Digital bites: Apps taking the annoying out of restaurants

The number of times the average American eats a sit-down meal in a restaurant has been dwindling steadily since 1984: NPD Group.

Americans love to eat out, but for a consumer habit that can oftentimes lead to over-the-top indulgence, it's somewhat surprising how frustrating the dining-out experience can still be. That's why apps are going far beyond GrubHub and Seamless, and the days of a Foursquare check-in by a friend to pick your dining establishment are waning.

"Everyone is trying to get a piece of the app business now," said senior research analyst Peter Saleh of Telsey Group, who covers the restaurant business. "And consumers want the tech. One of the No. 1 complaints that they have regarding the food-service industry is the speed of checkout," he said.

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The following five services are examples of how the app economy is trying to make eating out less annoying and more profitable for the entrepreneurs in the high-risk restaurant arena.

1. Chefs Feed: Eat where Mario Batali eats, and hate on Yelp!

The Chefs Feed app, website and YouTube channel offer restaurant reviews, suggestions and tips from top-notch chefs covering many cities across the U.S.

"We like to think of food as the new rock and roll, and chefs as the new rock stars," said CEO Rich Maggiotto.

Chefs Feed currently features reviews from more than 1,000 chefs in over 25 cities, including all the major metro areas. Reviews for Charlotte, Nashville, Minneapolis and Charleston will launch in the coming weeks. "Expect four new cities a quarter," Maggiotto said.

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The site hopes to help chefs regain control of the conversation surrounding food. Or in other words, it is the antithesis to Yelp, which Maggiotto said often features the "rambles" of angry guests.

For those who think celebrity chefs are just shilling for their buddies (negative reviews are not encouraged by Maggiotto), he responded that "we believe if you don't have something nice to say, then it's not worth mentioning. Also, the chefs we use say that everything they do affects their brands. This causes people to avoid simply recommending their friends."

Not every chef is able to join this network, which includes Mario Batali, Eddie Huang and Daniel Boulud, among many other celebrity chefs. New members must be invited by current members.

2. Reserve: Leaving OpenTable without a seat at the table

Restaurant reservation apps are nothing new. However, the Reserve app goes a step beyond OpenTable by allowing customers to get recommendations based on your dining preferences (or view alternatives if a favorite is fully booked for the night), book the table and pay for the meal they haven't yet had on their smartphones.

"We help manage the entire dining experience," said Greg Hong, Reserve founder and CEO. "From getting a great recommendation for a great restaurant to being greeted by name at the door and paying without having to fumble for your wallet, the entire experience is invisible and all taken care of."

Reserve services are currently free to its restaurant partners, which include James Beard Award holders and Michelin star winners. The catch: It charges a $5 concierge fee whether the party consists of two people or eight.

Reserve launched in October 2014, and according to Hong, it is the only app to aggregate the recommendation, booking and payment process. The new company is tight-lipped about the total number of active users but raised $15 million in funding this year, including investments from Hollywood celebs Jon Favreau (director and star of the aptly named indie flick "Chef") and Jared Leto.

3. Hello Vino: Saying good-bye to a pricey label only snobs would understand

Hello Vino aims to help take the intimidation and annoyance out of selecting wines from bulky wine lists. It allows consumers to pair foods with wines, log the brands and varietals they've tried, and scan and upload photos of bottle labels for additional information.

Currently, only 23 percent of Hello Vino users use the app while eating out, opting instead to use the app to vet retail purchases, but Rick Breslin, founder and CEO, said that there is room for more growth for the app as an in-restaurant experience.

"The wine industry is a $36 billion industry," he said. "And ninety-five percent of what the wine people consume happens in restaurants."

4. Caviar: The delivery app for the 1 percent

Even with all of the app happenings aiming to get you out of the house, the delivery app is a key piece of the American dining habit. As its name suggests, Caviar tends to partner with pricier brands than those available on Seamless and Grubhub. In some cases, Caviar allows consumers to order delivery from elite restaurants that do not even employ in-house delivery personnel. It currently covers 17 U.S. cities.

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The Ramen Bar, which doesn't have a delivery team, has seen as much as a 13 percent increase in sales via delivery since it started using the Caviar app in March. Alyssa Reaves, assistant director of operations for the San Francisco-based restaurant, said, "We have captured a lot of the downtown lunch market. But with Caviar, we are able to reach the people who can not always run out for lunch." Reaves also said you have to know your audience: "The Financial District of San Francisco is a tech-driven community, so the demand for tech is there."

Diana Hardeman, founder of the New York City-based MilkMade locally sourced ice-cream maker and delivery club—it delivers two new flavors a month and never repeats them—is certainly a good fit for Caviar with her refined palate. And she does use it—as a customer. Caviar is MilkMade's first choice when ordering food for the start-up's staff. In addition to it being easy to use, "it filters out some of the places like the $1 pizzas from up the street that I wouldn't want to order from," Hardeman said.

5. Vurb: PayPal co-founder Max Levchin uses it for his nights out on the town

Vurb aggregates sites like Foursquare, Yelp, Google maps and Uber so that users do not have to leave Vurb to make plans with friends. Vurb's algorithm allows users to search for dinner reservations, event tickets, Uber car services and more, and create cards (think interactive PowerPoint slides) of their selections, compile the cards into decks, and send the decks to friends for review.

"Google hasn't won when it comes to finding things on our phones," said Vurb CEO and founder Bobby Lo. "You still need to toggle from app to app and open up a bunch of different tabs. We waste time copying and pasting links to different places into iMessage and sending them to our friends when planning nights out. Vurb provides a cohesive search experience that allows all of the different elements to work together."

Lo, an MIT grad, double-majored in business and computer science and also received a master's degree in business from MIT and did much of the site's initial development himself. "I couldn't create a scrappy version of the app and just release it," he said. "It took three to four years to build."

Earlier this year, Vurb raised $8 million in funding, including investments from PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston and Naval Ravikant of AngelList.

Getting stuck with a bigger bill

It's not all about your convenience: Average bill size may also rise, thanks to the apps.

"Technology never forgets to ask you what kind of drink you want or if you need a new one, and so it's better at upselling," Saleh said. "Consumers are more likely to provide personal information and sign up for loyalty programs via tablet than they are to sign up with pen and paper," he added. Tablets and other technologies also have the potential to save business owners money in labors costs by eliminating the process of waiting for a waiter to print your bill and swipe your card,