US growth on the menu for AI-powered dietary requirement app Foodini

US growth on the menu for AI-powered dietary requirement app Foodini

Foodini co-founders (L-R) Timo Kugler, Erica Anderman and Dylan McDonnell.

Thanks in part to a booming "test market" in Australia now with 70,000 users, a Sydney-founded menu-checking technology platform called Foodini has got its foot in the door in the US with three high-profile enterprise clients running pilot programs across hospitality venues and hotels.

Initially founded in 2022 by Dylan McDonnell and Timo Kugler, and based out of startup hub Fishburners, Foodini has made its mark on consumers and restaurants alike through its dietitian-supported technology that analyses menus to match with hundreds of preferences ranging from gluten-free to vegan to pesce-pollotarian to shellfish allergies.

Today the company has also just announced the appointment of a third co-founder, Erica Anderman, who is based in California and as chief revenue officer (CRO) will play a key role in Foodini's US expansion. 

With a verification process from dietitians and much of the technological heavy-lifting done by artificial intelligence that is becoming increasingly faster and more accurate, Foodini helps those with dietary restrictions find appropriate places to eat and also saves them the inconvenience of having to bring up requirements with waitstaff.

For the venues themselves, which are now 12,000 in number in Australia, a QR code can be placed on the menu via an in-venue solution that matches the customers' needs and provides valuable insights about menu data and ordering.

"We can track the types of dietary profiles that are coming through the restaurant, so you can tell for example that for a crowd that ate at one of their venues, of the people who scanned the QR code or clicked the link on their website, 35 per cent were gluten free, 24 per cent were vegan, 10 per cent were following a keto diet," McDonnell tells Business News Australia

"But we can come over the top of that and say ‘you only actually have one keto friendly option on that menu', and suggest swapping out one ingredient out of six different items so that all of them become keto friendly, and then you have the potential to update your bottom line by Y over that.

"The kind of analytics and insights that we’re able to provide our venues, and continually improve, is a very compelling piece of this because that's the data that they don't currently have, and don't really have any other way of accessing."

This in-venue solution is being used by a large national hospitality provider in Australia, which has relayed to the Foodini team that it now means "far less questions for the staff" and a "drastic reduction in the risk of a mistake".

"It's a better customer experience for the customer, because a lot of people, if they're on a date or if they're with co-workers on a business meeting, they don't want to be that annoying person at the table who has to create a fuss," adds McDonnell, a former corporate lawyer whose inspiration for Foodini came from his own experience since being diagnosed as a coeliac since the age of 10.

"Foodini is creating a world where catering for those with dietary needs is the norm, instead of the exception. One in three people globally have a dietary need, and the vast majority struggle to find suitable restaurants and menu items for their needs, often resulting in negative health consequences and acting as a barrier to inclusion.

"Foodini enables safer, easier, faster and more enjoyable dining for those with dietary needs."

How Foodini's dietitian-supported AI verification system works

The startup has a manual process whereby its dietitians verify venues, but the implementation of AI has enabled Foodini to scale at a level previously unforeseen with a high degree of accuracy.

"We call it 'dietitian in a box', in that we still have our dietitian team who review everything that goes on the platform, but from a scalability perspective the AI that we've been training for more than 15 months is becoming incredibly smart and also incredibly fast," McDonnell explains.

"The AI as gotten so good now that the AI tells our head dietician, how confident it is in its answers. It will communicate that it is 97 per cent sure or 85 per cent sure, so that our dietitians then know exactly where to zone in and review.

"Every time we teach something or every time that dietitian answers the question, the AI gets smarter, and it doesn't ask the same question again. We've been doing this for months now across tens of thousands of ingredients and millions of data points, and it's gotten to the point that the dietitians are struggling to find it making a mistake."

He says this development has allowed a "step change" for covering new venues as part of a national roll-out with a presence in every major Australian city.

Founder hopes early US case studies will "convince everyone else"

While Kugler has remained in Australia to lead operations here, McDonnell has now moved to Los Angeles, California to oversee expansion in a market with "massive opportunity" after laying the groundwork over many months. 

"When we started in Australia we were at ground zero – we had to start with mom and pop shops and really small places before getting to middle tier, before you could up the grade to enterprise here," he explains.

"Having those proven case studies from Australia is what convinced the early adopters in America, and having the early case studies in America will convince everyone else.

"Australia, as the business goes forward, becomes the perfect test market because we can test new features here, we can innovate here, prove out the concept and then ship it to the US thereafter."

Enlisting a well-networked and capable advisory board has been key to Foodini's early breakthroughs in the US market, in addition to the support of the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) and Antler, one of its early investors that led its seed round. To date, Foodini has raised $1.2 million.

"One of the big things we did was the Landing Pad program which is run by Austrade, and that was actually extremely helpful on a number of fronts – one, there’s a bootcamp program they run you through where they tell you the 'what’s what' about the US market; the common mistakes and pitfalls.

"In addition to the bootcamp and information, we also get access to their offices. So I spent a good bit of time in San Francisco and in New York, and they have offices in both places that they gave me access to," he says, adding the company has also picked out a co-working space in LA that's similar in many ways to Fishburners - a model he is a "very big fan of".

"We didn't go through Antler's accelerator program, but they invested us in us out of their sidecar fund. Last year they did an inaugural Elevate program where they pick their 16 top companies globally at seed and Series A stage – there were four chosen from this region, and they flew us over to New York for four days of essentially, again, boot camps, investor meetings, workshops."

He says these Antler initiatives provided great support and were a big help for networking, with one key take-home being that "if you want to be successful in the US, a founder has to be in the US".

"To be fair, that's something we already knew, but it's still good to have those nuggets reinforced."

Doors have also been opened thanks to Foodini's superstar advisory board, including former Holiday Inn Corp CEO Ken Hamlet, ex-Mendoza Ventures CFO Scott Heyes, ex-Facebook head of brand Andy McKeon, and ex-Google ANZ head of marketing Jason Chuck.

Anderman was also on the advisory board, but her responsibility has now been lifted to that of co-founder.

"I’ve stayed in the industry because I love helping restaurant owners navigate the ever evolving world of technology.," says Anderman, who has had an impressive career in the restaurant technology space where she led growth at Singleplatform which was acquired by TripAdvisor, Odeko which raised US$177 million last year, and fast-growing pizzeria tech platform Slice.

"After meeting Dylan and working with the Foodini team in an advisory capacity for the past year, I couldn’t help but notice how broken the current experience is for diners with dietary needs.

"Hospitality venues rely on their waitstaff to be experts on every ingredient in the menu which is not a scalable solution, especially when 60 per cent of owners report being understaffed. I’m excited to join the Foodini team and bring this solution to diners in the US."

McDonnell says having strong, experienced on-the-ground advisors has been useful not just for advice on growing in the US, but crucially they have their own networks for setting up first meetings with clients.

"They can make the warm intros, which is such a massive part of when you're an unknown startup. You need people who can vouch for you and give you that bit of credibility."

From a legal and operational standpoint, the co-founder adds that Merton Lawyers' Project Frontier led by managing partner Anthony Curtin has also helped Foodini make some inroads.

"He [Curtin] made some really strong intros for me to the likes of some of the big law firms - we ended up going with Cooley," he says, adding the company has also set up Delaware C Corp which is "essentially what you have to do as Australian startup" in the US.

"Having a reputable lawyer represent you when you need them is helpful, but getting into them can be tricky. Having someone vouch for you helps as well."

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