Josh Sapienza is the co-founder and managing partner of Hawser LLC., a benefit corporation based in Allentown, Pennsylvania that is focused on making personal, engaging and culturally rewarding experiences more accessible though hospitality-infused technology.
Sapienza and his team recently launched “Course”, the world’s first personal restaurant guide powered by artificial intelligence and private reviews. Course is a free app that also offers members a bucket list making feature to organize the lists of restaurants & bars you want to try as well as the lists of places you’ve already tried and don’t want to forget.
Sapienza recently presented Course to hospitality industry leaders, founders, venture capital firms and innovators at the Independent Lodging Congress’ shark-tank style pitch event in New York and took home 1st place.
As a 30+ year industry, veteran Josh has a long history of managing f&b operations, new outlet openings, re-positionings, replications and training for some of the nations most reputable restaurant organizations including: STARR restaurants, Peninsula, Grill Concepts, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and others in Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Vermont and Colorado.
Having built a strong background in food & beverage, operations, training, sales, and revenue management; Sapienza brings a unique perspective to the tech world for which he says he now holds an even deeper appreciation as well as an understanding of the many reasons why a delta presently exists between hospitality professionals and technologists. He hopes to bridge that divide with more mutually beneficial people-centric technology like Course.
Josh also works as a hospitality management consultant with Ubiquity Group and is the creator & host of HospitalityHelpline.com: an online resource that offers practical advice and solutions to the most common challenges faced by new restaurant owners & operators.
When he’s not traveling, consulting or meting with his partners Josh lives, cooks and enjoys the outdoors in Allentown, Pennsylvania with his wife Sarah, daughter Catherine, Newfoundland (Lulu), Golden Retriever (Buddy) and cat (Tiger).
Where did the idea for Hawser come from?
Having spent over three decades opening, managing and re-positioning a myriad of different restaurant concepts in various cities across the county, I’d frequently encounter guests who would ask for a local recommendation or a recommendation for a great place in one of the cities I frequented. Knowing that taste is personal and “great” is highly subjective – I’d ask as many questions as I could to learn what they liked and what they didn’t like and I quickly learned that the more time I took to get to know a guest, the easier it was to predict which restaurants and bars would be most appealing to them. But those recommendations, while very much appreciated, were far from scaleable. So…knowing, first hand, the pain most independent operators endure with online reputation management in the face of limited time, capital and human resources – I thought: Man, it’d be great to have software that could automate this process privately! That way, operators wouldn’t have to deal with people trying to trash their reputation on public review sites and guests wouldn’t have to endlessly scroll through and analyze public reviews to find another place they might like. And when I shared the idea with a friend of mine who was a software engineer, he was immediately into it not only because of the challenges a unique algorithm like that presented but because, like me, his own taste and preferences rarely seemed to match that of the average Yelper Elite’s or his local food critic.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I haven’t had a typical day since I left university! My days usually start out with a little meditation, reading industry news, responding to emails and then jumping on calls with my team members, mentors, partners, potential partners and consulting clients that are scheduled between the times I need to run to the market, get a quick workout in and drive my 12yo daughter to and from volleyball camps, basketball clinics and tennis lessons. The best days wrap up with my wife and I downloading while preparing dinner and then sitting outside to enjoy it with our daughter in the garden. Taking that time – to connect with and enjoy my family whether it’s over a meal, on a walk, playing a game or traveling fulfills me and makes it easier for me to focus on other things that I find fulfilling.
How do you bring ideas to life?
By having as much fun as possible with people who bring totally different skill sets, unique perspectives and a love for they do – to the table.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Right now, I’m really excited to see a shift in interest from people publicly rating restaurants like food critics to making a more concerted effort to support, defend and celebrate their local restaurant community. It’s heartbreaking that it took millions of people losing their livelihoods during the pandemic but I think seeing boarded-up and shuttered restaurants caused a lot of folks to realize that independent restaurants aren’t just local amenities that facilitate off-line community building, pay taxes and employ neighbors; they literally make up the vibrant and diverse downtown streetscapes that most of us enjoy walking along, driving through and visiting.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Making sure I’m having fun.
One of my partners, Nathan, likes to say: “If you’re not having fun, you’re not having fun.”
Not that having fun is everything but… when you’re having fun, the time flies, your curious to learn more and willing to give more. You’re less afraid and less likely to make mistakes. You’re more inclined to share ideas, ask absurd questions, consider alternative viewpoints and reconsider previous approaches. It’s the fun factor and loving what you do that makes you sit up excited in bed at 4am to write that exciting idea down. It’s having so much fun that makes you too damn impatient to wait for someone else to do it so you make that phone call yourself. If you’re having fun, you’re not only more productive, you’re enjoying the journey and every step of the process becomes a success or a lesson worth celebrating.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I tell myself not to waste time working for someone who wasn’t (or didn’t offer) a mentor. I didn’t really recognize the value of a mentor until I was in my late twenties. I now tell anyone asking for career advice that the best job isn’t the one with the highest salary or upward mobility. It’s the one with the most in-depth training program. Unless you’ve spent 20-30 years mastering a skill-set, there are plenty of benevolent experts out there who’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time, money, sweat and tears learning what you don’t know. And you can cut your learning curve considerably by working with them, working for them, listening to them and asking them to teach you if they don’t offer. Whether it’s offering to work for free or asking them to carve some time out to meet with you for an hour a month or asking them to recommend a list of books or anything else that they’ve found helpful…pair up!
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Daniel LaRusso was the antagonist in The Karate Kid.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I revisit the decisions we’ve made and directions we’ve taken regularly and with an open mind. Extenuating circumstances change. Impacting factors and unknowns change. Team dynamics evolve. Ripple effect, scope creep, vagaries of economy, conformation bias and new technologies are all things that may have an impact on whether or not I’d make the same decision today that I made two months ago. And walking back through the events that resulted in the “Why” I made a particular decision can serve as the catalyst for a timely pivot when needed or, at the very least, remind your team members (or provide context for new team members re:) why you are where you are.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I’d have to say my “Rock Soup” approach. Instead of borrowing a million dollars and spending it on people with specific skill-sets needed to build my company so that it makes money that then goes back to the investor; I cobbled together a team of people who were really into what I wanted to build and the reasons I wanted to build it, with the promise of sharing the profits (or “soup”) with them instead. This not only helped me build a team that was more emotionally invested in what we were building (and continue to develop) but a team that’s literally invested, financially, in the success of our service. As Pericles said of Athenian democracy: Each man shall advance based on his merits not on his wealth.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
We built a platform to solve a problem that didn’t really exist for many people. It was essentially a free charitable giving app that leveraged social good via integration with a messaging platform. It’s taken a while to overcome that mistake but we are overcoming it by unwinding that product with a re-tooling of the architecture and integrating it into Course Restaurant Guide in order to add a social component as an in-app purchase we’re calling “ClubLevel”. This is essentially a step up from the basic free membership that grants access to some exclusive features including the ability to connect with and message other Club Level members.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
It’s a lot easier to hire 27 part-time developers than it is to hire 3 full time developers.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
The Barclay Prime Cheesesteak in Philadelphia. They make a cheesesteak with wagyu ribeye, foie gras, onions and truffled cheese whiz on a fresh baked seeded roll that’s a first class trip to Drooltown. We split it 5 ways as one of our appetizers. It’s an unforgettable indulgence that, on quiet cheat nights, you can hear whispering your name through the trees in Rittenhouse Square.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Jira project management software by Atlassian. It’s just really intuitive and robust.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Engine. It’s a children’s book with a profound sub-text relating to the importance of working with a team and welcoming modernization.
The main story is about a man (Mike Mulligan) who “with some others” built the bridges and tunnels, highways and byways all over the country. As time passes, the other steam engine diggers are upgraded to newer models and Mike Mulligan goes out on his own as a private contractor with his trusty old steam engine. He lands in a town and bids on a job that’s near impossible: Digging the foundation for the new town hall in one day with his slower but capable steam engine. His promise gets him the gig and the entire town comes out to watch and cheer him on…and in the last remaining moments of daylight, he completes his task but because he undervalued the importance of working as part of a team (i.e., with “some others” that are glossed over multiple times in the first few pages of the story without even being credited by name) – Mike Mulligan’s success is a Pyrric victory as he forgets to leave a path out of the incredibly deep hole he’s just dug so he spends the rest of his days living in the basement of the building working as the janitor and turns his steam engine into the building’s boiler.
What is your favorite quote?
“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right either way.”
- If you’re not having fun, then you’re not having fun. If you love the process, there’s always something to celebrate.
- An understanding of, and appreciation for, confirmation bias can go a long way. Regularly revisiting previous decisions can be incredibly valuable.
- Your thoughts are real and manifest things. Practicing gratitude.
- Mentorship is directly proportional to success. Find a mentor or be a mentor.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.