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On the front burner

It’s an age-old question, but it never fails to stump hungry patrons: “What’s for dinner?” When Justin Massa (BA ’01) created Food Genius in 2011, he sought to help customers answer that same question.

It’s simple for anyone with an Internet connection to find lists of local restaurants by their type: Italian, Chinese, bar food. But Massa approached the problem in a unique way: by focusing on the meal, not the restaurant.

“We were trying to come up with a Netflix for food. The idea was that we would look at restaurants, look at menus, understand the attributes of their items, and then help customers find a dish, instead of a restaurant,” he says. “You can’t eat a restaurant; you have to eat a dish.”

Food Genius got its start as a mobile app for Android and iPhone cell phones. Users (who could download it for free) entered their favorite dishes, and received a list of other local options that were similar. However, Massa and co-founders Eric Cooper, Eli Rosenberg, and Benjamin Stanley quickly realized that they wanted to take Food Genius in a different direction.

“We realized that the business of what we were doing was in the data itself, and built a product around the data.”

The new Food Genius Reports, released in January of this year, offers food industry professionals restaurant menu data and analysis. The software, designed to provide a visual and intuitive display of data (most of which is provided to Food Genius by Chicago company GrubHub), has been described as offering an “incredible analysis of current ingredient-specific data.”

“We pay attention to the entire world of food all the time. That gives us the ability to
very quickly provide perspective and context when somebody comes up with a new idea, but more importantly it gives us the ability to sort the signal from the noise,” Massa claims. “We don’t see it as our job to tell you what the trend is, we see it as our job to give you the set of tools to understand which trends matter to your business.”

Massa, who graduated with an undergraduate degree in political science and later earned his MA in teaching at National-Louis University, never imagined himself as a CEO.

“When I look back on it, I’ve always started things. I do something and get frustrated that it doesn’t work, and I start something else—that’s my personality. While I was at Loyola, I started a radio show on WLUW and a campus group.”

Massa is quick to credit Loyola for preparing him to be a business leader.

“Loyola instilled in me an intellectual curiosity,” he says, a curiosity he claims is necessary for all entrepreneurs. He also cites his time on the debate team as invaluable. “I learned how to do quality research, extract the most important information, and effectively communicate that information.”

Concerning the future of Food Genius, Massa has an open mind.

“The next six months for us are really all about proving Food Genius as a product and building a customer base for it. Once we do that, there are a couple of different paths we may take as to what we do next.”

Story courtesy of Loyola magazine (Spring 2013).

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