Imagine that you’re strolling around downtown Manhattan and have a sudden hankering for, say, wild mushroom ravioli. It’s Rene Reinsberg’s goal to help you satisfy your craving by organizing menu data on the web and making it easily searchable on your smart phone. His company, Locu, allows restaurants to update their menus to a single place online, and then distributes that data to variety of platforms, including the restaurant’s website, Facebook page and mobile site.
If it all sounds very geeky, that’s because Reinsberg and his co-founders, Marc Piette, Marek Olszewski, and Stelios Sidiroglou-Douskos met at MIT in 2010 and came up with the idea in a class taught by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. “We were all very passionate about structured data and the local space,” recalls Reinsberg. As a teenager in Germany, he built software to help his parents, who owned a shoe store, manage inventory. Sidiroglou-Douskos also came from brick-and-mortar roots: his parents owned a popular seafood restaurant in New York City. So the classmates decided to build a product that would help merchants better connect with consumers.
The first iteration of their business was a consumer-facing recommendation app called Goodplates, which helped consumers find restaurants by searching for the specific food they felt like eating. “Very early on, we learned that it would be very difficult to scale,” says Reinsberg.
Listening to Merchants
Through their conversations with restaurateurs, the partners discovered a major pain point. Keeping menus and prices up to date, and managing that data on all the different places where it appeared on the Web was difficult and time-consuming. “We went back to the drawing board,” says Reinsberg.
Their new goal: to build a central data platform that would help merchants manage their menu data and help app developers build better local search. That, in turn, would help consumers find what they were looking for. Say, for instance, that your wild mushroom ravioli is waiting for you at a nearby restaurant whose website is built in flash. Google won’t be able to extract that data, and you’ll go home hungry. Locu gives restaurant owners the capability to put all that data into a database with a common format that is easily searchable.
Locu made its product available in beta in the beginning of 2011, and then landed a $4 million round of funding in April from General Catalyst Partners, Lowercase Capital, Lightbank and several others. The full site was launched in October. While the majority of users are restaurants that upload daily specials, Reinsberg says the site has also attracted hair salons, nail studios, spas, gyms, and retailers who use it to publish their offerings and prices. Currently, Locu is free, but offers premium services for an additional fee. “We’re actively thinking about how to add functionality that will benefit other kinds of businesses,” says Reinsberg.
Partnerships on the Horizon
Just last week, Locu announced a partnership with OpenTable, which provides online restaurant reservations for diners. OpenTable’s restaurant customers will now be able to publish and edit their menus in real time via Locu. Locu also recently inked a deal with Time Out Chicago to integrate the magazine’s web content with local Chicago restaurant menu listings. Reinsberg says that an element of the company’s growth strategy is to integrate Locu’s API into local search apps. Over the next couple of months, he says, the company will announce several big partnership deals. With companies such as Yelp, Reinsberg is mum on what’s in the works. “Right now, we’re very focused on engagement,” he says. “Our model is straightforward and sound—we’re focused on giving all the value to the merchant.”
Read more Startup of the Week posts.