SnagaStool Forges Forward After Not-So-‘Wonderful’ Dip in Shark Tank

Who wants to watch the game at Grill 23 anyway?

Jamie Manning says he sent 10 emails to Grill 23 General Manager Peter Baker. But it wasn’t until Boston-based millionaire Kevin O’Leary grilled the entrepreneur publicly on Shark Tank that he received a response.

The business that Manning and CMO Dean Whitney pitched the sharks for an investment is SnagaStool, which allows patrons to reserve bar stools at area establishments. When they filmed the reality TV show in August—the episode aired in the most recent spring season—the Suffolk University graduates didn’t have an app or a website. All the startup had were two restaurants willing to participate.

When SnagaStool appeared on Shark Tank, O’Leary laid into the team, saying that until his favorite Boston restaurant agreed to partner with the startup, he was out.

“[Baker] had a stack of papers of all the emails we had written over the last two years,” Manning says. “All of a sudden, we became validated.”

Manning and cofounder Adriano Varassin drummed up the concept for Snagastool in June 2013 when the Bruins were in the playoffs. After unsuccessfully snagging seats at two bars—Olde Magoun’s Saloon and Newtowne Grille—Manning offered to pay a guy $20 for his two bar stools at the third, 21st Amendment. The man accepted, and the idea stuck.

SnagaStool surveyed 500 people via email and discovered that 80 percent of respondents had left a bar because they couldn’t find a seat. Of that group, 70 percent said they would pay an average $15 to reserve a bar stool during a playoff game or big event.

Manning and Varassin built their first prototype and started presenting it at events like the TechCrunch Boston Pitch-Off. The initial buzz attracted a Shark Tank casting director, who invited the team to California after five months of back and forth.

“We waited in a hotel for four days, waiting for them to call us,” Manning recalls, noting that although they made it to Sony Pictures, they weren’t guaranteed to film the segment or have it air. When the founders discovered their pitch would air, eight months had passed. “We updated our app and hypothesis.”

Rather than charge users by the hour for bar stools, SnagaStool has evolved into an app that lets users book a table or high top in a casual place they are willing to pay for at a premium.

“We call it a ‘micro space,’” Manning says, comparing SnagaStool to sports bar Buffalo Wild Wings. “We’re like the VIP without the bottle. We’re not a technology company, we’re a hospitality service.”

Customers will pay anywhere from $20 on game day to $1 on say, Trivia Night, to skip the line, be guaranteed a table, and receive a free appetizer. The Boston area’s five participating bars currently receive 100 percent of the profits. Once SnagaStool builds its user base, however, the startup plans to take a percentage of the reservation fees.

“We’re trying to monetize something that historically has been free—table reservation—but has significant value to the guest during premium times,” Manning says. “Most of the places we work with right now can’t afford OpenTable. They charge an implementation, reservation, and monthly fee; smaller bars can’t afford that kind of service.”

And those “smaller bars” don’t necessarily include the likes of Grill 23.

What Manning says he’s learned from the city’s hospitality leaders since Shark Tank aired, however, is that restaurants like Grill 23 know how to shuffle patrons around when someone like Mr. Wonderful steps into the bar. SnagaStool isn’t a worthwhile partnership for them.

“Grill 23 is probably the worst place in the world to watch a Patriots game,” Manning says. “We are the guys who want to make sure you can get a table at Hooters, Olde Magoun’s Saloon, or Newtowne Grille.”

Don Bailey, the former senior brand manager for Jerry Remy’s, and the current general manager for Barteca Restaurant Group, has signed on as SnagaStool’s hospitality advisor. The team is now focused on partnering with 10 Boston bars before the start of football season.

Although Manning won’t be able to save Mr. Wonderful a seat, the press did open doors for the fledgling startup.

“The only business model that fails is the one you write and stick to,” he says. “We’re neutral to ideas. Our ultimate goal is how can we make both the bar and guest happy and create a service that works for the both of them.”