SAN FRANCISCO, CA – FEBRUARY 02: Vivien Sin, co-founder and chief executive officer of The Third Place, is photographed at the Jane on Fillmore bakery in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. The startup uses a monthly subscription model to create new revenue opportunities for restaurants and other small businesses during the pandemic. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Would you pay a monthly fee to sip wine with a sommelier from a Michelin-starred restaurant, or for guaranteed access to the hottest new pop-up — without having to troll Instagram or wait in line?
Those are some of the perks of supporting restaurants through The Third Place, a retention engine for restaurants and related small businesses, like bars and tea shops. San Francisco founders Glen Wang and Vivien Sin launched the platform in November to help restaurants create new revenue streams during COVID-19, while regaining direct relationships with loyal regulars lost to aggregator apps like Door Dash and UberEats.
While timely in the pandemic era, The Third Place, which is waiving its 7 percent platform fee through June, was in the works before COVID-19. Wang and Sin, theater buffs and friends since their dorm days at the University of Chicago, took inspiration from the subscription models common in the performing arts world to try to repair the flawed aspects of the restaurant industry, which is plagued by high rents and paper-thin margins.
The duo — he’s a former tech lead at Khan Academy, she’s a fine artist and former LinkedIn product manager — have signed up 70 businesses to date, mainly in the Bay Area, from Oakland’s Sobre Mesa and Berkeley’s Teance Fine Teas to San Francisco’s Canela, wildly-popular pop-up Noodle Girl and Michelin-starred Lord Stanley.
Here, Sin talks about the startup’s subscription offerings, the notion of a third place — the social setting that defines community, beyond home and workplace — and her favorite spots for what she calls artisanal comfort food.
Q: How long before COVID did you and Glen begin working on The Third Place?
A: We’ve talked about working on something since we were in college. Since then we’ve both lived in various cities around the world and experienced that feeling of having to not only uproot ourselves, but also find a sense of grounding in a new place. I’ve lived in Paris, London and Chicago, and for me, it’s always been a restaurant owner that’s remembered my name or the dish I ordered and made me feel at home.
I think this notion of finding one’s third place is partially related to identity. A lot of people associate that with work or where they live. But increasingly, people are identifying themselves also by the multiple communities they belong to. In that sense, a restaurant or cafe or tea shop is not just a place of transaction, like Amazon, but a place to come together.
Q: How has the experience been — launching during the pandemic?
A: There’s still much to figure out, but so far it’s been super promising from a business traction perspective. More than half our clients are reaching out to us, and our December subscriber sales doubled from November. We are currently running a total of 70 unique programs with 20 to 80 subscribers for each program.
Q: Tell us about some of the programs and prices.
A: Subscription price points vary from $30 to $300. On the lower end would be a subscription to one of our artisanal bakeries, like Jane the Bakery, which offers six seasonal savory or sweet breakfast pastries (two exclusively made for subscribers) and four cookies for $42.
The $300 program is with the Salt Collective, the restaurant group behind Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn, Bar Crenn, High-Proof and B-Side. You get one month or 10 bottles of wine, sake and bottled cocktails curated by Courtney Olson, the beverage director for the Crenn Group, who leads a virtual tasting with subscribers.
Q: What other types of small businesses do you work with?
A: We help Instagram-based pop-ups, like Ox and Tiger and Dabao Singapore, that have sprung up in the past year. When they start out, a lot of these businesses are focused on basic infrastructure. They’re relying on a Google Form for orders because e-commerce platforms assume orders are on-demand, and these businesses are only offering their meals a few times a month with folks ordering ahead.
We help them reduce operational hassles by handling not only recurring payments but also by being the sole POS system for some pop-ups. The business owners enjoy an easy-to-use dashboard, with a lot of the logistical work automated, rather than taping together five-plus tools. We also provide a private chat group for business owners to nurture their community. It’s much more intimate and two-way than other social media.
For customers, beyond guaranteed access, we help them discover these pop-ups, something that’s not easy to do at the moment unless one is spending hours per day on Instagram. Instead of waiting for a “menu drop” or needing to check Instagram incessantly to be the first to fill out a long Google Form, you can simply order ahead on TTP through a simpler and design-oriented flow — whether through a subscription or by “Trying Once.”
Q: Any shops?
A: Tea shops have been very successful. I personally love tea, and I find that the owners of these shops already have community on their minds. One small business owner, Puerh Brooklyn, a tea house in New York, closed down during COVID. But her brand is still there. She now has monthly subscribers with an almost exclusively online community that get her single origin teas from the farmers she works with in India. She’s actually thinking of doing this permanently.
IXIA is one we also really love. Owner Cheri Mims is a florist who was mainly doing commissions for private estates and (Woodside’s) Filoli Historic House and Gardens pre-COVID. She will be using us as a platform to grow her direct-to-consumer business line.
Q: We heard you’re expanding into delivery. How does that work?
A: We recently started experimenting with delivery. The delivery experience from these aggregator apps can feel pretty anonymous, and we want it to feel more like an extension of a restaurant’s hospitality. So, once a business secures a good number of subscribers, we hire drivers for them and charge customers depending on where they live. We don’t take commission from the delivery fee.
Q: How did your work as a fine artist inform what you’re doing at The Third Place?
A: I was the resident artist at Code and Canvas, an art space in Potrero Hill, and saw how fulfilling it can be to have a say in what goes on in my community. Second, it was also the joy I saw when I interacted with people from outside my community. I think it’s healthier and encouraging to have more cross-pollinating in communities.
Company: The Third Place
Position: CEO and co-founder
Hometown: Hong Kong
City of residence: San Francisco
Education: B.A., Economics, University of Chicago
Five Things about Vivien Sin:
- She’s an artist with a focus on painting and media installations that explore themes of automation. Discover her work at vivien-sin.com
- In addition to San Francisco and Hong Kong, she loves the city of London. She’s a theater buff.
- She went to high school at United World College, a boarding school “in the middle of the Canadian forest” that emphasizes intercultural understanding.
- When comfort food cravings hit, she likes exploring the wave of San Francisco “artisanal comfort food pop-ups” created by former fine dining chefs. Her faves: Dabao Singapore, Noodle Girl and Homemade Chews.
- In terms of dining experiences, she loves “immersive ones that have a storytelling component.” In the Bay Area, SingleThread, Atelier Crenn, Merchant Roots and Avery are her favorites.