Nick Bergelt enjoys eating out as much as the next person. But nearly a decade ago, the eco-minded entrepreneur decided to tackle the waste and inefficiency inherent to the restaurant industry, from the amount of garbage to an overuse of electricity and water to a poor use of the waitstaff’s time. Today, as the founder and CEO of Charbar Co., a casual burger place with fancy technology located in Hilton Head, he has built upon his previous success in sustainable food service.
When he was still a student at the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business, Bergelt turned a class project into a real-life business. "I opened a sustainable restaurant in Charleston in 2009," he says. "It was powered with wind and solar energy, served local food from farms in Charleston and we tracked the amount of waste we were able to divert out of landfills."
After initial success, he sold the business and returned to academia as an advisor for USC and became a consultant for budding restaurateurs—until a trip to London rerouted his professional path. While there, he had one of the most unforgettable meals of his life, and it wasn’t because of the food. "There was a multi-touch table. The plate was presented in front of you, and you could turn a camera into the kitchen," Bergelt says about a level of functionality that he claims "blew my mind." Though this was a high-end restaurant, he believed the same technology could be used in any setting. To find out, he went in search of companies working on hardware solutions to connect tables to the rest of the restaurant.
He found Presto, a tablet device which digitizes menus and payment. He also looked to his hometown, Hilton Head, as the ideal test community for his idea. "Hilton Head is the most conservative place—if it works there, it can work anywhere," says Bergelt, explaining that he doesn’t see it as politically conservative, but demographically, as a town with many retirees and tourists who are decidedly non-techie. In addition, Hilton Head was lacking a place that had upgraded the humble burger. "There was Shake Shack and Five Guys, the premium burger places, but I felt there was an opportunity to carve out a niche for the ultra high-end burger—not in terms of price point, but as far as gourmet tastes you may not associate with a burger."
He reached out to lifelong friend and chef Charles Pejeau and opened Charbar Co. in 2012. Once the menu and décor were set, it was time for the digital innovation. He decided to start with table-side ordering because, Bergelt explains, it "increases the bandwidth of servers and reduces costs." When a customer sits down, they don't have to hope they have an attentive waiter, because they have a computer that shows images of all the menu items and allows people to place their own orders. The added benefit is that the restaurant can do covert research, keeping track not only of what is popular overall, but what specific customers want—a big bonus for a place that has regulars who stop in four to five times a week.
Although Charbar was one of the first U.S. restaurants to introduce computerized table ordering, today it is more popular. But what Bergelt did next is less about technology or reducing waste and more about building community. Charbar equips each table’s tablet computer with a vast amount of trivia for family, couples, or just kids. It is such a popular feature that Charbar has become an unintended destination for Hilton Head trivia buffs looking to keep the top spots on the score list.
As satisfied as Bergelt is with the way Charbar has changed the dining experience, he is nowhere near done. Aside from looking for new innovations, he is also hoping to open franchises throughout the Southeast in the next few years. His ultimate goal, however, is more universal and a call to action for everyone who runs a restaurant and has a chance to create a more efficient business. Says Bergelt: "Let’s be more intelligent with the way we serve food."
[Image: Flickr user Robert S. Donovan]