One of my new favorite products is from a company called Blackbird, a next-gen loyalty and payments platform for the hospitality industry aiming to enhance the connectivity between restaurants and their guests. Admittedly, I’m somewhat biased here, since Blackbird is one of Variant’s portfolio companies. But the thesis is that restaurants should have the tools to better understand their customers, while the most loyal guests should be rewarded as such - and to me, that makes a lot of sense.
What I love most about Blackbird is that it’s taken a universally human thing to do - sharing a meal - and asked “how can we make this even more meaningful?”
Everyone has their own unique relationship with restaurants. A number of people have shared their stories in Blackbird’s Supersonic newsletter; I thought I’d share mine.
Going out to eat has always been tricky for me. I have a lot of allergies (peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, legumes, sesame, zucchini, kiwi… the list unfortunately goes on), which means trying a new restaurant can literally be a life-or-death experience if I’m not careful. But as a mid-twenty-something, going out to eat is one of the most common ways to spend time with friends. It’s also a lot of fun. In practice, the result is that I tend to find a few places that I know are safe for my allergies and just continuously revisit them when I eat out. In other words, I’m an incredibly loyal customer.
It’s been this way for years. Growing up, my family had our one go-to Chinese takeout spot - we knew it was safe, so we never strayed. We consistently ordered the same dishes, too, because we knew I could eat them. Same with our favorite local Indian restaurant. Trying a new restaurant was a process. It’d often include a 20 minute chat with the restaurant about my allergies and understanding how their kitchen worked. Once we got our food, I’d typically take a couple small bites and wait 10-15 minutes to ensure there was no allergic reaction. Not a particularly enjoyable experience.
These types of screeners are really only something you can do when dining with family; it’s awkward and uncomfortable when out with friends. So, as I grew older, I did what I’ve always done: develop a deep loyalty for a few select restaurants I had already screened. For instance, in Boston I have my ~3 go-to restaurants anytime a friend wants to go out to eat. One weekend, this meant eating at Alden & Harlow three times (brunch Saturday, dinner Saturday, and brunch Sunday) because I knew it was safe. Yes, really. And for what it’s worth, I didn’t mind: the food was great and I knew I could enjoy my meal allergen-free.
Beyond loyalty, my allergies mean that I’m also an incredibly grateful customer. Knowing that a restaurant takes care to avoid cross-contamination gives me peace of mind when eating out. If there were more ways to show these restaurants how grateful I am, I’d do it in a heartbeat. That’s where something like Blackbird can come in. On one hand, the more you visit your favorite spots, the more you get rewarded. But diners can also opt-in to telling restaurants more about themselves in order to earn Blackbird’s FLY tokens. It’s a dream of mine to be able to let restaurants know about my allergies before showing up, or to browse based on where diners with similar allergies have enjoyed a meal. I’m optimistic that one day I’ll be able to do that through Blackbird.
Everyone has their own reasons for loving certain restaurants. Maybe one spot reminds someone of home. Another might have been a place they grew up going with family. There’s a restaurant near Penn where my twin and I ate when we were doing college tours during junior year of high school - the meal was so good that I told her that when she got in, we’d eat there when I visited her. Then I got into Penn, too, so we made it our first (and last) meal on campus. There are so many memories that get tied to going out to eat. And the places that we go again and again become special. Blackbird enables restaurants to really lean into those emotions to design a powerful consumer experience. To me, that seems like a no-brainer.
Right now, Blackbird is live in only a few restaurants, mostly within the New York City area. But it’s growing quickly, and I’m excited for the day where every restaurant - and every diner - is using the platform.