Make It Yours

Local start-up Vibeats competes for $100,000 from AOL's Steve Case.

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Vibeats (pronounced vibe-eats) wants to be the Pandora of Richmond food. Eventually, it wants to be the Pandora of every city’s dining scene.

The new website will be one of the finalists Monday in Rise of the Rest. AOL’s Steve Case is traveling city to city to hear pitches from start-ups across the country. Richmond has eight finalists, and each company has seven minutes to make their case on the stage of the Gottwald Theater at CenterStage. When the pitches are over, a panel of experts, including Case, will confer and present the winner with a $100,000 check.

The idea that became Vibeats began a little more than a year ago. Steve Kim, creator and owner of KimKim sauce, was frustrated. He travels for work at least once a week, and as a dedicated food lover he was tired of looking though city magazines and such websites as Eater and Chowhound to find a good restaurant wherever he’d landed. “It was just wasting time,” Kim says.

What if, he thought, he could cut through the noise and use an app that provided personalized recommendations? He made a prototype on his iPad, and photos -- beautifully photographed food porn -- seemed like the best way to engage users.

Kim talked to a lot of people in the local tech and food communities, and their response was enthusiastic. “I went to my partner in crime, Frank Gelliam [of Elevation Advertising], who did the whole KimKim thing with me,” he says, “knowing I needed a creative genius behind it.”

Gelliam, in turn, asked Tyler Darden, former art director at Virginia Living and now a VCU communications arts professor, to join the group on the visual side. The last piece fell into place when Joel Erb of INM United came onboard to create the technology end.

The four decided that they needed to launch Vibeats as quickly as possible, instead of waiting to perfect their product. They ditched the idea of an app temporarily and instead put what they had on the web.

“It’s like a pop-up,” Kim says. “You gauge response, do another one, and you also gain a following. Then you open your restaurant.”

Right now, 25 restaurants are participating, including Fat Dragon, Mekong, Graffiato and Rappahannock. From the photos, you can find all of the information you need about the restaurant -- a description, hours, address, phone numbers.

But soon you’ll be able to create what Kim calls a playlist of food based on the top 10 to 20 restaurants that you’ve marked as favorites. An elaborate tagging system on the back end puts the data in an algorithm that also includes information from your profile, and information about the restaurant and its cuisine. Vibeats then predicts a restaurant for you to try.

But “we don’t want [predictions] to be just based on that,” Kim says. “We might want to get you a little out of your comfort zone and try this other place. We’ll be closely predicting [what you want], but not exactly predicting it.”

“We don’t want it to be just math and math and math.”

The other piece of the Vibeats pie is to help restaurants establish relationships with their fans. “We want to get rid of the kind of yelling you see on Yelp,” he says. Diners will be able to leave comments under their favorite restaurants, and in turn restaurant owners can respond and also let the people who want to know the most about new dishes or events.

“We’re creating that loop where restaurants can bypass all the other review searches and sites or [ratings] stars and create that one-to-one connection.” And hungry diners will be introduced to future favorites they might not have expected.

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