Another free startup idea (now with MOBILE!)

From time to time I post ideas that I have neither the talent nor time to pursue. Here is another…

Online restaurant menus suck. They come in a zillion different formats (PDF, HTML, etc.) and none of them seem to be the same. Many restaurants do a fair amount of take out business and but they pay almost no attention to making the menu easy to use on a mobile device…you know, like the phone you are likely to call in your order on. That’s ridiculous. I tried to order from Chili’s tonight and after 5 minutes of clicking around on the menu looking for what I wanted I damn near called and ordered a bunch of ketchup packets for dinner.

So, to the idea…

Why not leverage Mechanical Turk and have people find menus online (in all of their crummily-designed glory), input it in to a simple text format (item, description, price), and make a mobile app out of it? I’d be glad to download an app that let me type in “PF Changs” and view the PF Changs menu in a way that didn’t make me want to shove my chopsticks in to my eyes. Make it searchable, add in some location features…boom.

I’m sure there is already an app like this. In fact, I’d be willing to bet there are dozens of apps like this. The only problem is that NONE of them are doing a good job presenting me and my hungry friends with a good way to find out what’s on the menu. They all want to take my order. They all want to recommend a place to eat. They all want me to log in via facebook and share what I’m thinking of eating and post a picture of the egg rolls and rate the hamburger. Enough with the feature overkill.

Menus.

For places that serve take out.

With search.

No ratings, comments, recommendations, etc. Just an easy to read and easy to navigate list of stuff that I might eat.

****

So how to make money? No one is going to pay for this app, even at a $1, since they won’t know they need it until they are starving at which point they might suffer through the pain of navigating the standard online menu rather than buy a new app. No restaurant is going to pay a flat fee to be included because there is no way initially to demonstrate that the concept will drive/increase sales. Furthermore, charging for inclusion implicitly means we won’t have a complete listing, so the app sucks before we’ve even launched. So if the user wont pay, and the content offerer won’t pay, where is the moola?

Well, why not use the same model that Google has ridden to a pot of gold? Let it be free to list a menu, but offer a way for restaurants to compete on menu items. Let Chilis pay for the top spot on a search for not only “hamburger” but also “TGI Fridays.” let there be a click to call button, collect a dime or a dollar every time someone clicks through to the menu…collect even more if they click thru and call.

Look, I hate that ads litter every sector of the digerati. But they do so because they WORK for businesses and for people. Build a content base (the menus) and let interested parties pay to show up higher in the listings. It works on the desktop, it will work on mobile. Make it un-obrtusive and make sure it adds value through context. Let Jimmy john’s offer me $1 off a sandwich when I search for Subway. Let The Olive Garden promote their spaghetti when I look for Macaroni Grill. But most of all, make it useful and make it free to use.

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