This Toronto startup made an app to help small restaurants survive the pandemic

U of T students and alumni helped more than 40 restaurants go digital

PickEasy team
Daniel Zhao, Max Woo and Choyin Yong, co-founders and Mahmoud Halat, mentor. Courtesy of PickEasy

Growing up in restaurant families, the young co-founders of a new food ordering app know how hard it is for mom-and-pop shops to compete with big chains. That’s why the four U of T students and alumni created a Tinder-style app to bring Torontonians closer to their local restaurants.

“Big guys have more resources than small guys do,” Max Woo, one of the co-creators, said in a video interview with the Toronto Observer. “We’re helping to bridge that gap between the small businesses and the large ones.”

According to Restaurants Canada, 10,000 restaurants across Canada have shut down due to the pandemic since March 2020, which accounts for 10 per cent of the total number. Many of those who didn’t close experienced economic hardships as COVID-19 restrictions changed and they struggled to adapt.

Max Woo and Daniel Zhao, co-founders of PickEasy
Max Woo and Daniel Zhao, co-founders of PickEasy, wanted to find a way to help small restaurants survive the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO COURTESY OF PICKEASY

Mobile app that supports local restaurants

The idea for PickEasy was born at a gym right before the pandemic.

“In the middle of my set, I was just scrolling through Instagram or Facebook. And I saw this meme called Chicken Tinder,” Woo said.

Woo was inspired.

“Because that’s probably what I actually need,” Woo said, “And when I looked at the comments, there were more than 1,000 comments, and there were more than a million reactions.”

He immediately called his friends, Daniel Zhao and Choyin Yong to share his findings. After some discussions, they understood that many food ordering platforms are quite inefficient. So, they decided to improve people’s experience by creating a mobile restaurant matching app that does not charge restaurants a commission, as some others do.

“We were just so excited about the idea,” Woo said. “We made the minimum viable product within two weeks. We pushed on to the App Store and that’s how it came about.”

When Toronto was placed into lockdown, the disparity between local and big restaurants increased. 

“So that’s the problem we want to solve for restaurant owners,” Zhao said. “We want to bring people closer to them, as well as give them the tools to operate more efficiently and more safely.”

WATCH: How PickEasy helps restaurants go digital

PickEasy is not the first startup that Zhao and Woo have been trying to launch. The high school friends are always coming up with ideas.

“We’ve settled on too many business ventures with varying degrees of success,” Woo said. “You can’t be afraid to fail.”

The team has been a part of the BRIDGE, an accelerator created in partnership with the Department of Management and UTSC Library, and The Hub, an entrepreneurship incubator at the U of T Scarborough.

“The BRIDGE was always there, to support us and try to guide us through the process of even starting a business” Zhao said. “They even use our business idea as part of a curriculum that they’re teaching to other students in the classes.”

PickEasy’s founders are busy with work and their studies. Zhao is an alumna of U of T Scarborough management program with a specialization in accounting. He works full time at Deloitte and recently was accepted into NEXT36, a program designed to train and support 36 most promising entrepreneurial leaders.

Woo is a fourth-year student in a management program specializing in strategic management. As part of his co-op at Nissan Canada, he developed 2020 Nissan Sentra’s marketing campaign adopted nationwide. A technical co-founder, Choyin Yong and mentor, Mahmoud Halat, work at Verto, a health startup that recently launched COVID-19 Appointment Booking and Assessment Centre Capacity Optimization Solution.

  • Daniel Zhao, co-founder of PickEasy
  • Max Woo, co-founder of PickEasy
  • Choyin Yong, technical co-founder
  • Mahmoud Halat, mentor

Local restaurants struggle to survive the pandemic

Jordan Rulloda, the owner of the Bar’kada restaurant on Queen Street West, got his start in 2019.

“We signed a 10-year lease going into that planning,” Rulloda said in an interview with the Toronto Observer. “After reconstruction, we were planning to open in April.” 

Because of COVID-19, the plans were changed. He eventually decided to launch Bar’kada in November 2020 without a formal grand opening. 

But the sit-down restaurant for 80 people was hit hard by the pandemic and continuous lockdowns. 

“It’s not a small space, so my rent is fairly large,” Rulloda said. “But the biggest struggle is that because we’re a new business, we’re not getting any subsidy relief because we don’t have 2019 financials.”

To adapt to a new reality and keep his business afloat, Rulloda added a patio and changed the menu to include takeout options. He also had to lay off many of his employees, keeping only two people from the kitchen.  

Jordan Rulloda, owner of BAR'KADA
Jordan Rulloda, owner of Bar’kada, stacks take-out orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO COURTESY JORDAN RULLODA

He partnered with PickEasy.

“Having that platform [PickEasy] is great,” Rulloda said. “It’s just one click or one customer coming that brings a revenue stream that you might potentially have forever.

On April 3, the Ontario government announced another provincewide shutdown for 28 days, which caused all restaurants to go back to takeout and deliveries only.

“It’s kind of a living nightmare,” said James Rilett, Restaurants Canada’s vice-president for Central Canada. “Every time they close down, it costs about $10,000 the average restaurant.”

New launch, new opportunities for restaurants

On March 15, PickEasy launched a new version of the app that features more than 40 takeout deals. Their goal is to encourage people to get takeouts themselves without relying on other food ordering and delivery platforms that charge hefty commissions.

“It will help restaurants’ owners more, because they won’t be paying that hefty cut for these delivery apps,” Zhao said.

Rilett agrees that it will benefit restaurants.

“It definitely helps anytime you can buy directly from the restaurant,” he said. “If you can cut out the middleman and cut out that 30 per cent commission fee, it’s a great boon to the restaurant.”

All restaurants featured on Yelp, a platform for consumers to review local businesses, are automatically displayed on the app. PickEasy’s founders are also looking to create more meaningful partnerships with local restaurants by securing exclusive takeout deals for users.

“The more restaurants that we get, the more deals we have, users are more likely to download our app and claim those deals,” Zhao said. “And in turn, we get more exposure to these small restaurants.”

About this article

Posted: Apr 16 2021 6:40 pm
Filed under: Business Community COVID-19 Features Food News