When Sanchez moved back to Saudi Arabia for work, he noticed there wasn’t any adequate information about local restaurants as he couldn’t find numbers and cuisine specialties of these restaurants. “Back in 2009, social media was not very popular and not all restaurants in Saudi Arabia had websites so we couldn’t reach them and that’s when we noticed the gap between restaurants and the public,” he said. “My partners and I came up with the concept of developing a food directory, we just wanted to create something that would allow people to log in, look for an organized search engine that can provide information, telephone numbers and some basic information. We started the website and we called it Sufrati,” he added.

Sanchez was always passionate about food. He started cooking when he was in college. “I have always been around my mother in the kitchen, so food has been something I have always been involved with and when it came to restaurants, of course, we all love dinning and eating, especially here in Saudi Arabia; there is nothing else in terms of entertainment other than to go out and eat, meet friends and eat,” he said. “Our culture and social life is all about food and that’s where we realized that food is the starting point for me in my career, in terms of being online. So we came up with Sufrati.com,” he said.

“We found a crack in the market in lots of industries, but specifically in the food industry because it is something we need on a weekend basis. So we just went out there, collected every single source of information, put it all together, organized it and then put it online,” he said. “It took us around seven months to get everything started up, and then we launched everything in April. We did well in the beginning, but, of course, as time went on technology changes and develops. We started to learn a lot about how search engines operate and, of course, the whole Internet world is insane. We can’t live without it. It is something we have to have,” he added.

The whole process was an intensive learning experience for the  Sufrati team. “We wanted to introduce the project to the market and it was a challenge, because it is new. People were familiar with how powerful the Internet is. It was very difficult to convince and explain how to use it, how it benefits and how great it is and all the things that we know now,” he said.
“We wanted to allow people to share their experiences online, leave comments. Also, to add restaurants to keep us updated. Approximately two to three restaurants are added to our system every week by the restaurant owners themselves,” he added.
Arab News met with Sanchez in Jeddah to learn more about the website, how it can help people and his future plans.

Tell us about the experience itself. The high points and the low points.
First, we hired a freelancer based on our low budget; we didn’t have much to spend. We wanted to build something amazing. Maybe from a creative design background, I was able to create the concept and kind of get the paper-plans out. One of the most difficult things is getting a technical application created and of course, I’m not a techie. We hired certain freelancers and techies to get involved and develop everything and code it. That’s the hard part of developing anything. Having a strong team in different aspects. That was not a problem. But the biggest challenge was actually developing the technology behind Sufrati, which today I think is outstanding.

We have developed something that is unique, very high quality. We have got a lot of features and we have a mobile app as well, which was also challenging because coding an app is way different from coding a website. You have to follow iTunes and Android rules, and that’s the most difficult part; following the technical trends and coding itself is continuously changing. Of course, one of the turning points that we noticed is, in January 2013, there was a massive milestone. We noticed that the use of our website was much more common on mobile phones as opposed to PCs and laptops, because of the introduction of mobile phones and smart phones. So we saw things switch. Our percentage was something like 60/40 use of laptops, in 2012. And in 2013 it switched to 40/60. 60 percent of our users are using phones. And that really changed everything. You have to keep up with the trend. And that is the most difficult part. Making sure your website is up to date. The other thing is getting the information. You know, there are many websites out there that provide information. How comprehensive is the information you are providing? Do you provide menus? Yes, we do provide menus. Do you provide good, accurate telephone numbers, which change every now and then? And we should have a process of updating and keeping things valid. And keeping the integrity of the website, because the attention span of someone coming to the website is very short. If you don’t capture them from the first time, they are going to leave. That’s called the bound straight. It basically determines how long or how many people come to your website and leave right away. We used to have a bound straight when we first started. Now our bound straight reduced dramatically. Our attention of our users is great. We have great content. We have videos, menus, couple of reviews, photos and tons of stuff that really benefits our users.

What sets you apart from other food directories?
We are the only comprehensive Arabic and English website in the Kingdom that offers a platform delivering up to date, accurate information. We are designed for the local market. Sufrati, when we thought of this name, we thought of the Arabic market. So what sets us apart is the fact that we are bilingual. We have a mobile app on both iPhone and Android. One of the things we have done that put us aside from everybody else is the fact that we shoot really professional video reviews.

Sufrati is working on other projects, lately. Tell us about them.
Part of what we are trying to do is expanding into other regions and countries. We are now in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. The other thing we are trying to do is participate in more on the ground activities and getting involved in events such as food festivals. We are working to create interactive experiences. Also, we are introducing a very exciting list about the best places we recommend in Jeddah. Our best in town list is going to be published in a few months from now. This list is going to be a showcase of all the different categories of restaurants that we recommend to our users.

How did you come up with the list?
This list is developed over years. We have studied the market. It is based on consistency and the overall concept of the restaurant, its service and the experience behind it. We are working closely with different partners, to make sure that our list is what is says it is, not just a made-up list of two or three people. You will be seeing our stickers on the doors of these restaurants, we hope. Kind of to congratulate these restaurants and award them with something we think is going to help people know that there is quality in Jeddah.

How do you market for your project?
Marketing is done through content. We are doing our app that kind of promotes itself. We work hard to make sure that we deliver decent results to our users. And in turn we get recommendations. We also put up competitions every now and then on social media. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

What are the mistakes that you wished you avoided?
The biggest experience we have learned from was starting the company with freelancers. When you go online, you have to have a team member who is a techie. You can’t just hire a freelancer, you need someone who is with you all the time. The other thing I wished I knew about is how restaurants operate, because I found out with time that restaurants are actually not as successful as they plan to be. And living in an environment like Saudi Arabia, even though it is such an important part, our food and restaurants are so important. I’m learning everyday. We have gone through five years and we have learned so much.

What are the markets that you cater to?
We cater mainly for Saudi Arabia and our biggest cities are Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, in addition to Makkah and Madinah. We cover 18 cities. We have got 14 cities in Lebanon as well. And now, we are looking at the UAE, Egypt, Kuwait and few other special destinations.

What is next?
We are about to release our international website. We are also releasing a brand new website. All restaurants can add themselves for free to our website. If you are a businesswoman working from home, you can add your business to our website for nothing. And you can update your page and all other stuff. We are providing the facility in English and Arabic.

What do you offer to your clients?
We offer memberships. We give them additional exposure on the website. We give them some features and functions where they can add menus and special offers. They can have their own username and password; they can log in and use it. In the new website I mentioned earlier, we are releasing some very cool, special functions for the restaurants. When someone leaves a comment or a rating, the owner of the restaurant receives it directly. And we are trying to introduce it for mobile phones as well so that you can get notifications.