Nothing is certain but death and taxes — and outdated restaurant websites. To be fair, restaurant staff are more focused on getting your soup to you while it's still steaming than updating that menu PDF from 2018. But digital presence is key to any business's success, and given the last three years, a badly designed website or online ordering system can be a death knell. So one Denver nonprofit, The Underdog Family
(TUF), sprung up in 2020 to help small, local restaurants establish and manage effective websites and storefronts.
You might wonder: "With all the problems in the world, why do restaurant websites deserve their own nonprofit?" TUF founder and president Chin Weerappuli didn't have a background in nonprofits or web design when the idea occurred to him; he just wanted to help out a local eatery. In early June 2020, Weerappuli grabbed a few friends for a trip to Welton Street Cafe
. In the aftermath of George Floyd's murder and the midst of racial justice protests around the country, he was anxious to support a Black-owned restaurant, especially one just a few blocks from his home, where he'd dined many times before.
Welton Street Cafe, known for its soul food classics, got essential help from TUF in 2020.
"They were packed. There was a line out the door," he recalls. As that line crawled along, he heard new customers in line mentioning they'd never heard of the spot and saying they wished the decades-old establishment had an online ordering system (at that time, Welton Street didn't even have a website). When he reached the host stand, Weerappuli says, he was greeted by an employee who told him that while he'd be seated, the kitchen should have closed twenty minutes ago. When Weerappuli mentioned that all the online info he'd found indicated different hours, the employee admitted that the cafe had no way to correct that misinformation.
"A small business is unequivocally difficult to run," Weerappuli says. "Then you throw in a pandemic and running a new business a with digital storefront, and it’s a whole new business." Whipping up perfectly crispy fried chicken and catfish doesn't necessarily translate to computer fluency — especially in a small, family-owned and -operated restaurant, which may not have the resources for marketing and tech support.
Weerappuli was convinced there had to be a way to help out Welton Street Cafe and other small businesses — the underdogs, as he puts it. He spoke to friend Derrick Knudsen, now TUF vice president and board director, with the initial thought of simply connecting the cafe to existing for-profit resources that could help with website design, online ordering and social media integration. "That added up very
quickly," he laughs.
Instead, the pair hit upon the idea of recruiting friends and colleagues with the necessary skills who were anxious to help their community. Knudsen says neither he nor Weerappuli are designers or software pros, but they knew plenty of folks in those spaces. If they, along with co-founder Darian Nocera, could establish a network of volunteers, each able to work for free a handful of hours each month, they could create websites and online ordering systems that wouldn't make customers want to pull their hair out — at no cost to restaurants. Knudsen describes it as "a social nonprofit of friends and colleagues doing good work."
Chin Weerappuli, Genna Rae's Wings & More owner Genn Dickerson and Derrick Knudsen outside Genna Rae's.
The Underdog Family
The Underdog Family's basic service includes creating a template-built website with online-ordering capability and maintenance — including updates to hours, info and menu items — for one year. TUF estimates its cost for that at $500, thanks to its stable of volunteers. (Purchasing the same services could cost a business thousands of dollars.) After twelve months, "family members," as Weerappuli calls them, can take over maintenance of their site at no charge; TUF also offers training for that.
Alternately, for a tax-deductible annual donation of $500, the nonprofit will continue to manage a business's website. So far, all of TUF's sixteen family members have elected to make that donation and let volunteers manage their website, freeing them up to focus on the food and the faces that make a restaurant experience really memorable.
Volunteers donate just four to six hours per month to the project. "We do everything we can to make sure [volunteers are] not overworked," says Weerappuli. Knudsen concurs, saying that time management allows volunteers to stay passionate about and engaged in the work. Over the past month, the pair say, about twenty to 25 volunteers contributed, resulting in eighty to 150 hours of donated labor.
The nonprofit focuses on assisting BIPOC- and female-owned restaurants; the first because statistics indicate they have disproportionately less access to financial resources than white- and male-owned businesses, and the second because the hospitality sector has notoriously thin margins. "At least half of the companies we’ve built sites for wouldn’t be around right now without support from us or from other means," notes Knudsen. "Our direct impact on the business is unparalleled."
Konjo Ethiopian Food is one of TUF's "family members."
The Underdog Family
Weerappuli concurs: "Our bang for the buck is maximized in food and beverage." Of TUF's current partners, none had a dedicated website prior to their partnership; their Facebook pages were their sole digital presence. A huge negative in that scenario is that customers couldn't place online orders through Facebook, and third-party delivery apps like Grubhub and DoorDash — the only option for online orders from these restaurants — charge up to 35 percent in fees.
Weerappuli recalls one of the first restaurants TUF partnered with: "They'd been making $7,000 per month on Grubhub and paying 35 percent of that." After setting up the spot's website and online ordering, he says, "That's nearly $30,000 [per year] in extra revenue just from lack of fees — and we've helped them increase their business."
To date, The Underdog Family has built and maintains websites for sixteen local businesses, including Genna Rae's Wings & More, TeaLee's Tea House, Konjo Ethiopian Food, La Catrina Grill and Golden Sky Sushi in addition to Welton Street Cafe. It's always looking for volunteers and new family members; visit TUF's website for more info.