By GREGORY ZELLER //
Sydney Epstein wasn’t hungry for entrepreneurial success. She was just hungry.
After graduating from Emerson College, the future business owner took a job as a TV and film production assistant in Los Angeles. At the top of her settling-into-a-new-place list was “finding my go-to restaurant, like I do in every city,” she told Innovate LI, so the self-described “food-obsessed millennial” did what millennials do.
“It was very overwhelming,” she said. “Very confusing. There was no efficient way to search what was nearby and what looked good.”
That’s when the bulb inside Epstein’s mental refrigerator lit up. In an era when millions of social-media users share snapshots of their meals and otherwise engage in “food porn,” old adages about accessing the heart through the stomach are being recoded: For modern foodies, the way to the stomach is through the eyes.
There’s nothing new about “the beauty shot,” that billboard burger with the crisp green pickles and the perfect drip of cheese, or that cereal box showing a bowl of milk so white and smooth it looks like (and probably is) Elmer’s glue. And in the early 21st century, any restaurant worth its salt hosts a website stocked with mouthwatering art.
But a mobile app that feeds hungry eyes firsts – that helps users decide what’s for dinner by starting with the beauty shots and getting to the actual restaurant later – that was a fresh idea.
“Everyone wastes time trying to figure out when and where to eat, whether you’re rummaging through your takeout-menu drawer or reading endless online reviews,” Epstein noted. “But we’re visual people. You can’t just go by written reviews from people who might not even share your preferences.”
And while there are apps and websites designed to help users fine-tune their dining selections, she added, “none of them are able to help the user answer the age-old question, ‘What am I hungry for?’
“That’s what Foodfaves is all about.”
Epstein wasn’t necessarily thinking about a new business venture – “I was just trying to start this career in TV,” she noted – but she nonetheless contacted her father to share her thinking.
Paul Epstein, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, liked what he heard. The doctor, who’d gone to night school to earn his MBA after completing medical studies at the Boston University School of Medicine, told his daughter not to repeat her idea to anyone and immediately contacted his attorney.
“I wasn’t looking to jump into this as a career,” Epstein noted. “It just kind of happened.”
With her actual career zipping along – she’s currently a post-production editor for New York City-based media company Left/Right Productions – Epstein and her dad officially founded Dix Hills-based Hungry For More LLC in 2015 and launched the flagship Foodfaves app for iOS devices at the end of 2016.
The company is small: just the cofounders (Epstein is CEO, her dad is president) and a part-time PR team, plus a squad of Croatian programmers recommended by one of Dr. Epstein’s business associates. Hungry For More doesn’t even have a physical headquarters, but while the overhead is low, working with her father has been a high point, according to the chief exec.
“We come from different schools,” Epstein noted. “I went to film school. I’m the creative-visionary-type, the one Skyping with the developers who built the thing. He took care of all the business aspects, the lawyer and the patent and the financial side.
“We make a pretty good team.”
Dad also ponied up much of the $100,000 investment to get Hungry For More cooking, with the lion’s share going to that Croation development team.
“It’s not like ABC and it’s good to go,” Epstein said. “There are a lot of moving parts.”
Another challenge involves the entrepreneurs’ very own “chicken or the egg” moment – in this case, deciding which to build first, their restaurant database or their user following.
Utilizing food shots culled from Foursquare restaurant profiles, personal Instagram accounts and other sources, they decided to focus first on attracting users. Foodfaves has launched focused primarily on NYC, which according to Epstein is the perfect “test city” – geographically small, densely populated and absolutely packed with restaurants.
“Our app already contains over 40,000 photos,” she said. “And having them almost all in New York, it’s really able to function at a good level.”
Leveraging GPS technology and a user-created profile – primarily, a “Crave Quiz,” which uses a proprietary algorithm that can be applied to other sectors, and has been patented by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office – the app serves up a scrumptious selection of visual appetizers within reach.
Users in the mood for sublime sushi, primo pizza or a killer kung pao can specifically search for such, or they can thumb through selections based on their profile. When their eyes synch up with their stomach, links take them to the restaurant: name, location, contact info, online menu, even a map leading directly to those tempting tacos.
Foodfaves will always be free for users, Epstein noted, but the plan is to build up that user traction and then service restaurants on a subscription basis, giving them “more control over the listings, such as the ability to use their own photos.”
While it’s focused primarily on NYC, non-Big Apple selections are already creeping into the Foodfaves database, thanks to those personal Instagram accounts. Photos posted by travelers and residents of other cities are being incorporated by the Croatian programmers; Epstein said she opened the app on a recent trip to Cuba and was surprised to find a local listing.
“That was cool,” she said. “This is a great way to spread out our content, so we’ll use photos even when we know people were on vacation.”
The whole Foodfaves experience, in fact, has a very Instagram feel to it. It “feels familiar to people,” Epstein noted, just one reason she’s confident in her photogenic foodie app.
“The main goal right now is to get it where we know it can be,” she said. “We live in a time when people have a cultural obsession with food, and we really believe this can change the way people make their food choices on social media.
“With this, restaurants can reach out directly to customers who are in the area and enjoy what they serve,” Epstein added. “And when you’re hungry, you can see what you’r really in the mood for.”
What’s It? Mobile app showcasing local delicacies with pictures
Brought To You By: Daughter-and-dad entrepreneurs Sydney and Paul Epstein
All In: $100,000, largely self-invested, mostly for software development
Status: Now serving NYC appetizers