Restaurant management: There's an app for that!

The Spectrum

Two years ago James O'Leary dropped out of college.

He could have stayed in school and focused on his studies as a sophomore physics major. Instead, he decided to focus on developing a new iPhone application.

O'Leary, along with his best friend and former UB classmate Ansar Khan, created a point-of-sales app that aims to make running a restaurant a simpler business. They called the app Ambur. This restaurant management tool has the ability to take orders, process credit cards, set up a menu, take inventory, and send customer orders to the kitchen all on the iPhone, iPad and iPod.

The duo has been best friends since high school and worked together as waiters at Khan's family's restaurant, Kabab and Curry in East Amherst, when O'Leary came up with the idea.

O'Leary was constantly bored working at the restaurant and hated carrying around a notebook. To make things more fun he attempted to memorize the orders of the customers at his tables. Khan's father yelled at him for his "lazy habits."

On Oct. 29, 2009, O'Leary started to develop an app for his iPhone that allowed him to take the customers orders and send those orders to the kitchen. He believed this would ultimately cut back on the amount of work he had to do around the restaurant.

"It's kind of funny that this all stemmed from my laziness and refusal to carry around a notebook," O'Leary said. "Since it ended up being great and a huge timesaver for so many restaurants, sometimes laziness really can be a virtue."

The process was not easy for the partners. Both UB students had to sacrifice their time and effort to produce the app. For O'Leary, the greatest sacrifice was his education. He dropped out in 2010 to dedicate all of his time to developing Ambur.

"I realized we would never finish anything unless I stopped trying to do a million things at once and focused on the app," O'Leary said.

It took nine months of testing and $32,000 before the app was ready to be launched to the public. This testing took place at Kabab and Curry. The one thing Khan regrets is testing while waiting tables.

"I have to thank my parents for loaning us the money, which we have paid back fully, and for their patience," Khan said. "They were especially helpful with the testing. [James and I] would be in big trouble because we had to take care of the customers and fix the system at the same time."

The app was meant for the employees at Kabab and Curry. After a while, they realized Ambur would be useful in any restaurant setting, according to Khan.

Since Ambur's successful launch, O'Leary has found the time to go back to school. He is attending UB this fall with the intent of finishing his education as a communication and pre-law major.

Anyone with a goal should start working toward achieving it right away, according to Khan. It is important to put heart and soul into even the simplest idea, because opportunities arise with determination, he said.

"There are a ton of initial struggles at 1 a.m. when you are pounding away at a keyboard instead of going out and having fun with friends," O'Leary said. "In the end I'm glad I took the first step. Nobody is ever going to tell you that you have a good idea or give you a go-ahead to start working. But once you do, you are going to reap the rewards. It may be really hard to stay focused, but it will all pay off."

Their hard work paid off in April 2011 when the pair received an email from the Greek diner, Alex's Restaurant in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., expressing an interest in their software.

"It was surreal," O'Leary said. "It still is, even when I go back to the restaurant I worked at. It's surreal to see people using it and it's the best feeling in the world knowing that something I've worked so hard on is making someone else's life easier and enabling them to be more successful."

For Lana Stafford, a waitress at Kabab and Curry, the app makes her job much simpler. She has worked at other restaurants with a similar system, and in her opinion, the fact that the software is run through the iPhone and iPad makes it look more professional.

"It is so fast and simple," Stafford said. "I love being able to take orders like this and it's great to have the kitchen just know what the orders are."

Since its start, the app has grown. It is now helping 265 restaurants in 17 different countries, according to the company website, Khan works hard to ensure all clients stay happy with the product. Some upgrades include different languages, the ability to include a bar menu and faster processing.

However, neither Khan nor O'Leary made these improvements alone. Their company, Refulgent Software, is made up of 10 employees, eight of whom are either UB graduates or UB graduate students. The university has been a big help to Khan and O'Leary in terms of giving them space to work and employable students, according to O'Leary.

UB has granted every employee of Refulgent Software faculty status around campus. This gives them access to all libraries, databases and computer labs needed to continually improve their business.

The partners picture their app expanding their app in the next five years. Khan hopes to capture 1 percent of the restaurant market in the U.S, which is approximately 10 thousand venues, he said.

Ambur is available on the Apple market for $999. This price is for the software as a whole. Other competitors in the restaurant management app field will price their app based on the amount of devices using the software per venue, according to Khan.

"For us it's about the mobility and usability of the app," Khan said. "It is meant for everyday people. Some apps are so difficult to use and require a tech person to be at the restaurant working the system. For us, we designed it so that even my father could use it without a problem."

Both have enjoyed the real-world business experience, but neither of them ever saw this as their only path in life, according to O'Leary.

Neither of them see the app development business as a career. Khan hopes to attend medical school and eventually become a doctor, while O'Leary hopes to head off to law school and become a successful lawyer one day.