had a positive impact on your life or your career. And two, give a shout out or a nod or a mention too… And you’ve already done this once or twice, which is awesome. But maybe another brand or product or service that you really respect for the way they deliver for you as a customer.

Alex Grace:
Yeah, absolutely. I wholeheartedly agree with the relationship piece. I am a product of every good and bad manager and good and bad coworker I’ve ever had and I’ve learned from all of them. When you gave me the prompt last week, I kind of had to think about it for a while. The one that I kind of center on is a colleague from the last company I was at, Jack Ferris. I mean, he was your prototypical sales leader.

Alex Grace:
He is so high energy. He would run marathons. He would win Grandmaster, which is basically over 50, the best time. Did triathlons. His son was a skydiver and does trail running in like South Africa and these crazy… So the family in and of itself, high energy and super competitive. And he kind of like, in a way, taught me to love sales again and to love the building aspect of it, which has really kind of mirrored in my career.

Alex Grace:
I love building more than I love maintaining. He would come in in the morning and it was like he had had 18 espressos. I was like, man, I haven’t even had my first cup of coffee. Come back in 10 minutes. Just that kind of like high energy joy of life is infectious. And he’s done a lot of things in my career as well. He helped me get promoted in a lot of different places and believed in me when some didn’t. I just think the energy thing.

Alex Grace:
It’s like at the end of the day, a job can be fun if you make it fun. You don’t have to love what you’re doing, but just love being there and showing up every day. Figure out a challenge for that day and conquer it. A lot of little challenges equals a big one. So you take it one day at a time, one task at a time. That has always been really impactful on my life and my career, both professionally and personally.

Alex Grace:
And then in terms of companies, I have mentioned a few. One of the ones that I’ve always kind of loved. I try to stay out of the Apple, Amazon, kind of Tesla, the usual suspects. But this is one that I’m probably going to be buying soon. But Sonos. One of the things I love about Sonos, so I have more speakers than any single male should have. And I keep buying the new ones. Again, don’t tell my financial planner.

Alex Grace:
But one of the things that I love about it is I will get surveys from them probably once a month, maybe once a quarter, and most surveys that I get, and you were talking about it in that last episode, are long and I’m like, “I’m not going to invest the time.” And this is one that I do. And the reason is it asks for products or features that you’d like to see added. And without fail, I will end up seeing one of the ones that I’ve suggested either rolled out in the next version upgrade or within the next 6 to 12 months.

Alex Grace:
And so even though the survey takes me 10 minutes and it is a lot of my time because I actually see their ability to make that change and their willingness to do so and listen, I’m more likely to do it. And I think that that’s kind of what we’ve been talking about, not building the product you think they need, but hearing from them and building the product that they’re asking for.

Alex Grace:
In the last podcast, you had talked about the feedback and companies that are willing to listen. I can tell you, that’s what I mean by adaptability. I’m more likely to be a customer of a company that I know is adaptable and is willing to adapt to, A, my customer needs, but also my feedback and whatever, COVID, and everything that’s going on. That’s all about listening and adaptability.

Alex Grace:
And I think that now you’re seeing the companies that aren’t. I can tell you about airline experiences trying to get refunds or companies’ customer services that have been absolutely terrible. And those are companies that I probably won’t use when the pandemic’s over because it was so hard to get them to listen or to be reasonable. Some of them, in some cases, it’s like they didn’t even know that I existed.

Ethan Beute:
Yeah. So that’s the challenge and the benefit of a strong focus on customer experiences. You have to be consistent every single day. And in times like these, you’re going to make super fans or you’re going to make enemies, depending on how well you deliver on those days. And it’s really up to your team members and keeping that training education alignment altogether so that you can deliver every day when it matters, but especially when it matters most.

Ethan Beute:
The other really interesting thing you offered there is just this… It reminds me of a quote from William James, who’s regarded as the father of American psychology. He says the deepest principle of human nature is a craving to be appreciated. And so for you, Alex, as a customer to say, “I just want to be heard and it’s nice when my ideas are implemented,” that’s Sonos’ way, without picking up the phone and calling you, or sending you a video email, or sending you a handwritten note or something, to say I see you. I hear you. I appreciate you. I understand you because I am taking your ideas.

Ethan Beute:
Not that every idea that a customer sends can be implemented or should be implemented. There’s a lot of editorial judgment there. But just creating that feedback loop and for you to be able to see these things come to life, even if it’s one in 10 is just so validating, and that’s how you build that emotional bond and that’s how you build a community.

Alex Grace:
I agree. Couldn’t agree more.

Ethan Beute:
Cool. Well, this has been awesome, Alex. I really enjoyed it. I thank you so much for sharing all this time with us and your perspective. I loved your thank you to your past sales manager and just that positive outlook on… We have a choice every day to decide whether or not it’s going to be good. That really is a lot up to us; not completely, but a lot of it is. So, so much good stuff in this conversation. If someone wants to follow up with you, Alex, or learn more about Fooda, where would you send people to follow up on this conversation?

Alex Grace:
Yeah, absolutely. So Fooda, we’re active on social media at gofooda, on Twitter at gofooda and on Instagram. You can find me on LinkedIn. It’s Alex Grace on LinkedIn. I am also active on Twitter and Instagram. It’s at mrsartorialist. I made that name a long time ago. I probably I should change it. And you can obviously reach out to me via email as well. If you have questions, it’s [email protected]

Ethan Beute:
Awesome. For folks who are listening, we write up these episodes. We pull some choice video clips, and we add links like all the ones Alex just mentioned. So if you’re out running or walking or doing something else and you don’t want to write that stuff down and you can’t jump on it on your phone, you can always go to bombbomb.com/podcast and just kind of scroll through the list, find the episodes. And of course, you can subscribe there and a lot of other stuff. But I’ll link up all these things that you mentioned, Alex. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Alex Grace:
Yeah, absolutely. Have a good one and stay safe.

Ethan Beute:
Cool. You too.

Alex Grace:
All right. Bye.

 

Video Highlights: What’s Next for Restaurants & Offices

Check out the top five video highlights from the discussion with Alex Grace of Fooda below…

1. Restaurants – New Revenue Streams

 

 

2. Unique Restaurant Experience

 

 

3. Commercial Real Estate – No Clarity, No Plan

 

 

4. Encouragement by Startups

 

 

5. MVP and Feedback Loops

 

Connect with Alex or Fooda:

 

 

Similar Episodes Of This Podcast That You’ll Enjoy:

 
 

Subscribe, Listen, Rate, and Review The Customer Experience Podcast:

 

 

 

 

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