When the Food Genius team moved into an empty project space at IDEO Chicago to become our first Startup-in-Residence, we were cautiously optimistic. This co-locate-with-startups thing was new to both of us. Would they like us? Would we like them? It was like meeting our first college roommate all over again, only this one had a complex algorithm that tracked and classified more than 14 million restaurant menu items. Swoon! We love nerds who design with data.
Fresh from Excelerate Labs’ 2011 Summer Program, an intensive accelerator for startups where some IDEOers were acting as mentors, the Food Genius team had just decided to pivot from being a consumer-facing mobile app provider—a so-called “Netflix for Foodies”—to being an API provider focused on customers in the food industry and app development worlds. Their mission: serve up real-time data to industry insiders hungry to get ahead of food trends. Their key ingredients: food-related data from Facebook, Twitter, Yelp!, and other social web services—information like people’s favorite dishes, trendy new ingredients, and red-hot flavor pairings.
For 14 weeks, the Food Genius team worked around the clock developing their API and an industry-facing trends dashboard with the help of our digital and interaction designers. The goal was to launch an API that both developers and food industry insiders would love as quickly as possible. Yikes! Less bacon! More programming!
As Food Genius’ “graduation” date grew closer, and their API more robust, we started brainstorming ways they could highlight the capabilities of their API. What started out as a simple data visualization of all the places to get curry in Chicago, soon ballooned into a 12-person, three-hour, live-tweeting Curry Crawl to find the best curry in the city by using the Food Genius API.
To prepare, we tricked out the back of a U-Haul to look like a mobile Indian restaurant with yards of fabric and cans of Super 77, while Food Genius created a custom mobile app. As a vintage jam box pumped psychedelic Indian funk, the team piled into the back of the truck and “fed” the API our taste preferences. (Justin Massa, CEO of Food Genius, dressed up like a “server” (get it?) to personify the API.) First stop: Mughal India! We ate the dishes suggested. Voted. Tweeted. The API served up new suggestions. Four restaurants, a couple miles, and nine curries later, we had a clear favorite: the Chicken Makhani at Jaipur. (You can read an archive of our Tweets here.)
After our quest (and a few bottles of Goo Gone) we returned the U-Haul to its natural state and moved on to new adventures. Luckily, our talented in-house filmmaker Adam Geremia created the awesome video at the top of this post, best watched with the volume cranked to 11.