Tavolo Chief Executive Taran Johaland his team of tech and content entrepreneurs have found local — and nationwide — fame with their viral social media videos, in which they ask people on the streets of the Twin Cities: "Hey, hey! What's your favorite restaurant in Minneapolis?"
Sometimes those people are seemingly random strangers that lead the unseen voice behind the camera to a favorite lunch spot. Sometimes they're "Top Chef" alum Justin Sutherland or Jun owner Jessie Wong showing off their local establishments. Throughout the about-a-minute-long videos, the viewers learn a bit about their impromptu host as well as the yummy-looking food at the chosen venue.
The videos have brought attention, growing Tavolo's Instagram account from just under 1,000 to more than 25,000 followers in the past six months. The company's TikTok account has 11,000 followers, and the list of people asking for a feature has grown into the thousands. But what's fueling Minneapolis-based Tavolo's 1,200% revenue growth this year is its skill at monetizing its custom-built software behind the video editing process.
Tavolo started in 2019 as an app that streamlined the process of making dining reservations for customers. As demand for contactless service grew coming out of the pandemic, the founders added features that allowed diners to pick their meals and pay for them from their tables inside the restaurant.
While pleasing customers already inside the restaurant was great, clients needed help bringing more to their tables. The app included a push notification feature to alert loyal customers about discounts, specials or suggestions of what to try on their next visit, but it wasn't enough.
"We realized the real problem these owners were facing was generating more money to stay open," Johal said.
Restaurant owners' inability to create their own online marketing content on a regular basis was a major part of the problem, he said. Nearly a third of millennial diners avoid restaurants with a weak Instagram presence, according to Social Media Today.
In January, when Tavolo was generating close to $1,000 in net revenue, the team began developing software to automatically edit and distribute videos that restaurant owners uploaded. The software gives the user directions on what to record in a few short snippets and provides editing templates. Once submitted, the software automatically edits the project — including adding hashtags and captions — and shares it through email, text and the restaurants' social media channels.
More than 70 customers have used the new platform since July, adding to Tavolo's growing client list of roughly 300. On average, Johal estimate's their software is saving restaurant operators $5,000 per month in internal marketing labor costs or payments to outside marketing-production companies.
"Their price is good compared to other social media companies," Wong said.
For Wong, chef and owner of Jun Szechuan Kitchen & Bar in Minneapolis, doing a video with Tavolo — the platform's most popular with more than 1.5 million views — doubled customer traffic at the restaurant during the Minnesota Stair Fair, traditionally one of the slowest weeks of the year, Wong said.
"People would say that they've seen the video, and that's why they were there," Wong said.
Partnering with Tavolo launched the restaurant owner's first presence on social media. Now, she has more than 5,000 followers on Instagram.
While there are some restaurateurs — and even once a food critic in Minnesota Monthly's Jason DeRusha — Tavolo's own video series are mostly everyday people, not paid actors. The conversations aren't scripted, either, Johal said.
"We try to find people we think might be unique," he said. "We also try to find people who are trying to go to restaurants we've never heard of or tried before."
The series is also an unapologetic — and savvy — play at self-promotion.
"We started to use that as a way for restaurants to know about who we are," Johal said. "We focus on content creation, and the best way for us to prove our value is to be excellent content creators and create viral content."
Several viewers have commented that the series has changed their perception of Minneapolis, said Salman Elmi, Tavolo's co-founder and head of product. Meet Minneapolis, the tourism agency for the city, has struck a partnership with the company to use the series to drive more foot traffic to the area, he said.
"It's such a pleasure to be able to help these businesses and restaurants grow and get the attention they deserve because they're bringing in cuisine that is culturally diverse," Elmi said. "It's like New York, but it's right here in the Midwest."
While the videos seem organic and friendly, not every pedestrian is willing to participate.
"If you see the bloopers, it's very awkward," Elmi said. "'No, I don't want to.' 'I don't want to comment.' 'I already ate.' It takes a few hit or misses."
This summer, Tavolo was the only Minnesota company selected for Techstars Farm to Fork accelerator for food-focused startups. St. Paul-based Ecolab mainly funds the Minneapolis-operated program. Acceptance into nationally ranked Techstars, which has more than $850 million in assets under management, includes $120,000 in funding. Of that funding, $20,000 is an equity investment from Techstars, with $100,000 an optional convertible note.
"Taran and the team at Tavolo have the ability to revolutionize marketing across the hospitality industry, and the early use cases and performance are very exciting to see," said Sarah Bain, managing director of Techstars Farm to Fork accelerator. "The advancements in AI and the rise of content creation for businesses present a massive opportunity for Tavolo to build around."
Tavolo's founders feel they have yet to tap into the full potential of their software. Plus, they haven't featured many St. Paul eateries, let alone those in the suburbs or other cities in greater Minnesota.
"The opportunity is massive," Johal said, "not just across the U.S. but across the world."