Here’s How Yummly, the Foodie’s Google, Could Conquer the Kitchen

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cuisine (Cajun, Chinese, Indian, Italian, and 22 more), courses (appetizer, dessert, etc.), nutrition parameters (calories, carbs, fat, and cholesterol), and tastes (sliders let you adjust results according to how salty, savory, sour, bitter, sweet, or spicy each dish may be).

These elaborate search filters are at the very center of the vision behind Yummly, according to founder and CEO Dave Feller. From 2000 to 2004, Feller ran marketing and strategy at Half.com, the Philadelphia-based online marketplace for used books, music, movies, and games. When eBay bought Half.com in 2004, he moved west, but left the auction giant a couple of years later. “I wanted to do something with my passion, which was food,” Feller explains. “Yummly came about from my severe hatred of mustard and mayonnaise.”

Specifically, Feller liked to find new things to cook on the Web, but it was frustrating to him that no existing recipe search site gave him the ability to filter out recipes that contain mustard or mayo, to which he has a genuine aversion. And it occurred to him that probably he wasn’t alone.

“You could walk up to almost anybody and say, ‘Tell me five foods you don’t like,’ and they’d be able to rattle them off,” Feller says. “Everybody has some particular distaste for an ingredient, or a health condition that requires them to eat in a particular way. When nobody is solving for that, that’s an indication that there is a big opportunity.”

But solving the filtering problem in food search is a lot more complicated than you might think. After all, most general recipe sites don’t provide convenient flags like “vegan” or “gluten-free.” A few give calorie-count estimates, but you won’t find anything on AllRecipes or Epicurious about whether a dish is especially salty or spicy. And if you went to Google and typed in “potato salad recipes without mayonnaise,” all you’d get back is a list of Web pages containing those keywords. Conventional search engines can’t analyze recipes ingredient-by-ingredient, and they can’t handle the Boolean queries needed to reliably filter out offending recipes.

To make their idea for Yummly work, in other words, Feller and his co-founder Vadim Geshel had to bring structure to a content category that was miserably unstructured. They had to create a whole food ontology—a kind of scaffolding for knowledge—and then map hundreds of thousands of published recipes into that ontology. At the simplest level, this meant teaching the Yummly search engine that salmon is a type of fish, that a dish containing bread isn’t gluten-free, or that a recipe that calls for three tablespoons of chili powder is probably going to come out pretty spicy.

The Yummly home page

The Yummly home page

In a way, Yummly was tackling one corner of the much larger semantic search challenge that Google has been addressing through its Knowledge Graph project, which aims to provide users with direct answers to search queries, rather than page after page of links. But so far, food isn’t one of the areas Google has tried to incorporate into the Knowledge Graph—which leaves the field wide open for challengers like Yummly.

Feller and Geshel started Yummly in early 2009, and “we spent almost all of the first year on the underlying technology, understanding how to structure food data,” Feller says. But it’s only because the company made that big early investment that it’s now able to provide users with such fine-grained control over their recipe searches. Need a low-salt vegetarian lasagna recipe that you can cook in under 45 minutes? Try the Pesto Polenta Lasagna at AllRecipes. (You have no idea how hungry it’s making me to write all of this.)

Once the basic Web search engine was working and Yummly had proved that it could handle thousands of users without breaking, the startup went on to add more features like collections, personalized recommendations, the Yum button, and a system for showing targeted ads based on users’ ingredient preferences. Today, Yummly has 31 employees and has raised $7.85 million in venture backing, mostly from Harrison Metal Capital, Intel Capital, Physic Ventures, Unilever Corporate Ventures, Harvard Common Press, and First Round Capital (which was founded by Josh Kopelman, Feller’s old boss at Half.com).

Witlin joined Yummly this spring after stepping down as the CEO of Shopwell, a fascinating Ideo spinoff that I profiled at length in November 2010. Shopwell’s app made it easier for grocery shoppers to find foods that fit their nutritional needs. That was pretty good practice for Witlin’s move to Yummly, as it turned out.

Witlin’s first job was to unveil Yummly’s application programming interface, or API—that’s the technology outside developers can use to tap into Yummly’s search index and provide filtered results to their own users. Already, more than 2,300 developers have signed up to use the API, Witlin says. (In addition to targeted ads, charging commercial users for access to the API is one of the ways Yummly makes money.)

His next project was to lead the development of a Yummly app for the iPhone. A basic app was already under construction when he arrived, but Witlin decided his team should scrap it and … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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