Small Businesses (Food Trucks) Embrace Tablet, Mobile Apps; Mobile Developers Respond

Serena Dai/MEDILL Artie Bethishou, owner of food truck Chickpea Delights, checks his phone. More small businesses are using mobile apps to run business.

By Serena Dai |

Artie Bethishou, owner of food truck Chickpea Delights, checks his phone. More small businesses are using mobile apps to run business. Serena Dai/MEDILL
Bethishou stands in his food truck. Serena Dai/MEDILL

When Artie Bethishou’s red-and-white checkered food truck Chickpea Delights debuted early September, he and his wife could only accept cash payments for their Middle Eastern vegetarian fare. Bethishou had managed fast food before—he once owned and operated a Subway Restaurants sandwich franchise—so he knew he needed to accept credit card payments to stay competitive.

But Bethishou wanted something simple and mobile. He asked other Chicago food trucks. Everybody was using Square, a free-to-download mobile app that charges a fixed 2.75 percent fee for each transaction. He signed up.

“It was a two-fold decision,” he says. “Other vendors were utilizing [credit card swiping]. Customers were asking for it. When everyone else is doing it, we thought it was important for us to be doing it too.”

Now, nearly 25 percent of Chickpea Delights’ business comes from credit card payments, a number Bethishou expects to grow. As for Square, Square Inc. has shipped more than 750,000 of its credit card readers, a small white accessory that can be attached to a phone or tablet, a company spokeswoman says. Several thousand of those went to Chicago.

But Square is not the only technology making business easier for entrepreneurs. From credit card swiping to customer loyalty programs, apps geared toward small businesses are popping up. And more small businesses are embracing that tablet and mobile app technology to run operations—spurring further mobile innovation and, in turn, simplifying customers’ experiences.

Chicago tech consultant Jason Burton, who works with as many as 50 businesses at a time, has seen a big shift away from PCs to mobile apps in the past two years as owners update old technology.  With the increased quality of cloud-based apps, or applications that store information via the Internet rather than on a computer, businesses can access information through web browsers on a tablet or smartphone. The cloud practically eliminates the need to haul around a laptop, Burton says.

“You can accomplish 90 percent of the tasks of a desktop computer with a tablet,” he says.

Though tablets have been around for years, the release of Apple Inc.’s iPad ignited higher interest in the technology. The iPad is cool and people like to have one to appear modern and chic, says Jonathan Pasky, the president of Techweek, an annual Chicago-based tech conference and trade show.

“[People want] to show clients that they’re up on the new technology,” Pasky says.

Most businesses still have a computer to run higher-powered software that can’t be used on a tablet such as video editing or graphic design programs. But with the growth in cloud computing, the future looks mobile, Burton says.

“The time will come where we can totally eliminate computers, and small businesses, in general, won’t need desktops anymore,” Burton predicts.

Chicago innovators have been responding to the demand for mobile technology. All six of the mobile development companies in the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce have appeared in the past two years, says John DeRango, director of web and social media at the chamber. These new companies do things such as help businesses manage quick response codes—those black and white squares on ads. Others consult on mobile marketing strategies.

“We haven’t seen growth in an industry sector like this in awhile,” DeRango says.

Reid Lappin, CEO of mobile strategy company Vokal Interactive, works with businesses to develop their mobile presence.  Sometimes he develops apps for them. Just in the last six months, Lappin has seen increased demand from clients for mobile apps that smooth daily operations by streamlining workflow or simplifying communication. For example, Vokal is building an app for a construction company that will let workers at construction sites update their progress in real time so people in the office can follow the status of the project without a phone call or email.

“The ability to have remote access has become really powerful,” Lappin says.

Mobile technology aimed at small businesses becomes especially important when it provides a function that local entrepreneurs don’t have the expertise to execute. Bellyflop, a new customer loyalty app based in Chicago, streamlines customer reward systems through a mobile network that also provides customer feedback. Traditionally, small businesses with loyalty programs might offer punch cards to frequent customers, offering a discount after a certain number of purchases. But punch cards don’t provide contact information or demographic feedback—Bellyflop does.

“We have the ability… to say, ‘XYZ customers haven’t been in in three to six months. Why don’t you send them a free appetizer and have them come in to give you another shot?’” says founder Logan LaHive. “We segment all that information.”

For a subscription of between $50 and $100 a month, small businesses can customize a reward system with Bellyflop, and Bellyflop will install an iPad in the business that adds it to a mobile network. (Bellyflop received start-up funded from Lightbank, the same venture capitalist firm that funded Groupon.) A customer only has to hold just one customer loyalty card for multiple businesses.

Bellyflop, which launched in September, has already signed up nearly 60 businesses to test the app. The number has been doubling each week, LaHive says, and already 57 percent of the businesses have signed year-long contracts to continue the reward program.

“We’re working with small businesses to level the playing field,” LaHive says.

The only problem with all the new technology is its youth—some of the apps are still a little buggy and require a trial-and-error process for both business owners and app developers. Burton says the reason many business tablet owners opt for the iPad instead of Android-based tablets such as Motorola Mobility Inc.’s Xoom is because the Apple app marketplace is more developed. It has more applications, and if an app is available on both platforms, the Apple version is likely to run more smoothly, he says.

“The iOS [the Apple operating system] is a little more polished,” Burton says.

Even then, some Apple products didn’t work as well at first. Scott Simmons, manager at Evanston’s Coffee Lab, likes using Square on the coffee shop’s iPad because of his previous familiarity with Apple products. But when Coffee Lab first opened last winter, sometimes the app didn’t record sales accurately, and it would occasionally freeze after customers signed for purchases. It took awhile for

Simmons to figure out why it was freezing, but his employees soon realized they just had to wait to reorient the device. And after nearly a year of updates from Square, the app runs “way smoother now.”

“It’s getting better,” says Simmons, “and we’re getting better.”