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Like eBay for hospitality

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ted Whipp, The Windsor Star

Struck by the ease of finding an elusive car part online, Alex Boudreau wondered about harnessing the web's search engine horsepower to help restaurateurs hunt for used equipment.

With his Windsor-area hospitality background, Boudreau knew about the need and the difficulties. Months later, he and two local business partners think they've found a made-in-Windsor solution with their new website Openburners.com.

Like an eBay for hospitality, the site matches buyers and sellers, allowing both to target and find each other. Instead of wading through web pages and phone listings, the site provides laserlike precision to pluck the right needle from its growing database haystack of equipment and contact information.

No less than a Food Network celebrity chef gives their site rave reviews.

"I can't believe that someone hasn't thought about it sooner," David Adjey said from Toronto.

He's not only endorsed Openburners.com, but he's working with Boudreau and partners Mark Lombardi and Gabor Sztvorecz to be a brand ambassador and make public appearances on their behalf.

Restaurants come and go, Adjey said, so there's always a state of transition in the industry and a constant demand to buy and sell equipment.

As well, busy restaurateurs don't have time to track down and make good deals. There's a "mountain of equipment" needed and a myriad of details involved with a restaurant opening, Adjey said.

"Money is important," Adjey said. "But time is important. Time is a real commodity and that's what Openburners. com is about."

Participants can make requests and receive emails with information. The site is free for food service operators and suppliers can purchase site credits to finalize a sale.

"That's the beauty of it," Adjey said. "I'm so blown away by it. And I've had nice things to say about it. Alex and the boys have asked me to join them and be their spokesperson for it."

Boudreau showed his idea to Lombardi, who has a marketing and sales background, and Sztvorecz, a research and development engineer.

They were intrigued and impressed with the potential.

"You gotta think big here," Boudreau remembers Sztvorecz telling him.

The aim was to make it as slick and simple as that carpart website Boudreau used.

Their site brings the capability to filter out everything but what the site visitor is looking for, Sztvorecz said.

"The site does the searching for you so you don't have to spend two hours with the phone book and calling 10 people, you don't have to search out 50 people on the Internet," Sztvorecz said.

"The site does all the legwork for you."

In turn, the onus is on the supplier to do a little bit of homework and reply to a potential buyer. A buyer can simply make a request, move on and deal with other business, Lombardi said.

Openburners simply sets up the match and lets the matchmaking play out. Once suppliers are ready to sell, they can purchase a credit to make the deal with a potential buyer, Boudreau said.

Five credits cost $20, 20 cost $50 and subscriptions are available for $75 a month. First-time visitors can try out the site with five free credits.

The site looks clean, uncluttered and professional to enhance its credibility, Lombardi said.

Essentially, the goal is to appeal to a broad cross-section of the hospitality industry, including hotels, restaurants and others involved in food services.

"We're getting between 500 and 1,000 hits a week," Sztvorecz said. "For where we are right now, it's good."

The site is also gaining functionality and content, with more than 4,000 suppliers and restaurants signed up in the database.

"We have the content now, so it's a matter of promotion," Sztvorecz said.

The aim is to get the word out beyond the regional and Ontario markets. The partners are involved in an email marketing campaign in the Western provinces. And they're in the process of French translation to tap into the Quebec hospitality sector.

Boudreau said the site appeals to young tech-savvy entrepreneurs in the business and provides simplicity and efficiency for everyone.

It puts the tiny cafý and the large steak house on the same playing field. It has attracted sellers, both large and small, from all over.

Mainly, it helps people deal with equipment. A new restaurant can spend more than $5,000 per square foot just for new equipment alone, Boudreau said. A takeout pizzeria can cost $75,000.

When the site was up and running and as slick and simple as he envisioned, Boudreau simply emailed Adjey to take a look and consider getting involved as a spokesperson. Within hours, Adjey did and their business relationship began.

The partners are looking ahead at developing a mobile app for devices like smart phones. They also want to add more resources to the site, such as business plans and budgets. The site already lists industry services.

Mainly, Openburners.com is open for business. About the name, Boudreau explained he thought of a restaurant chef who always kept the oven burners on because it was such as hassle to turn them off.

Looking ahead, who knows, Boudreau said of the site's potential. "I can see this becoming the Google of hospitality."

twhipp@windsorstar.com or 519-255-6863