Founder Interview: Alex Canter, Co-founder and CEO, Ordermark

If Alex Canter’s last name sounds familiar, it’s because his family owns the iconic deli of the same name that has been serving up matzo ball soup and pastrami sandwiches from the same spot on L.A.’s Fairfax Avenue since his great-grandfather founded the eatery in 1931.

After spending much of his childhood at Canter’s, Alex learned a thing or two about the restaurant business. While earning a degree in economics and entrepreneurship from the University of Wisconsin, he picked up a few ideas about how to bring the family business into the digital era of online ordering.

Three years later, in 2017, he co-founded Santa Monica-based OrderMark, which offers restaurants a simple solution to consolidate orders from third-party platforms such as GrubHub and Eat24.

Ordermark raised a $3.1 million series round in February led by TenOneTen Ventures, Act One Ventures, and Mucker Capital. This month, the company closed a $9.5 million Series A round led by Nosara Capital – the equivalent of about 600,000 pastrami sandwiches at Canter’s, or 1.1 million bowls of matzo ball soup (Alex’s favorite)!

Alex spoke with us about the challenge of bringing an old-school Jewish deli into the 21st century, and how Ordermark is allowing restaurants to handle more orders than ever before.

How much time did you spend at the deli as a kid?

I started working there when I was 13, waiting tables, doing catering orders, really all the different positions in the restaurant. The staff used to call me “mini patron,” which in Spanish means little boss.

So you always planned to go into the family business?

My dad has been running the restaurant, and I had been brought up in the restaurant basically my entire life.

How did that work out?

When I got back from college, I had all these ideas for how we could make improvements, and I started to work in the restaurant again. My role was always to bring in anything I thought could help push the business forward. That included a new point-of-sale system, and redoing our website to make it mobile friendly. Then online ordering started popping up, starting with GrubHub, Eat24 and DoorDash. We realized every time we added another online ordering service, we were adding incremental revenue to our business. Each one had its own customers, and if we weren’t listed on a platform we didn’t exist to all of its users. It’s really a numbers game, and we signed up for as many online ordering platforms as we could. Fast forward, we signed up for 14 online ordering services, which meant we had nine tablets, two laptops, and a fax machine to manage all these incoming orders. It was very disruptive to our business.

And that’s what led to Ordermark?

Yes, I wanted to figure out a way to tie all these third-party ordering systems together rather than turn off what had become a third of our business. In that process, I realized there was an opportunity to help my own restaurant manage online ordering  in a much better way, and as I started talking to other restaurant owners in my network, I realized that this is a problem not only we were experiencing, but everyone was.

How did you solve the problem?

I’m not a developer, so I surrounded myself with an incredible founding team that comes from different backgrounds and experiences. My co-founder, Mike Jacobs, actually started an online ordering platform in the stadium space, so he was very familiar with the ins and outs of creating an online ordering service and all the operations that go along with it. One of our other co-founders, Paul Allen, who lives in Denver, used to run an accelerator program for early stage tech companies, so he’s a marketing genius and an expert in how to be a fast-growing company and scale. Starting with such an incredible team, we were in a great position to be able to tackle this head on and start building out all the necessary pieces to make this work. We started with a couple of the founding team members who are developers, and since then we’ve grown our software engineering team to 10 people. We’re at about 35 people on the team, and we’re working with over 500 restaurant brands now.

How does the product work?

We send each location a single tablet and single printer for all of their online ordering. We standardize the data and send it through to the printer, which can go right on the kitchen line in a language that restaurant people can actually understand. From an operational perspective, we’re re-imagining the online ordering experience in kitchens and making it as simple as possible for restaurants to say “yes” to any online ordering service. We also act as a single point of contact for anything related to online ordering. When a restaurant works with us, it’s an end-to-end solution. We’re helping the restaurant identify a great menu that’s going to be successful; we’re identifying online ordering services that we know will bring volume to the restaurant based on the location and the type of food, and we’re plugging them into all these revenue streams that were out there but not yet connected to the restaurant. It’s very disruptive and challenging to be on all of the platforms if they’re not streaming them to one device. Anything related to making changes, like the hours of operation, menu updates, price adjustments, all of that happens through the Ordermark dashboard on the tablet.

Have you signed up other delis?

Yes, along the way we’ve swept up a number of them, and it feels good knowing we’re helping other Jewish delis. I don’t really view it as competition, because I think everyone in the deli culture realizes we’re all here to help each other. It’s a dying genre of food, so we all have to stick together. Anytime I’m helping another deli, I feel good about it.

How did you get connected with Mucker?

We built the product in Canter’s, so we always were on the lookout for others in the L.A. tech community and for L.A.-focused VCs. We started raising our seed round, and as we were putting it together, we were taking a lot of meetings and we met a lot of angel investors. Right as we were about to close out our round, I had the opportunity to meet Kiyan Yazdi at an investor speed-dating event in Santa Monica. I believe it was the second week after he joined Mucker. Of the 30 VCs I speed dated with for 3 minutes each, he was the last one I met. I had pretty much lost my voice, but I explained we were wrapping up our seed round and TenOneTen Ventures was involved. Kiyan got very excited and wanted to introduce us to Will Hsu and Erik Rannala. We ended up going to their office the very next day. A couple days later, we realized Mucker was the perfect VC firm to take the final spot in our seed round. We could not have been happier in our decision to work with them. Right when we raised our seed round, we were leaving to go to TechStars Boulder. While we were in Boulder, we were set up for a weekly call with Mucker, so it was kind of like going through two accelerators at once.

How did Mucker help you grow the company?

Will and Kiyan have helped us understand the different key performance indicators of our business. They’ve also been monumental in strategizing our go-to market. Will helped us understand where we should devote our resources, our burn rate and run rate, how to balance those. Early on, we were grouping enterprise and small-medium businesses into one sales pipeline report. Will helped us understand how important it was to break out small-medium businesses and enterprise separately, so we can understand the lifecycle, payback period, and the customer acquisition costs of the two different avenues. That helped us realize that as much as enterprise chains are going to be the critical component to our growth, we don’t want to cut off either path. We want to continue building up both at the same time.

How have you evolved as a leader?

Before I started this company, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a CEO. I could not be more appreciative of everything that’s happened. I’m incredibly grateful for our team and the culture we’re building. We’ve outgrown four offices in a year, and I think we really are encouraging people to collaborate and become leaders. We really want to encourage people to come to us with new ideas. Rather than telling people what they should be doing, we actually prefer them to decide what they think would be best, and it’s been a great help.

What’s been the most unexpected thing you’ve had to deal with?

There were some moments where we had to make tough decision in terms of letting people go. It’s never an easy thing. I see the best in everyone, and it’s sometimes challenging for me to step up and make decisions like that. It was weird for me to understand that was going to be a part of how we grow a company. One thing I’ve also learned is how important it is to be a good listener and really be a sponge to everyone around me.

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