Tech startup gives new meaning to on-the-go food service

Paisano's Pizza Grill owner Nick Skover, along with Eatabit co-founders Greg Oleksiak and Stuart Moore. (Brad Nettles/Staff)

The first thing Greg Oleksiak and Stewart Moore want to make clear: Eatabit is not an app.

While many tech startups have found fame and fortune in the App Store, the young Charleston entrepreneurs said they wanted to keep their mobile technology as simple as possible.

"There are so many apps now, and they're oversaturated . that's why we looked at text (messaging) because it's so universal," Moore said. "My mom wouldn't download an app, but she certainly texts."

Oleksiak and Moore last year developed Eatabit, an order-by-text-message service that they hope will become commonplace in restaurants within the next few years. The mobile technology is the first of its kind, and less than a year after it was established, Eatabit is already available in eight local restaurants and Joe Riley Park, and at least two more restaurants are adding the service in the next few weeks.

Restaurants who buy the Eatabit service for a monthly fee receive a unique phone number and a custom-built ticket printer with cellular connectivity. Customers text message that phone number with commands such as "I'd like to place an order" or "I'm hungry," and a computer server programmed with automated responses replies and takes the orders. Once a delivery or to-go order is placed, the restaurant's printer lights up and spits out the ticket.

The server is also programmed to take payment and even responds to questions like, "How much longer until my food is ready?"

"The great thing about this startup is that it's really easy to sell," Oleksiak said. "When we walk into a restaurant, we just plug (the printer) in and we're immediately able to text an order to it and it prints out on a piece of paper with all the information necessary to execute the order, and the restaurant owners look at us with that look on their face like, 'Why didn't someone invent this earlier?' "

The custom printers, designed by local engineer Tim Taylor, are about the size of a tissue box and don't require extra software or configuration at the restaurants.

Nick Skover, owner of Paisano's Pizza Grill, was the first to add the text ordering service at his restaurant on James Island. He said Eatabit has helped with speed and efficiency in the kitchen, and it keeps customers from having to wait on hold when they call in orders.

"The other thing that has spawned out of it is the text members club," he said. "We'll give special deals to text customers. Once a week we'll send out a special like 50-cent wings or another really attractive deal."

That program is an effort to grow Paisano's customer base through Eatabit, he said.

Eatabit graduated from the Harbor Accelerator program, an incubator for startup companies offered by the Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit Harbor Entrepreneur Center. The order-by-text technology was one of eight startups chosen to participate in the 14-week program last year from more than 100 applicants.

To qualify, entrepreneurs had to prove they were past the idea phase, and that they had the potential to expand their business on a national and even global scale.

John Osborne, a co-founder of the organization, said Eatabit demonstrated early on it had what it would take to succeed quickly as a technology startup.

"Text is something people do multiple times daily. ... The ability to make a program simple with something as usable as text messaging is brilliant in my opinion," Osborne said.

During the 14-week program, Oleksiak and Osborne met with entrepreneurial mentors, who helped them develop a strategy to quickly grow the business.

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"Before we entered the Harbor Accelerator, we had a tough time solidifying our business goals," Oleksiak said. "Actually figuring out what to do every day with the limited time we had, because we both work full time ... that was a big problem for us and really the Harbor solved it and got us where we are today."

Since presenting the business to stakeholders and investors at the Wild Pitch event at the Dig South Festival last month, Moore said he and his business partner made "fantastic connections," and have several meetings on the books with some big players in the industry.

"We got a lot of attention from palpable investors and a lot of great feedback about the business and ideas. It was great to get that validation from some of our peers and people we respect in the community," Oleksiak said.

The next step for Eatabit is to spread as much as possible to local restaurants, he said. Besides the eight restaurants, they also operate the text ordering process at Riley Park. During baseball season, servers at the RiverDogs stadium use Eatabit-provided cellphones to take orders and text them to the kitchens from the stands. Moore said it speeds up food preparation and delivery, because servers don't have to go back and forth from the kitchens as often.

Osborne said it's "extremely realistic" that Eatabit will be in most restaurants in the Lowcountry and in many others across the Southeast in the next three months. In five years, Osborne said, he sees them as a major player in the mobile tech industry - whether that means dominating the order-by-text market or selling the Eatabit technology to a powerful firm.

"This is the perfect startup opportunity where they can go make a lot of noise in an existing industry, and a big player can either buy them or they can take it over," he said.

Regardless of potential growth, Oleksiak and Moore have no plans to move the business anywhere else.

"Five years ago, we would have been flipping a coin to decide who would move to Silicon Valley to get attention from investors or big players in the tech industry, and now you don't have to do that anymore," Oleksiak said. "It's really an exciting time techwise to be in Charleston. ... We feel like we're in the absolutely perfect place to be for this product."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906.