Disrupting Food Ordering and Delivery in Bulgaria: A Start-Up Journey

It was a year ago, on March 13 2020, that Bulgaria declared a State of Emergency because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Bars and restaurants closed and I’m sure that for most of us, what would be on our plate in the next meal became a big priority.

Food deliveries took on heightened importance. With food the distraction of the day, I also craved variety.

Like many of you, I was keen to order deliveries from my favourite restaurants. While I love to cook, I was missing something new and different to eat, while my favourite restaurants were closed.

Orders of takeaway food exploded everywhere and, by recent reports, went up by about 40 per cent.

By way of background, I am co-owner of a table booking and venue listing website and app called Zavedenia App and Zavedenia.bg. My co-owner, Nasko Tonchev, and I were becoming increasingly aware of the issues being experienced by restaurants in the delivery sector. And they became increasingly more vocal as the days turned into weeks of restaurant closures.

Established take-out and takeaway food delivery platforms here in Bulgaria are charging fees of typically around 30 per cent. We started to question why a struggling sector should be paying such high fees. Indeed, some venues showed us that they were paying even more, after extras for accounting fees, priority listing and payment processing fees are applied. Quite eye-watering amounts.

After further discussions with restaurants and through our own experience, we started finding other peeves that irked both delivery customers and the restaurants: namely, the price difference between the dine-in restaurant price of the food and the takeaway price.

The promise of “free” delivery meant that the fees had to be paid by someone. And with all the profit of the food taken by fees, it seemed that putting the food price up and putting up with dual pricing was the only solution.

But if the cause of much complaint, and those pesky high fees, then this was a problem that we needed to investigate more.

By this stage, we were feeling that the restaurants needed something that did not exist: A way for them to escape the pain of high fees and dual pricing.

From a restaurant’s point of view, the market saw that their data was not theirs. They could not remarket back to the customer who has ordered a takeaway from them. They could not even offer basic loyalty to bring their guests back to both another takeaway or indeed to visit their restaurant when they were to open.

It is data, rather than physical assets, that drives the world today and restaurants were annoyed that they were providing data but not receiving any benefit from it.

The aggregators are after your food ordering data and they want the restaurant data. They know what type of food you order and when you order. Some say they could be using that data to market to another restaurant of similar cuisine to the user.

As one user of an aggregator app said, why is there no restaurant phone number being shown? My guess is that the food aggregators don’t want you to call the venue directly and place your order — they would lose out on the occasional commission if they allowed this.

Then there is the issue of distances to deliver; both users and restaurants were complaining that the aggregators refused longer distances. Quite often restaurants were struggling to reach their customers because they were not a local pizza or burger joint. In short, restaurants were getting as bad a deal as the customers “users” of these apps.

The solution to all this seemed well with our grasp: our in-house team of software engineers, most working on client’s projects at App Factory (www.appfactory.bg). That’s our company that provides a professional outsourcing services team for all kinds of web and app projects mainly with UK clients.

In May 2020 we got to work developing Order.bg food ordering software, the restaurant app and the driver’s app. Our software engineering team pulled out all the stops and built a clean and fresh-looking Order.bg website and an iOS app with the Android version launching soon. After three months of testing with one of Sofia’s favourite Indian resturants, Saffran, we launched to selected restaurants.

It certainly has not all been plain sailing: for example, there were several logistical issues. Solutions meant that orders were delivered by us when let down by a driver. But these difficult early experiences have meant we introduced robust Plan B, and even Plan C, backup measures to ensure orders are both fulfilled correctly and delivered in a timely manner.

Our goal is only part-way achieved. We are now rolling out the Order.bg Restaurant app that allows restaurants to manage who delivers the order. It could be their own driver, one of ours or even an outsourced rider group. In April we launch the Order.bg Driver app, currently undergoing testing. These apps make a restaurant, or a restaurant chain, become like their very own aggregator, like Uber Eats etc. They control the orders, fulfill the order, be it for take out or delivery, and they track their own drivers. The decentralisation of the delivery logistics is placing restaurants firmly back in control of their own destiny. They control the quality of the delivery experience, they keep the client data and use Order.bg to help them build their restaurant websites and Facebook marketing.

While our direct marketing budget is modest, we have grown Order.bg in just nine months. Now more than 100 restaurants in Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna are using our ordering technology. They are all saving money and building their businesses where delivery is profitable and works hand in hand with the in-dining experience, now that things have opened up.

We’re now ready to conquer the world and let all restaurants, both physical and virtual (dark) kitchens control their delivery. And here in Bulgaria, we’re managing their table booking and listing in booky.bg and zavedenia.bg. After extensive research, we can see no other company completing the circle for helping restaurants maximise their food ordering returns.

As we prepare for our first funding round, we have some key challenges ahead. We need introduce more restaurants to 100% recyclable packaging of food and ensure all our supporting restaurants have proper websites. And that we make sure they are visible on Google and helping them boost their brand. We will be adding loyalty to increase customer retention and starting corporate food delivery that will enable remote teams to order from a restaurant of their choosing and delivered to their home or office.

We also aim to reduce packaging waste by rolling out our branded paper bags. After that, the mission is that all food containers will be 100% recyclable. With the growth of electric bikes and vehicles, we are looking at ways that all delivery is carbon neutral.

We have solved one of the most common requests which is from customers who live outside the city centres for example in Sofia’s Boyana, Dragalevtsi, Simeonovo, Bistritsa, Pancherevo, Lozen and similar under-served neighbourhoods.

With our solution being software, it is simple to install on a restaurant’s website and Facebook pages and the downloadable apps as well as table booking are putting restaurants back in control.

I do think there is an ethical thread to this story. Most people tell me, as a foreigner here, that Bulgarians only care about price. And that they have no consideration for doing the right thing for supporting local restaurants and no consideration for the environment. I agree it is certainly true that there is much less recycling and a less sensitive approach for thinking how and where money is spent. However, I know things are changing and more citizens are putting thought into where they spend their money and with whom. In any event, I like to be at the start of something rather than following, so I think this way of thinking is growing faster than you may think; it’s just not so visible.

If you’re a restaurant looking to expand or indeed an investor wanting to join us in scaling-up our business in this dynamic market, then contact me.

If you like to see much more of your money go to the restaurant rather than the aggregator and feel that the balance of power should shift in the venue’s favour, then please think about using order.bg. And right now we have a free gift of bottle of Bratanov wine, red or white your choice, with your order from five high quality restaurants in Sofia (that’s a saving of over 20%, btw). Check out Cactus (TV Chef Manchev’s restaurant), Lazy, The Clock, 33 Gastronaughts, and Ventana.

Entrepreneur: www.appfactory.bg | www.order. bg | www.zavedenia.bg