Five questions with Habitat Blue

Running a food and beverage company is no simple matter, as Singapore-based game development firm Red Hare Studios found out when studying restaurant management games. That inspired it to spin off a new business, Habitat Blue, to develop software to help restaurateurs manage their outlets and staff more efficiently. Yasmine Yahya speaks to company founder Koh Wee Lit to find out how it is doing and what's next.

Dr Koh Wee Lit sees more ways in which Habitat Blue's software can help restaurateurs manage their businesses. Currently, the Orca software consists of specialised apps for workers in different roles in a restaurant that help them perform their jobs
Dr Koh Wee Lit sees more ways in which Habitat Blue's software can help restaurateurs manage their businesses. Currently, the Orca software consists of specialised apps for workers in different roles in a restaurant that help them perform their jobs more efficiently. The firm is looking next at, among other things, an app through which customers can lodge complaints to allow business owners a chance to do service recovery.ST PHOTO: DAVE LIM

Q Tell me about how Habitat Blue got started.

A Red Hare was doing research on restaurant management games because we wanted to be exposed to as many genres of games as possible. And while doing so, we realised that it's fine if you are managing one restaurant but it's a nightmare when you are managing two or more. We thought, why not develop a system that would help business owners so they can hire people to run their business while still maintaining the kind of control they would have if they were running it themselves? This would ensure the same level of quality for their customers even when they're not there personally. And so that's how we came to develop our restaurant management software, called Orca.

Q Is the idea for one restaurant to manage all outlets at the same time, or to give ownership and empowerment to staff?

A We have come up with a set of processes so the business owner can work on the business while not not physically in the shop doing the cooking, customer service and inventory planning. Because if you want to do it all yourself, it would be very hard for your business to scale. The idea is that you could set up some processes for people to follow - give them training, teach them how to do certain things, so there is a certain level of experience and quality you can guarantee to customers.

Q So how does the software help?

A The software looks at the restaurant as a collaborative performance with different actors - chefs, waiters, outlet managers, accountants, supply chain managers, and so on. And each needs to fulfil his role in a standardised manner to provide that expected customer experience. If let's say a supply manager didn't manage the supplies well, the quality of ingredients drop, the food quality would drop too. They are all working together as a team. So the system consists of specialised applications for each actor. The chefs, for example, would have a kitchen display system that would help them organise orders. The waiters have an app that would help them familiarise themselves with the menu. The app makes it easier for them to sell certain menu items. So for example you can programme the menu to prompt the waiter such that if a customer orders a particular item, say a burger, it would remind the waiter to suggest to the customer - why not also order a milkshake?

Q There are other restaurant management software out there. How is yours better?

A Our software is flexible and can be customised for different countries. We have customers in Malaysia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia and in each market, customers have different expectations. For example, in the Philippines, service is still the most important thing.

If you give an iPad to the customer and expect him to place an order himself, you probably wouldn't get any business. In Malaysia, because of its currency fluctuations, businesses are facing cost pressures so they need to be able to price their food higher. If you ask people to place their orders on an app, the impression they get is of a fast-food restaurant. So rather than having customers ordering themselves, the waiter would carry the iPad and take the orders.

There are existing systems on the market that do this but in the backend, they are still relying on a printer in the kitchen to print out the order. The kitchen doesn't have a smart system to alert chefs of the orders and organise them according to when each item should be cooked.

Once the waiter has placed an order on his app, the app would immediately send the order to the chef's app, which would organise all orders based on a first come, first served basis and on serving order. For example, if the customer has ordered fries and a burger, you'd want them ideally to be finished cooking at the same time. The app would program it such that the chefs would be alerted when to start cooking so the items are ready at the same time.

Q What's next for Habitat Blue?

A We have served over 100 businesses in eight countries. There are a few things we are looking at next. We are looking to expand our solution to include applications that would allow businesses to be discovered through the Internet and help connect businesses with their customers. So for example, if there is a customer who's unhappy and might post a rant on social media, we want to give business owners the tools to do service recovery before he publicises his rant. So our app would be an avenue through which customers can lodge complaints.

It would also be a direct way for the customer to reach the business owner and the business owner has a chance to do service recovery, by for example, issuing a voucher to the customer.

We are calling this new app Guppy, and we are launching it in the fourth quarter.

We are also looking to introduce machine learning to Orca so it can predict inventory. Without proper systems, sometimes you over-order and waste your money, sometimes you get pilfering from staff.

So what we want to do is give real-time information on inventory levels which would help business owners better decide how much to order what items and when and let them know if there's a discrepancy in inventory levels versus how much has been used so they know if there has been pilferage.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'Five questions with Habitat Blue'. Subscribe