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

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start over. “Mobile was an area where the company had not focused, and I felt like we could combine the search technology and my expertise to launch something that was going to own the space and really kick ass,” Witlin says.

What made this tricky is that in the recipe-search and grocery-list category, there are already way too many cooks in the kitchen. There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of recipe manager, grocery list, and cookbook apps in Apple’s iTunes App Store—indeed, we’ve written about many of them here at Xperience. “We didn’t want to do just another me-too app,” Feller says. “We wanted something that could be the number-one recipe app.”

The app Yummly finally released in September is pretty traditional, if you just look its basic features—browsing recipes, building collections, and adding ingredients to a shopping list. But it has rocketed to the top of the app charts for two basic reasons: the powerful search filters, and the loving care put into the design of the app by Witlin’s team, especially lead mobile developer Yuri Yuryev, whom Witlin calls “an engineer and an artist in one.”

One small example illustrates Witlin and Yuryev’s almost Jobsian attention to detail. To make the browsing experience on the app’s home page more immersive, the team programmed the headline text on the edge-to-edge food photos to disappear when you’re flicking the images up and down. But when the photos slide to a stop, the text floats gently back into view.

“It took six weeks to get the parallax text to feel just right,” Witlin says. “The biggest risk we could take was not being noteworthy, so it was worth it to invest that last 10 percent to make the app really stand out.”

Next on the mobile team’s agenda is a Yummly app for the iPad, the device that users are more likely to take into the kitchen while they’re actually cooking. The company is also working to add more ways for big food brands to show ads based on the recipes users are browsing, both on the Yummly site and in the app. It’s also bringing in more API partners—its deal last month with Instacart being an especially interesting example. Instacart members can do a Yummly-powered recipe search from within the Instacart app, then automatically add all the ingredients in a chosen recipe to their Instacart shopping list for home delivery.

“One of the reasons we took the leap and launched a public API was that while we very much want to be the hub of the kitchen, we also want to be the hub of this ecosystem,” Feller says. “There are a lot of players in food tech, and we have the best underlying technology for recipes, which means we can power a lot of these apps.”

Beyond that, Yummly might even turn into something like the central data clearinghouse for an increasingly fragmented food economy. The rise of the locavore movement, farmer’s markets, and instant delivery services threatens the central role of the supermarket chains and their ubiquitous coupons and circulars, the traditional channels for driving consumer awareness of food brands. That, in turn, makes it harder than ever for food companies to connect with customers on the scale required to justify the cost of launching a new product. Over time, Yummly could become not just a discovery tool for home cooks, but also—because it knows what recipes users are putting into their collections, and what ingredients they’re putting on their shopping lists—a “big data” player providing food makers with detailed picture of trends in consumer demand.

Yummly’s focus on individual tastes and experiences also “has very specific implications for the future of the personalized Web,” says Adam Salomone, associate publisher at Harvard Common Press, which was among Yummly’s first investors. “You see it in Pandora music listening…The ability to filter out that which is irrelevant and surface the content that is most highly aligned with user interest. I don’t doubt we’ll see more of this kind of matching to come.”

“This data platform in food can be incredibly powerful going forward,” Witlin sums up. I agree—and I expect to see Yummly turning up as an ingredient in numerous food-tech products and deals.

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