It’s Friday night and you can’t decide where to go out for dinner, a first-world problem if there ever was one.
A couple of decades ago in the District, this was really not an issue because there weren’t nearly as many choices, but nowadays the selection can require serious contemplation. However, if you’ve got a yen for gambling, a smartphone app called Spotluck is here to make your dining-out adventures more interesting.
The brainchild of two D.C.-area entrepreneurs, Cherian Thomas and Brad Sayler, Spotluck offers randomly discounted restaurant meals, all with the spin of a virtual wheel. With participating restaurants organized into “hubs” by neighborhood, including Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Capitol Hill and the U Street Corridor, the Spotluck app’s discounts are dependent on the day of the week, time of day and even the weather, with a premise that meals should be less expensive during slow times, such as a frigid Tuesday evening when diners are less likely to venture out.
“We spent a lot of time analyzing the downsides of existing discounting platforms,” Thomas, Spotluck CEO, says, “to create a merchant-centric product that protected the bottom line while still hooking consumers up with preferred pricing.”
Once users download the free app — ranked no. 1 in the iTunes app store in the dining category, ahead of GrubHub and OpenTable — they get a chance to try out a little restaurant roulette, in the form of one spin a day to receive a random bonus discount from one of the participating restaurants in each neighborhood.
“We saw the frustration restaurants had when it was a Monday at 2 p.m. or if a thunderstorm was on the radar, so Spotluck discounts surge during periods of less demand,” says Thomas. It’s basically the opposite effect of other demand-driven services like Uber, because the focus is to bring customers into the restaurants that have seats to fill at that moment.
Some of the D.C. restaurants that you might land on during a spin include Perry’s, Smoke & Barrel, Big Stick, Indique and Duke’s Grocery — or even a hidden gem you’ve never heard of. The app has become so popular among locals that people lined up throughout the day to find out more about it when Spotluck visited last weekend’s Cherry Blossom Beer & Wine Festival.
“People like telling friends that they knew about us when we only had 30 restaurants,” Thomas says.
Eight of those first 30 restaurants were in the Rockville neighborhood where the app got its start back in 2014. For Spotluck founders Thomas and Sayler, the app was both a leap of faith and a labor of love, taking 18 months to develop, during which they focused first on finding out from restaurant owners what kept them up at night — from rained-out weekends to negative online reviews — and worked to build a concept that would be useful for both the merchants and the consumers, looking to help restaurants build a consistent customer base while diners could enjoy up to 30 percent discounts on food and drink, available only for that day and maybe even only for an hour or two.
With more than 300 restaurants now participating in Spotluck and more than 50,000 downloads, the dining discounts can be found all across the region, from Annapolis to Leesburg to Tenleytown. A new hub is being launched in Falls Church this week, featuring local hot spots like Lebanese Taverna, Mad Fox Brewing Company, Caribbean Plate, Panjshir, Tara Thai and Yayla Bistro. Once Spotluck has finished mapping out deals in the D.C. area, they’ll start expanding to other East Coast cities, with an eye on Philadelphia next.
“Some of our predecessors expanded way too quickly in terms of adding restaurants, but neglected the fact that a strong user base is necessary to support the other side of the platform,” Thomas says. “We won’t expand until we’ve done our work.”
Kristen Hartke is a D.C.-based food and beverage writer. Follow her kitchen adventures at @kristenhartke.