Ambl: The app planning to change the way we eat out forever
As Seen in The Evening Standard.
Ambl’s founders have built ‘the Uber of restaurants’ and, as David Ellis discovers, they’re planning on taking it global
An app is launching that wants to forever change the way that London has a night out — and then do the same for New York, LA, Miami, Dubai, and the rest of the world to boot. The story starts with a pair of 13-year-old lads from Southend being banned from selling ice cream in their local comp. But it also starts with a boss making his junior find the team somewhere for lunch. And somewhere along the line, the brother of a Noughties rock star gets involved. Welcome to Ambl.
If Ambl’s aspirations are world-changing, its origin feels insignificant. “I’d come into work and my boss asked me to find us a table for seven,” remembers the app’s 27-year-old co-founder Aaron Solomon. “Obviously I’d drawn the short straw. And I’m there looking at all the restaurant booking apps, going on all these websites, and nothing. And then I just said: ‘why can’t I broadcast that seven of us need a table and restaurants could just see that?’ Clearly, if somewhere had space, they’d go: here we are, come here. And someone said, ‘mate, that’s a really, really good idea’.”
That was May last year. Three days later, Solomon rang up an old school mate, Jed Hackling, also 27. “I was expecting a catch-up,” says Hackling. “But then he explained it. You know that feeling when you’re out and you want to go elsewhere, but you’ve got no idea where? It’s about solving that.”
Ambl, in short, is about heading out on the spur of the moment and always having somewhere ready and waiting. But more than that, it’s about nabbing an “unbookable” table. “When suddenly somewhere really popular — the place that doesn’t have any room on OpenTable, where someone isn’t picking up the phone — has a cancellation or no-show, now they can give that to someone actively looking.”
To that end, one high-profile investor and supporter is Jon Spiteri, of Sessions Arts Club, a place where landing a table can feel impossible unless you’re a friend of a friend. “I was invited to meet Ambl by William Borrell (brother of Razorlight singer Johnny), who owns the Ladies and Gentlemen bars,” says Spiteri. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I’ve not been this enthused about something in a long, long time. For restaurants, it’s astonishingly simple. Elegant.”
And, better, it hardly costs the venues anything: for every booking Ambl bring in, they take just £1 a head. “But even if we sent your restaurant just one £30-a-head booking a day, we’d make you about 40 grand,” says Solomon. The implication is clear: why wouldn’t restaurants use it? And, when no-shows cost the industry some £17.6 billion, it looks as though he has a point.
For diners, Ambl works like so: would-be customers open the app, are met with a map showing them all the nearby restaurants, and are presented with a few questions — whether to book for now or later, how many people need the table, and whether it’s a bar or restaurant that’s wanted. But this is not your run-of-the-mill booking app. For a start, this isn’t about getting a table two weeks in advance, it’s about what’s around on the day. And whereas most apps mean trawling through countless offerings and deciding where to go, Ambl just sends out a request to all registered bars and restaurants within a mile (no venue can pay for preferential treatment), and those with tables offer up what they’ve got. The customer can accept or reject a table instantly, with no need to sign up to the restaurant or handover any card details to secure the booking.
We want Ambl to be a key to the city, with Uber, Citymapper and Ambl all you need to get around
For the diner, this means two things: one, no more going door-to-door seeing if anywhere has room for a walk-in, and two, as Solomon says, “we’ve sort of replaced Google. Instead of having to find places and then call 20 venues or email them or whatever, Ambl reaches out to them all at the same time.” And here, he thinks, lies the crux of the matter. “The reason why Uber or Bolt and Deliveroo all work? It’s about saving time. It’s about getting what you’re after instantly.” And those apps are part of the Ambl ambition. “Where we want to get to is Ambl being a key to the city, and where Uber, Citymapper and Ambl are literally all you need to get around.” They have plans to repeat the formula across the globe and move it in as many directions as they can: hotels, pubs, the works. “You could even have something like it for getting a massage,” says Spiteri. There is a groan from Solomon.
Ambl will launch in the middle of October, and while the pair have 1,200-or-so restaurants on their books — with some huge names showing interest, including St John, Marcus Wareing, Fiend, Bob Bob Ricard, JKS Restaurants and Richard Corrigan’s places — they’ll start with about 100 in the Square Mile, meaning the five-a-half-thousand users who’ve joined the pre-launch (which is live now on ambl.co) can begin using it, ironing out the creases. A full roll-out is expected by the end of the year.
It’s taken a while for the pair to get here. They met at school aged 13 and “just always got on”, says Hackling. “For some reason we wanted to do a business together. Our first was an ice cream stall at the school lunchtime.”
“We made six hundred quid in the first week, thinking we were it,” jumps in Solomon. “Until they shut us down because the canteen was losing too much money,” laughs Hackling.
It’s curious, but a pattern of quick success and rockiness seemed to follow them. Staying friends but going their separate ways at 18, both left school in search of work in the City. “We’ve both failed, we know what it’s like,” says Solomon. “I had two businesses, was making good money and then I lost everything. I was £20,000 in debt while not having a job.” But resilience seems their hallmark; Solomon went back into financial services, where he ended up making more than £220,000 a year, bought a house, and is now planning a wedding. Hackling, meanwhile, founded a successful tech recruitment agency. Both have given everything up. Haven’t they put a lot on the line? “I’m sh**ting it,” Solomon laughs. Hackling nods.
Despite their nerves, it’s clear the pair have a hard-earned confidence in the app that seems born from the work they’ve put into it. “They’re so passionate, it’s fantastic,” grins Spiteri. And he seems to be right: Solomon got the app going “after work, when I’d be on the phone to Jed building out the app, and I’d be walking to venues door-to-door, everyone going: ‘no, no, no’ and it would be eight o’clock, I wouldn’t have eaten, it would be raining” he says, you sense with a dramatic flair. “But it just would take one person to go: ‘that’s fantastic, I get it.’”
You know that feeling when you’re out and you want to go elsewhere, but you’ve got no idea where? It’s about solving that
The door-to-door stints taught Solomon and Hackling something: hospitality is an industry that runs on face-to-face friendships. “We realised, after those thousands of steps, that to do this, we had to see everyone face-to-face, put the ground work in and build a relationship,” says Solomon. As such, the Ambl team have personally visited every restaurant or bar “at least once, but some two, three, four times,” says Hackling. Ambl will not, they insist, be bloated with too many chains.
It’s these relationships that, they hope, “will turn Ambl from an app into a brand.” Which, in English, means..? “We want to start doing events,” explains Hackling. “We’re hoping we’ll have drinks brands partner with us at, say, a rooftop bar, so it’ll be ‘Ambl with XYZ’ and then we’ll do an Ambl night either with top Amblers invited it — which would be something like those turning up to five or 10 bookings a month — or we could do it for the staff.”
The pair repeatedly make a point of playing down next month’s launch, if only because there’s so much ahead planned. The events, yes, and the national and international plans too, but before all that, even the ability to use Ambl to scour the city to see ‘where next’. And while they try not to overplay what’s coming, they’re unquestionably sure of their product.
Investors and outsiders are too, given the company has had an offer of a £17.5 million buyout — not bad for a business just not even a year-and-a-half old. This isn’t just about getting a couple of people a table here and there. “You know how whether I’m getting a cab or a Bolt, you always say ‘I’ll Uber it’?” says Hackling. “Well…” Solomon grins. They look at each other. London, New York, Paris: you’re not about to book somewhere. You’re about to Ambl it.