Two recent college graduates are launching an app in D.C. today that lets diners review and rate individual dishes at a restaurant. Simmer cuts through some of the noise on other review platforms like Yelp that can factor in things like parking availability and wait times to focus solely on what they feel matters most—the food. Users rate dishes on a scale of one to 10, add a description, and hopefully, a photo. It’s available for download on Apple and Android.
Richard Wu, 22, and Vaibhav Verma, 23, are fresh out of participating in Y Combinator—a San Francisco-based seed accelerator that has launched more than 2,000 companies including Airbnb, DoorDash, Instacart, and Dropbox. The three-month intensive program helped them fine-tune Simmer and ready it for Washingtonians to use.
While Wu and Verma experimented with the app in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, they’ve chosen to launch in D.C. because Wu is from Northern Virginia and the District is an exciting restaurant city that’s also a manageable size.
“I love Yelp,” Wu says. “There’s a place for it, but I wish it would go a little farther into the granularity of it and cover what do I get and what do I not get. I don’t want to spend $40 on something that’s not the best.”
Wu, who is Chinese American, says he has bad luck going out to eat, especially when he goes to restaurants outside his culture. “When I bring someone else to a Chinese restaurant and I see what they’re going to order, I’m like, ‘You shouldn’t order those, get these things!”
His parents would be ideal Simmer users. “Outside of that one Chinese place near my house, they never go out to eat and I think 80 percent of that is because they have no idea what chicken tikka masala even is,” Wu explains. “So they’ll go to an Indian spot and hopefully feel comfortable approaching it. Here’s the top dish on the menu. Here’s what people are saying. It makes food more approachable.”
Wu also hopes restaurants benefit from Simmer. He thinks smaller, mom-and-pop restaurants stand to gain the most. “My social vision is that with Yelp and other restaurant publications, you kind of get this natural bias where the ones with the best public relations’ budgets get the most press,” he says. “Mom and pop shops lag behind and get dinged on Yelp for not having fast service when it’s a woman and her son running the restaurant.”
Leveling the playing field by only focusing on food leads Wu to believe Simmer is “a more fair discovery platform than the ones that currently exist.”
Restaurants might also gain intel about which of their dishes are winners and which are duds, leading them to make menu choices that could cut down on food waste. “In many ways restaurants on their back end are trying to do this anyway,” Wu says.
One potential issue is that restaurant menus change more frequently than ever before as chefs celebrate seasonality and constantly create new dishes to stay ahead of the competition. Wu says the Simmer team pays close attention to updating menus when the seasons change and also rely on Simmer users to alert them about new additions to menus. The founders have partner companies that they say are experts at sourcing accurate menus online.
There’s room to play within the app. Soon Simmer users will be able to tag dishes with categories like vegan, gluten-free, or spicy, follow other users with similar tastes, peruse definitions of ingredients, and link their accounts with delivery apps.
When Simmer launches today, users will notice there are already a significant number of reviews. Wu explains how they got there.
“You need ratings to attract users and you need users to generate ratings and attract other users,” he says. “A lot of these reviews are already online on blogs or Instagram. Someone out there is saying something about the cheung fung at Tiger Fork. If we can scrape that review, we can use machine learning to take that qualitative review and turn it into a quantitative rating.” For example, if someone said they loved the ambiance and their server but talked about a specific dish being terrible, Simmer will post a three out of 10 rating.
It appears others have launched similar apps in the past including EatOpine, Baidu, Epicurator, and DishTip.
Wu says, “Hopefully this is something everyone in D.C. can use to figure out what the heck to order when you go to a restaurant.”