This piece marks the third installment of our You’re Based WHERE? series, which highlights local tech-related businesses that are outside of the tourism trade.
A craving for crab cakes is to thank for the creation of a new dining app that stands to revolutionize the restaurant industry. Truckee residents Thao Doan and John Doolan were in San Francisco with their family, when their daughter, a notoriously picky eater, decided she wanted to try crab cakes for dinner. Fisherman’s Wharf would seem to be the perfect place to satisfy a seafood craving, but when they tried to search online for specific restaurants in the area that had crab cakes on the menu, they were disappointed — a 42-minute search was fruitless. It was from that crustacean-based struggle that the idea for Kynbo was born.
“We wanted a way of quickly just going in and getting to the menu in a uniform way as easy as possible, and that’s the basis of the service,” Doolan said.
Kynbo is an app that links restaurants and customers like never before. The service Kynbo provides is two-fold. For locals and visitors, the app provides an easy one-stop shop to view restaurants’ menus, and even search menus for exactly the type of food they are in the mood for. For restaurant owners, Kynbo offers access to a back-end portal that grants a direct line of communication with customers, and provides unprecedented analytics about their restaurant and clientele.
“Kynbo allows you to communicate in real time with potential diners,” Doan said. “That’s the real innovation.”
The first step for Doan and Doolan was to get Tahoe restaurants on board. The two began work on the app in March 2016. They’re both in the tech industry, and have backgrounds in supply chain operations, so using technology to problem solve was well within their wheelhouses. When they began to meet with Truckee restaurateurs in the fall, the consensus from everyone who saw their app was clear and consistent: getting on board was a no-brainer.
It was important for Doan and Doolan that this wasn’t just beneficial for customers, but restaurant owners as well. The base level of service is free for restaurants to participate, and will remain that way, Doan said. This means that they can upload as many menus and as many photos of their food as they like, at no cost. Their Kynbo membership also gives them access to analytics, such as how many people like their restaurant, how many views their menu gets, what items on their menu are top-rated by app users, and what the top search items are.
These analytics would cost thousands of dollars to procure, a marketing budget that most local restaurants do not have at their disposal, Doan said. Beyond the basic benefits, restaurants can also choose to opt in to three other tiers of paid options that connect them directly to their customers: For example, they can have access to pushing menu specials, events, or rewards directly to the app users who like their restaurant, collect data on how many people redeemed a reward, and see which type of rewards, like drink specials versus a free dessert, gets more people in the door.
Most current menu and dining apps do not work directly with restaurants, meaning information is crowd-sourced or scraped from the internet, and is often unreliable and not up-to-date. Something else that sets Kynbo apart is its focus on positivity. While the app gives users the ability to give feedback to the restaurant, it’s transmitted privately, and one can only “like” restaurants and menu items. There is no space for public criticism on Kynbo, something Doan and Doolan were very deliberate about.
“We want the restaurants to put their best foot forward,” Doolan said. “We didn’t want to get mired down in doing all the reviews. We’ll let other folks handle that.”
Doan and Doolan were adamant about wanting to start Kynbo in Tahoe, and even turned away early investors who would have had them kick off operations in the Bay Area. The decision to start in Tahoe even influenced their business model — Kynbo’s services are offered on a month-to-month basis, entirely based on the feedback of local restaurants. Because of the extreme seasonality of business in the Tahoe area, owners said they may want to pay for services in high-season, but opt out during the slower months, which Doolan and Doan worked into the Kynbo product.
Even the name speaks to the founders’ desire to keep the company at home in Truckee. Kynbo means “vicinity” in Japanese, and Doan and Doolan are aiming to build up their own community with this endeavor. Doan said that, obviously, for somewhat selfish reasons, she wanted to start the app here because she wants to use it in her hometown. But she also thinks that a rising tide lifts all boats, and when local businesses succeed, the town as a whole succeeds, and she wants to see Truckee and Tahoe use Kynbo to their advantage.
When people doubted them in the initial phases and told them they couldn’t start Kynbo in Truckee because it was just a “mountain town,” Doan said that motivated them even more. They both see Kynbo as a virtual company, so they see no reason why it can’t be based in Truckee. And that virtual philosophy extends to the workforce they plan to hire, such as for the time-intensive task of inputting menus. But rather than outsourcing, like they say many tech companies do to get cheap labor, they are working with groups like stay-at-home parents, veterans, handicapped people, and rehabilitative work placement organizations, to reach a sometimes overlooked or untapped workforce.
“We want to keep jobs here. We want to keep the service affordable. We want to work with organizations to give employment that people can feel good about,” Doan said.
And the app not only is a boon for businesses, but it will be a helpful tool for both locals as well as visitors to the area. Diners can browse menus of restaurants near them, or even search menus for exactly what they are craving, as specific as “Point Reyes blue cheese” or “free-range chicken,” Doan elaborates, adding that Kynbo has already been referred to as “the relationship saver,” by couples who have very varying diets and can never agree on a restaurant to go to.
Kynbo will hit Apple’s App Store at the end of January. Doan said they have 52 Tahoe-Truckee restaurants on board, but would love to hit 70 before the app goes live. And though they already have a timeline to expand to Hawaii, and then San Francisco and Northern California, Doan and Doolan guarantee that Kynbo will always call Truckee home.