By Carol Tannenhauser
WhatToOrder, a recently released restaurant search app, aims to be the Google of New York City restaurants and the dishes they serve and ingredients they use.
“You can search for any word on any menu in any restaurant in New York City,” explained Rob Fraley, the app’s creator, in a recent phone interview. “For example, ‘wedge salad with bleu cheese and bacon.’ It will only show you results that have all those terms in it.“
But more importantly these days, WhatToOrder will tell you which restaurants are open for takeout and delivery in the area of your actual or desired location. If you enter Upper West Side, you will get a complete list of every restaurant in the neighborhood and its current status.
“We may have missed a few and we didn’t include any restaurants big enough to have apps of their own,” Mr. Fraley said. Still, the list — illustrated with photographs, like stamps in a collection — includes 302 restaurants on the UWS, 143 of which were open at the time of this writing. “It’s not perfect,” Mr. Fraley added, “because it’s changing so quickly, but it’s constantly being updated.” The site menu has a contact link to send questions, problems, and corrections. “We definitely rely on our users to help us keep up to date on openings/closings!”
WhatToOrder is free. Restaurants do not pay for the service either, and are listed solely according to their distance from you.
“So, the little guy gets a shot at being seen,” Mr. Fraley explained. He was careful to emphasize that WhatToOrder is not a “delivery fulfillment site,” but a ”restaurant search engine” that connects you to other delivery and reservation sites that a restaurant already uses. It also provides menus, reviews, and 20 filters, including vegan, gluten-free, and kosher.
Mr. Fraley conceived of the app before the pandemic, but when the shutdown came he knew immediately that New Yorkers would need to know what restaurants remained available for pick-up and delivery. So, he activated a feature of the site that allows a restaurant to be marked “temporarily closed,” and began tracking the status of every restaurant every day. He did it, and still does, the old-fashioned way: with a team of data-entry people making phone calls.
“Who’s paying for it?“ you’re probably wondering. The answer, at this point, is Rob Fraley. “I was able to save up some money from my prior career,” he said. While he’s thrilled to serve the city at this critical time, his long-term plan is to sell the data he collects about what people are eating and other food trends to big food companies and restaurant chains as market research. There’s no advertising on the site, so that’s how he’ll hopefully make his money. He promises your privacy will not be compromised in the process.
Click on the link to the WhatToOrder app here. Download the app, enter the type of food or dish you desire, then, your actual or any other location within the city, hit open, and enjoy your search.
By the way, for now, the app works only on a phone, not your desktop computer.
If you want more in-depth information about WhatToOrder, here’s a Q&A provided by Mr. Fraley:
What exactly is WhatToOrder?
WhatToOrder is an open search engine for finding food and restaurants, and a free and fair distribution channel for restaurants. Users can search by cuisine and location, but also by more specific criteria, like dish name, ingredient combinations, reservation and delivery partners. We also offer 20 dietary and environmental filters like gluten-free, dairy-free, grass-fed and GMO-free.
How does it help small restaurants?
Since search results are displayed strictly by distance, we effectively override the ranking algorithms used by delivery and reservation platforms, review platforms like Yelp, and even Google Maps. This gives every restaurant, no matter how small, a fair opportunity to be seen.
Why launch a restaurant app now?
Preserving the city’s culture of small, independent restaurants was part of our mission long before the lockdown. This is why we list as many restaurants as we can in all five boroughs, including many places that can’t afford to maintain a website. We launched now to give New Yorkers a convenient way to see who’s still open for business, regardless of their neighborhood or whether restaurants near them use third-party delivery platforms.
How do you keep the app up-to-date as restaurants temporarily close?
We use a combination of technology and human-power. We had already been keeping menus up-to-date on our system prior to launch, using software to track and report menu changes, and good old-fashioned brain power and judgement from our content management team to update the app.
Keeping up with temporary closures has, of course, been a challenge, but it’s something we track daily. Input from New Yorkers and restaurants themselves has helped! When we hear of a change, we make it on our system asap, and it shows up on the app within seconds.
What if I live in the outer boroughs?
We include thousands of restaurants across all five boroughs, because WhatToOrder is meant to be a resource for all New Yorkers. We want to know if we have missed any locations, and will rely to some degree on our users to let us know.
Can I still order online?
Yes. You can access any third-party delivery platform that a restaurant uses right from the app. We also have a category called “Other Ordering” that includes the restaurant’s own commission-free online ordering systems for ordering takeout or delivery.
If you want to avoid third-party delivery altogether, you can actually filter your initial search to see only restaurants that have an Other Ordering option. We currently list 578 restaurants that fall into this category, so you should have a good selection of choices no matter where you live.
What else do you want New Yorkers to know?
Our hope is that, if enough people use WhatToOrder in New York City, restaurants will still be able to utilize the services of Seamless, Yelp, OpenTable and other platforms, but won’t need to pay extra in order to be seen – essentially, just buy the basic package, but actually enjoy greater visibility.
For consumers, we’d like them to know that they can have just one single app on their phone that lets them find all the restaurants around them, search their update menus down to the dish and ingredient level, and connect to all of their service providers.