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An App That Lets Diners Be Chewsy

Walking into a restaurant with Chewsy CEO and co-founder Chaitanya Sareen can bedaunting. Sareen, who along with three of his fellow tech veterans launched the food app Chewsy with the intent of finding the best chicken wings on the planet, isn’t your average gastrophile.

On a recent Saturday, Sareen managed to sweet-talk his way into a 10 p.m. seating for five at the bar at Seattle celebrity chef Ethan Stowell’s How to Cook a Wolf on Queen Anne Hill. Tucked inside a tiny space resembling a wine barrel, this tribute to MFK Fisher is a rare treat for Seattleites on weekends (getting a table here for dinner is considered a Herculean feat).

“OK, so let’s see what’s good here on Chewsy,” Sareen says, swiping out his iPhone (Chewsy is currently only available on the iTunes App Store, but Sareen promises that will change). Turns out Chewsy’s latest feature  food reviews and videos from the pros  recommends the Hamachi crudo (on 7×7’s The Big Eat Seattle) and the beef tongue, tagliani and spaghetti (courtesy local food blog Roll with Jen).

But, what if you didn’t agree with the critics? Well, Chewsy also makes it easy for users to rate what they ate by adding short, snappy reviews, photos and “spoons” (five spoons means it’s a winner; one spoon, meh).  When you can’t make up your mind, Chewsy can help you decide by showing the top-rated dishes in your area. Or, you could just follow your friends.

“Our app aggregates expert reviews, crowd reviews as well as friend reviews,” Sareen says. “To see multiple critics like something is pretty powerful.”

Now for the question Sareen has been fielding since day one: How is Chewsy different from the zillion other food apps out there (Yelp, Foodspotting, Urbanspoon)?

For starters, Sareen says, the new feature sports thousands of reviews and embedded videos from nearly a hundred different food critics ranging from the New York Times to Guy Feiri (Diners, Drive-ins and Dives) to your local neighborhood blog. Each review is geo-tagged and provides links to the original source, so you can read the entire review or watch a video clip.

“You can actually watch Guy Fieri from the exact moment he steps into The Red Wagon in Vancouver and reviews the pulled pork pancakes,” says Sareen. And thanks to a filter, you can also view all the other dishes he reviewed in that segment.

So what’s the magic algorithm behind all this? “All I can say is that it was very difficult to collect all this data as a proprietary technique,” Sareen says, smiling. “It took months.”

Yelp recently added a feature called “Explore the Menu,” which lets users see the most popular things at the restaurant (sans the critics’ reviews). “They are trying to solve a different kind of problem,” Sareen says. “On Yelp, you don’t rate the dish, you rate the restaurant. We don’t want to get distracted by the cleanliness of the bathroom or the parking situation. We are just laser focused on solving the problem of what to eat and what to avoid. We really want the dish to be on the pedestal.”

As Sareen photographs the small plates (the soft-cooked eggs with blue crab, chili aioli and potato chip were particularly good), he urged the rest of the party to do the same. “C’mon guys, take some pictures, write some reviews.” Chewsy allows you to save your drafts and publish them later. The more reviews you write, the more badges you earn.

Chewsy’s most loyal users are based out of Seattle and San Francisco, but reviews are flying in from every major food city  New York, Portland, Austin, even Vancouver and Paris. The next step is to make Chewsy “more social, more interactive,” says Sareen. “And of course, to keep expanding our database.”

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