Urbanspoon Unveils Restaurant Sites in All U.S. Cities; Co-Founder Ethan Lowry Talks Strategy

I didn’t think it was possible for a popular website like Urbanspoon to fly below the radar. But it has—at least for the past week. The two-year old Seattle startup, which provides local restaurant reviews and has more than a million users of its iPhone application every month, quietly unveiled new sites in every city across the country on Thanksgiving Day.

Over a choux pastry and latte at Le Fournil on Lake Union, Urbanspoon co-founder Ethan Lowry (who opted for a savory filled croissant) told me about the strategy. The launch was supposed to be low-key, so as to get feedback on the sites and improve them for greater consumption. The sites went live at midnight on Thankgiving morning, when things would be quiet. “We thought we’d kick the tires, and things would be calmer. Traffic always falls off on holidays, especially Thanksgiving,” Lowry says. “That turns out to be true on PCs, but not on iPhones. Thanksgiving was a huge day on the iPhone.”

At the same time, Urbanspoon added a feature whereby iPhone users can send in corrections to restaurant info like addresses, phone numbers, and dollar amounts. “Typically, we get a few hundred suggestions a day [on PCs],” Lowry says. “We come back from the long weekend, and there were 6,000 corrections.” The Urbanspoon team—all three of them, plus a few contractors—are still digging out.

It’s all part of a major expansion I wanted to ask Lowry about—how to manage the company’s growth, how to scale up, and so forth. But let me back up for a minute. Urbanspoon was in 71 major cities before—including food meccas like San Francisco, New York, and of course Seattle—and now it’s effectively everywhere in the U.S. (There’s even a site for my hometown of Urbana, IL, which convinced me it’s everywhere—Lowry suggested it should be called “Urbanaspoon” there.) The local sites give a combination of professional reviews and user-generated content, as well as restaurant information and an aggregate score, the percentage of people who like a given joint.

For the first 71 cities, Lowry says, “Our concept was to tap into existing content providers—critics, bloggers, users—and give them a reason to want to play in our world, but ourselves not have to establish field offices in every city. We’ve managed to keep the tools ahead of the need.” Those tools include a sophisticated software “indexer” that pulls in reviews from different sources and creates a rich database for each city.

But a different approach was needed for the latest expansion, because of the sheer number of new sites. So Urbanspoon used Citysearch (an Internet form of Yellow Pages) to “pull in data wholesale,” says Lowry, and is adding data from other sources like newspapers on top of that. It will take some tweaking to get the quality of those sites up to par with the first 71, he adds. And then there’s a whole separate system for updating all the sites and pulling in new reviews on the fly. Despite the technical challenges, Urbanspoon has managed to grow without adding staff. “We’re about simplicity,” says Lowry. “We have no funding and three guys. Expenses are incredibly low.”

Urbanspoon’s revenues come from several sources including advertising, and promotions from restaurant owners. And of course, its iPhone app—which lets you input food criteria, shake your phone, and get a randomized list of nearby restaurants you might want to hit—has been huge for the company. So I asked Lowry for his thoughts on the Apple partnership.

He says Urbanspoon was motivated to pursue the iPhone deal in part because they came too late to Facebook’s application platform in the summer of 2007. “When a new platform launches, there’s a ton of hype. If you’re not there on Day 1, you miss out,” Lowry says. “We thought, ‘Let’s build something fun and clever. If this catches on with the press, it’s a success.'” Sure enough, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other media ate it up when Urbanspoon launched its iPhone app in July. “It had legs as well,” Lowry says. “There’s a danger that it would be a gimmick. But people use it again and again as their restaurant tool on the go.”

Being featured in an iPhone TV commercial, starting last month, has been particularly good for business. “We shot up to 3x [in traffic] what we were before on the iPhone,” Lowry says, adding that they get about 5,000 shakes per minute while the commercial is running in prime time.

“Apple is very secretive, but they’ve been incredibly friendly and generous,” says Lowry. “In part it’s because we showcase a lot of the things Apple has been trying to do with the iPhone”—services that use the camera, GPS, and accelerometer, for instance. “Also, it’s nice to have a very practical application, for a normal, real-world problem,” says Lowry, to complement all the gaming apps. “They’ve been really good to us. They’ve helped us define a brand. With the iPhone, people have heard of Urbanspoon.”

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