By Nick Nelson
It’s not about where you go; it’s about what you order.
This is the philosophy of tech entrepreneur Jolina Li of YumZing, a new Minneapolis startup hatching under the Project Skyway incubator this summer. The service will put a twist on the traditional online restaurant review model by highlighting specific dishes, desserts and drinks rather than establishments as a whole.
Li grew up surrounded by the dining industry, as her parents – as well as many of her other relatives – owned a restaurant. She’s familiar with the frustrations they faced when new customers would come in, try one of the lesser menu items, and leave underwhelmed.
It’s a business where first impressions are everything. A great initial experience will bring a customer back, whereas a bad experience can lead to negative word-of-mouth and critical online reviews. Given the competitive environments and slim margins that exist for restaurant owners, failing to delight patrons on that first visit can be a costly problem.
“My parents make great General Tso chicken but they don’t make good rice,” Li says, citing her own family’s experience. “So obviously I would want the first-time customers to know when they come they should try the best dish.”
YumZing will provide an opportunity for restaurants to gain free exposure, as they can register for a free account and feature a dish or drink. Upgrading to a premium account will enable multiple listings that are more highly visible on search results, while also eliminating the presence of competitors on their profile page. Li adds that she would like fees to be reflective of the value a restaurant gains from using the service, and that she would eventually like to generate revenue from ads as well, but the profit model is still being hammered out.
YumZing will launch as a web and location-based iPhone app, allowing users to search for particular dishes and get results with the best-reviewed items in the vicinity at the top. Li says that her platform will feature a distinctly social tilt, comparing it to Pinterest where users can follow one another, comment on entries, add pictures and so forth.
She is currently targeting restaurants in downtown Minneapolis but hopes to expand outward, eventually reaching national coverage.
While the general concept is not entirely different from existing review sites, Li believes that YumZing will fill a specific need for consumers that currently is not being addressed by apps such as Yelp and Urbanspoon.
“If I’m craving a Dragon Roll, they’ll show me where the best sushi restaurant is, but they don’t show me who makes the best Dragon Roll.”
So far, her venture is off to a strong start. In April, she entered a business plan competition called Innovation Quest, put on by the University of Connecticut, that judged startups based on a variety of measures. Among 43 applicants, YumZing finished first, earning a $15,000 prize.
“I have gained a lot more confidence in myself as well as the business,” Li says of the experience. She hopes to launch in mid-June.