Gojee shows that big data and food is a delicious combo

Tonight, I’m making a sweet potato, black bean and avocado dinner thanks to Gojee, a recipe-search site that knows what I have in my pantry and uses that knowledge about my ingredients and past recipes to deliver fresh ideas for dinner. The site, which launched earlier this month, reached 50,000 users in 10 days. But it may be most useful as a lesson on bringing big-data applications to the masses.

The search engine is simple: You sign up with your email, and tell it what you want, what you have on hand, and anything you dislike — then it shows you beautiful photos of meals that you can make with your ingredients. It’s a recommendation engine, but for a select portion of its customers it’s also a real-time data repository that can use their trips to the grocery store as a means of telling them what to cook. Gojee has a relationship with D’Agostino, a 15-chain store in New York that has connected its loyalty card to the service. So within a minute or two of buying their groceries, Gojee users who shop at D’Agostino (and give Gojee their loyalty card number) can see their “I have” section populate with their freshly bought groceries.

Finding the recipe for success

I’ve been really interested in how we can make food fit for the web, so we can track what we eat and help connect our food with our digital to-do lists, social networks and meal-planning services. Mike LaValle, CEO and co-founder of Gojee is just as interested. The current version of Gojee is actually the third iteration of the site, as LaValle and his cofounder struggled to bring food data to the mass consumer audience. LaValle, who used to work at Morgan Stanley, built his first attempt at Gojee to offer what LaValle calls “a Mint.com-like experience around food.”

The first version failed, however, in part because consumers found it too overwhelming — so LaValle tried again with a what he explained was more qualitative analysis rather than quantitative analysis. He compared it to both a Twitter for food and something like a Farecaster for groceries, that would estimate the price for things that one buys. But that site didn’t even make it past the initial testing. When someone said they really like the recipe-recommendation feature, LaValle — desperate to find something that worked — seized upon it and built Gojee. He apparently has hit enough of a winner to draw an enthusiastic group of initial users, and now he’s seeking an undisclosed amount in seed funding to help expand the site.

While LaValle seems to have discovered what CEO Andy Smith from the DailyBurn discovered about consumers and health and food data when he released the MealSnap app — namely that simple is better for mass adoption — it’s the depths of the data he can access that make the service intriguing. LaValle may not be taking advantage of it, but food is a huge opportunity for startups and web companies because everyone eats. And while today most people may not want calorie information on a site, if they could link it to their pedometer or to a computer-created grocery list comprised of recipes they want to serve in the coming week, there could be a big opportunity.

The coming food revolution

LaValle thinks we’re about 24 months away from mass adoption of such an opportunity, and that Gojee is merely a small wedge trying to pry that opportunity open by enticing grocers to share their data and by getting consumers comfortable with the idea. “I think right now we want to be the No. 1 go-to spot for inspiration and that’s our focus for short to medium term. Then we’ll be broadening the service and reaching out to a lot of chains that have been watching us and starting that avalanche of turning that information back to users,” La Valle said.

LaValle said that translating food consumption into applications and actionable data for consumers is a huge source of innovation for startups and the packaged goods and grocery industries much like open financial data standards and searchable travel data did a few years back. “This could spawn a decade in food data that mirrors what happened in financial data and the travel industry as well,” LaValle said. I for one can’t wait.