Urbanspoon Wins Big

A restaurant Web site becomes an iPhone phenomenom

Detail of an illustration by Emily Busey.

It was raining the day I ran into Patrick O’Donnell at a barbecue last July, but I don’t think he even noticed. His blue eyes shone with excitement. “Look at this!” he said, directing me to the touch screen of his iPhone. There, among a series of other logos, was Urbanspoon, a restaurant finder O’Donnell had developed with his friends Adam Doppelt and Ethan Lowry. “Now watch,” he said, as if he was about to perform a magic trick.

He shook the phone and the screen whirred like a slot machine: click, click, click, and three objects settled into place. Yet instead of cherries or lucky diamonds, they were details about a restaurant in the area, located through the phone’s built-in GPS: neighborhood, type of food, price range. As someone who can’t resist the hypnotic promise of slot machines, I was convinced O’Donnell and his colleagues were on to something. With their invention, instead of typing in a street address to find a nearby place to eat, you can find a place with the snap of a wrist. That glint in O’Donnell’s eyes was the light of discovery.

All three Urbanspoon inventors are grown-up whiz kids — they’d been talking about “the wireless web” years before ordinary people knew what “wireless” meant. Their minds whir faster than a slot machine, until the ideas click into place. They’ve done time at big tech companies (Jobster, Openwave), but they felt out of place in the bloated corporate world. They wanted a life that would not burn them out, where they could bring their dogs to the office or work from anywhere.

A lively chemistry crackles between them. Like members of a band, they all have their roles. Thirty-five-year-old Lowry is blond, well dressed and socially savvy — the idea guy. The slot machine brainstorm came from him. O’Donnell, 41, and Doppelt, 33, are the CS (computer science) guys: the ones who know how to write the code, to build the thing so it does not crash, freeze or make a fool of you among your tech peers. The CS guys often let Lowry do the talking while they sit at their desks conversing via email, though they’re about four feet apart.


“The trio poured their own savings into starting Urbanspoon. They decided to work at it for a year before they paid themselves any salary. Wives became impatient: babies were here or on the way.”

The youngest of the group, Doppelt seems the most serious, weighed down by ambition. “This is a guy who has built huge programs,” says O’Donnell. Despite all that building, he has a streak of melancholy frustration, as if he wished his brain would slow down and let him be.

The trio poured their own savings into starting Urbanspoon. They decided to work at it for a year before they paid themselves any salary. Wives became impatient: babies were here or on the way. The U-district building where they rented space was a place of rickety, water-damaged floors and bathrooms you didn’t want to look too far into. “We were cautiously optimistic,” says O’Donnell.

For good reason: within a month of the opening of the app store, they became one of the most downloaded items on iPhone. On July 16, 2008, venerable New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni dedicated his entire “Critic’s Notebook” column to the mysteries of the Urbanspoon slot machine. In the U.S. and the UK, Apple features Urbanspoon in iPhone TV commercials with the tagline “Shake up your routine.” They end with the line “solving life’s dilemmas, one app at a time” — a characteristically savvy bit of Apple copywriting, evoking “appetite” as well as “application.” As of last month, Urbanspoon was averaging ten million hits a week on the website (which anyone can access), and fourteen million hits from iPhone users.

The inventors are evasive about whether they will be bought or go public, but the TechFlash Web site recently pronounced Urbanspoon one of the five most likely firms to be acquired in 2009. “Let’s put it this way: at first we had to tighten our belts so it almost hurt,” says Lowry. “Now we can loosen them a few notches.” A Newsweek headline summed it up: “There’s Gold in Them There iPhones.”

Urbanspoon began as a site that would serve foodies from Seattle to Calgary to Manhattan. Users could read reviews from local publications, rate and review restaurants, access menus, recommend places that were not listed and search by type of food or neighborhood.

It was not a new idea, but the site had a catchy name, a slick design and moments of unexpected beauty — take Urbanspoon’s maps of cities at night, blackness dotted with flickering lights of restaurants, as if seen from an airplane. These maps are just one of the artful flourishes of the site, moments of imagination that go beyond being merely “user friendly.” Urbanspoon connects you with the world — for instance, on Christmas Day, they charted spikes in searches for Chinese restaurants (often the only places open). “Early on, we realized the point wasn’t for it to be perfect,” explains Doppelt. “It had to be fun.”

“On Christmas Day, Chinese restaurants made up one in every six restaurant searches on Urbanspoon — over 16 percent. By comparison, on a typical day people only search for Chinese restaurants around 6 percent of the time.”
Ethan Lowry, Urbanspoon blog

They also needed it to be more than just a Web site, which is essentially a static thing. For most of us, searching the Web has always meant sitting in one place. This motionlessness frustrates the Urbanspoon men, who want everything to be mobile, portable.

How to get the Web search to move? The iPhone was the answer. Under the open-source ideology of Apple, independent developers can pay ninety-nine dollars and offer their applications in the store. It’s a little like self-publishing a book, or making a demo recording — it’s a free-for-all, excluding only obvious elements like pornography and malicious programming.

To invent the app, they studied the phone and tried to think how they could use its elements and make them their own. The phone had a “shake” mechanism, but, as Lowry says, “it was like Magic 8-Ball,” or maybe like the Google random search. Until Urbanspoon arrived on the scene, no one had thought to transform the phone into a slot machine. Doppelt set out to write the code, the cues that would make the spinning screen click three times in a way distinctly evoking the sounds of old Vegas, back when the jackpots rained real quarters.

Spurred on by an entrepreneurial gambling spirit (and pregnant wives), Urbanspoon had its app ready to go on the store’s first day of business.

The app store has lots of absurd offerings: a Fart Machine that could threaten the market for whoopie cushions, a mojo meter (are you cute enough to flirt today?), a device that makes your phone look like a glass of beer (turn it upside down and it seems to empty down your throat). Amidst all this silliness, Apple instantly grasped the useful ingenuity of Urbanspoon. Hence the international commercials, for which Urbanspoon paid nothing, and which, as Lowry said, “made us go from something just foodies knew about to something everyone seems to know about.” Everywhere, people are doing the Urbanspoon shake. As we went to press, O’Donnell estimated the number of shakes at around two hundred million.

True to open-source ideals, Urbanspoon shared the slot-machine code with other techies. Doppelt wrote on the site’s blog, “I had to use a fairly elaborate system of timers and state flags to manage the GPS API.” On Twitter, he wrote, “The accelerometer API is functional but bare-bones. It’ll give you the raw x/y/z values, but you may have to dig out Knuth if you want to do something more complicated like detect a shake.”

I could not tell you the meaning of either of the above passages, but I can tell you that Urbanspoon is a bona fide phenomenon. There is no way these guys will not hit the jackpot, riding out the Great Recession on a wave of prosperity.

On a visit to the Urbanspoon offices about a month after the app had taken off, I noticed Doppelt looked ghostly pale. “Did you get the flu?” I asked. “No, I am fine!” he said. “I just haven’t been out of the office all day.”

It was 5:30 and the sun was still shining. I convinced the three of them to take a breather. Out in the light I could see the way success could burn them out. They were arguing like guys in a band on a too-long tour. Standing on a noisy sidewalk beneath the University Bridge, they were grouchy and indecisive from hunger and long hours. Fries? Yes, no, I don’t know, I am just so hungry, something. They were suffering from the exact kind of plummeting-blood-sugar surliness that made Urbanspoon a hit. Sometimes you get so hungry, you are willing to bet on anything.