Unless you’re a large corporation, allocating the time and money to create your own chatbot just isn’t realistic. But if you’re a restaurant hoping to stay competitive in the years to come, you’re probably going to need one. This is as true for small, independently owned businesses as it is for a chain like Olive Garden.

That’s where Guestfriend proves useful. Launched earlier this year, NYC-based company creates personalized chatbots for individual restaurants that will answer guests’ questions in real time, using information about that restaurant that’s already available online.

Why, you ask, do I need a chatbot for my restaurant? Recent numbers indicate that almost 90 percent of consumers want to communicate with businesses via text, rather than use the phone. And as Guestfriend CEO Bo Peabody puts it, “If [you] want to be relevant in the conversational world, [you] need a virtual assistant.”

Peabody started Guestfriend in response to restaurants’ need to address the role text-based communication plays in consumers’ lives: “I was just trying to solve a problem for one of my restaurants. It felt like a pretty big problem a lot of small businesses were going to face over time: interfacing with this new thing we call conversational technology.”

Peabody is a longtime serial tech entrepreneur and co-owner of the Mezze Restaurant Group. After realizing it would be pretty much impossible to create a one-off chatbot (“Self-authoring tools for chatbots are what self-authoring tools [were] for websites in the late 90s”), he decided to develop a way to make chatbots for any business.

Implementing a Guestfriend chatbot is a straightforward affair: a user heads over to the Guestfriend site and types in the name of their restaurant. Minutes later, a chatbot is ready to be deployed. Assuming the bulk of the restaurant’s information is already online, there’s little to no manual input required of the user (uploading a menu, for example).

Powered by natural-language processing, the bot then interacts with customers in a back-and-forth style conversation that’s fully automated where the restaurant is concerned. If I want to know whether Joe’s Pizza is open during a snowstorm, the bot will be able to tell based on the information about the restaurant that’s already online.

Guestfriend chatbots are built to work across a restaurant’s different platforms, be they websites, SMS, or social media pages. They’re also built to keep potential guests from wandering off to the Yelps and Trip Advisors of the world to get questions answered, since doing so might mean they never return to your restaurant’s site.

There are, of course, times when a chatbot simply won’t have the answer. That’s usually when a question is too specific. No bot, Guestfriend or otherwise, would be able to answer something like, “What time does the middle table against the wall open up?”

There are, too, people who intentionally try to “break the bot” by asking unusual questions (“Who baked the bread on the menu?”). But 15-plus years of working in the restaurant industry has shown Peabody there are only about 75 to 80 questions that are asked 98 percent of the time, and they’re fairly simple queries: What’s your dress code, Is it good for kids? Do you have a full bar?

And if it can’t answer a question, a Guestfriend chatbot directs the customer to someone who can. According to Peabody, this is a crucial element of a successful chatbot strategy: “Part of good virtual assistant design is doing the error handling well,” he says.

Guestfriend just raised $5 million from Primary Venture Partners, Techstars Ventures, and betaworks. Peabody says the money will go mostly towards product development and marketing. There are also plans to move beyond the restaurant industry, thereby fulfilling Peabody’s original vision of creating chatbots for any small business, hotels, salons, and home services among them.

“I think it’s a scary thing, and complicated,” says Peabody of trying to adopt a chatbot solution from the ground up. “What we’re trying to do is bring that technology to small businesses in a way that’s easy and turnkey and not scary.”

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Jenn is a writer and editor for The Spoon who covers restaurant tech and food delivery, developments in agriculture and indoor farming, and startup accelerators and incubators. On the side, she moonlights as a ghostwriter for tech industry executives and spends a lot of time on the road exploring food developments in more remote parts of the country. Previously, she was managing editor of Gigaom’s market research department and was once a competitive pinball player. Jenn splits her time between NYC and Nashville, TN.

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