March 03, 2016
Xavier Mariezcurrena doesn’t tweet a lot, but when he does, it’s under the moniker “WinePplProblems.” The 30-something and self-described beef jerky aficionado has been working in the restaurant business since before he was old enough to saddle up to the bar and drink. He first cut his teeth at ChopHouse, a steakhouse in Voorhees, New Jersey, before joining P.J. Whelihan’s and later Vetri and Capital Grille.
Mariezcurrena – who goes by X – was on a pretty predictable trajectory in front-house operations until he and compatriot chef Tony Aiazzi (formerly of the Charlie Palmer Group, CommRow and Workshop Kitchen) decided it was time to shake things up.
“We’re former restaurant guys who felt the pain of the operations status quo,” says Mariezcurrena.
But rather than cry tears in their beers, they decided to do something about it. The idea came to them as they began planning their own restaurant.
And while the restaurant never actually opened (Mariezcurrena describes the industry as “the land of broken dreams”), their lives changed for the better with a whole new business venture called ChouxBox.
In French, choux (pronounced “shoo”) means cabbage. In reality, ChouxBox is the industry’s first web-based “point-of-purchase” (POP) service. The idea came while Mariezcurrena was working at Union Trust just six years ago.
“A sales guy came in and I handed him my business card,” remembers Mariezcurrena. “He pulls out his phone and takes a picture of my business card and hands it back to me.”
That’s when the light went on. What if chefs and other restaurant folks could do the same with the avalanche of paperwork they collect from day to day? It stood to reason that a high-tech approach to mundane office work that most chefs already hate could make sense, especially if you consider the success the front of the house has enjoyed in recent years since online reservations and other apps have become more popular.
“Everything comes in on pieces of paper,” says Mariezcurrena, right down to the daily deliveries and orders that all need to be entered into an Excel spreadsheet.
He says that when giving most chefs the choice of whether to peel shrimp for four hours or enter data into a spreadsheet for two hours, they’ll take the shrimp every single time.
“You have kids playing ping pong and deciding how we can grow our business.” - Xavier Mariezcurrena
“It’s archaic,” he says, “and the numbers never match.”
That’s when he and Aiazzi started looking into ways to change the way restaurants do business behind the scenes. They decided that if someone can write a restaurant review on a smartphone, there’s no reason restaurants should be stuck using software from the 1980s in the back office.
“Chefs are smart guys,” he says, “but they’re not good at sitting behind a desk.”
So these two restaurant guys with zero experience with tech decided to launch their very own app. They worked with SourcePad in New York City to build the idea. It was a simple shell at first, but it offered exactly what they wanted: a way to scan documents into an app that would then save the data into a spreadsheet that could be shared with anyone on the team. Once they had something to test, the guys asked their foodie friends to take ChouxBox for a spin.
Admittedly, the hardest part was finding a way to customize the app for everything they wanted it to do for clients ranging from high-end dining to cafes and coffee shops. But within about a year or two, beta testing was well underway. Soon after, they would take all the ideas, criticisms and accolades and roll out a tighter version of the app, this time integrating QuickBooks into the mix.
With a successful third-party partnership, ChouxBox really came into its own when the guys took the idea to Silicon Valley and met with executives from PayPal, where they were accepted into an acceleration program that would give the app the legs (and financing) it needed to go mainstream.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” says Mariezcurrena. “You have kids playing ping pong and deciding how we can grow our business.”
The work paid off.
“The app is now available to anyone,” says Mariezcurrena. “Most people can get it up and running in just 30 minutes.”
Townsend “Tod” Wentz, the owner and chef of Townsend and the newly opened A Mano, started using ChouxBox when he first opened his eateries. He says he wanted to be able to streamline invoicing and increase the speed in which we could see costs.
“When we planned to open our second restaurant,” he says, “it was a great way to collate invoices in one office and see in near real time purchases in both locations.”
It also allowed his team to centralize bookkeeping, to create an opportunity to maximize purchasing by leveraging pricing across both restaurants and to have overall better and faster cash-flow management.
“It allowed us to see what was happening in purchasing daily, not once a week when the bookkeeper came by each place separately to enter the week's invoices,” he says.
And it shaved as much as five hours of data entry off his busy schedule.
And he’s not alone. The app is now also being used by La Colombe, Pub & Kitchen, Independence Beer Garden, Rouge, Sbraga and many other big and small Philly eateries.
“Philly is a hard town to sell into,” admits Mariezcurrena, “and the restaurant world is a pretty transient business.”
But word-of-mouth seems to be paying off in a town known for its hardcore eating habits and blue-collar attitude. During a recent visit to Kanella, where ChouxBox is currently being used, someone on the line mentioned that they had already been using the app at Anise. Word is getting out, which seems funny to Mariezcurrena, who developed the core of the idea one night on a cocktail napkin.
Of course, the irony of two food guys getting into the app business in the first place is also not lost on Mariezcurrena. Neither is the way it changed the way he works from his home in the Italian Market.
“We started this business because we hated paperwork,” he says, “and now that’s all we do.”