By Jarek Landori-Hoffman
U of T Scarborough students and alumni have been awarded a $30,000 grant from U of T Entrepreneurship and the Lo Family Social Venture Fund to help take their restaurant matching app, PickEasy, to the next level.
Through their app, the PickEasy team—founders Max Woo and Daniel Zhao (pictured L–R), technical co-founder Cho Yin Yong, and mentor Mahmoud Halat—offer free digital transformation services to independently owned restaurants throughout the Scarborough community to help them navigate COVID-19 safety regulations as effectively as larger chains.
To help people answer this question, they created a swipe-based restaurant matching service that would pair users with restaurants based on their preferences and location. Ensuring that the community’s favourite restaurants got their chance in the spotlight was central to their idea.
“Many of my family members own small-scale restaurants in Hong Kong, and they had to work very hard to achieve success and to support their families,” Woo said.
“That’s given me an emotional attachment to small businesses not only in Hong Kong, but in Scarborough as well.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic placed Scarborough on lockdown, Woo and Zhao decided to leverage their start-up to make a difference. They began offering free digital transformation services to small restaurants in Scarborough, helping them create assets like online menus to ensure customer safety. More recently, they’ve also been working with restaurants to enable contact tracing digitally, which not only helps the community stay safe, but also helps reduce costs when compared to physical contact tracing methods.
“We also went door to door to talk to restaurant owners, and they told us that this was something they needed because they didn’t have the capacity to do it on their own, and they were struggling to get adequate return on investment with current practices,” Zhao said.
“That was the moment this project went from just an idea we had to a reality that could make a difference.”
Finding a real need in the community for their service, Woo and Zhao brought their idea to the team at The BRIDGE where they participated in the New Venture Program, a program offered by The BRIDGE to Management students. The New Venture Program provides insights around the early stages of building a start-up and allows students to develop research skills to find the data and information required to support their business. It includes classes on research from U of T Scarborough’s Entrepreneurship Librarian, Sarah Shujah, with access to several online learning modules and direct faculty mentorship from Bill McConkey, Assistant Professor and Academic Director of The BRIDGE.
“Management is our faculty. We went to school there, we learned a lot of paper knowledge there,” Woo said.
“That’s crucial to laying down the groundwork for success, whether in the workplace or in entrepreneurship… but what you need to remember is that there are so many uncertainties in real entrepreneurship that guidance, practical knowledge, and mentorship are essential for success. That’s where The BRIDGE comes in.”
With the entrepreneurial training from the New Venture Program, Woo and Zhao were able to conduct valuable secondary research and deliver an innovative product to the marketplace. With that data in hand, the duo partnered with Dave Fenton, Entrepreneurship and Work-Integrated Learning Coordinator in the Department of Management, to offer a product solution that directly expands efforts to support Scarborough community restaurants.
“That project ties into our goals of putting Scarborough restaurants on the map, and our partnership with the Department gave us a number of new connections that allowed us to quickly scale our potential customer base. While it was a coincidence that our goals aligned, I feel like it was an amazing opportunity that benefits everyone.”
The team plans to utilize the Lo Family Grant to grow their network of diverse restaurant partners and patrons across the Scarborough food scene, underscoring that when cultural diversity is celebrated, incredible things can happen.
“Scarborough is very diverse. You have people from many cultural backgrounds and you get to actually experience people’s cultures, and that’s amazing. It shows you how small our world is, and how Scarborough is like a miniature version of our world,” Woo said.
Story first appeared on December 17, 2020.
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