Locu's Menu Dashboard Is a Rare Win for Developers and Merchants

By Michael Carney , written on October 2, 2012

From The News Desk

Unlike consumers, small businesses such as restaurants and nail salons want to share as much of their information online as possible. More than just their address and phone numbers, the businesses need to publish and widely distribute their menus, lists of services, and pricing, all of which can change regularly. Thus far, however, the typically non-technical businesses have experienced a serious pain point around trying to keep information online synced with offline.

Coming off the launch of its real time local data API earlier this month, San Francisco and Boston-based startup Locu is ready to formally launch its merchant dashboard product. The free tool, previously available in beta, provides owners and managers of restaurants and other services businesses with an easy-to-use Web dashboard to sync their online world with their offline one by managing price lists, menus, and services on their website, mobile site, mobile app, Facebook, and in local search directories.

Prior to the tool, menus were typically scanned images or static PDF documents uploaded to services like MenuPages and Yelp. Now, they can be living entities, updated at any point to reflect specials, item availability, or short-term promotions. All changes made via the dashboard simultaneously update the menus or lists of services across this entire network and any sites that tap into its data API. The service extends the proverbial storefront chalkboard to millions of potential customers across the Web.

When merchants sign up, rather than beginning with a blank profile, most will encounter a partially complete profile culled from publicly available data already in the Locu database. They can then update and manage this information to the degree necessary and quickly have an accurate and comprehensive online presence that extends to more and more corners of the Web.

With dining trends moving toward consumers demanding detailed ingredient information and more menu variety, quick and accurate discovery, as well as the ability to manage and updated information takes on greater importance. Rather than relying on, and paying, webmasters or developers to handle these updates, with the Locu dashboard, chefs, managers, and even social media managers can quickly and easily make any necessary changes in minutes.

The solution is offered on a freemium model, with additional support and features like managing multiple venues available by monthly subscription. Unlike other menu management sites, Locu offers a suite of design tools and enables restaurants to print or publish menus, promotional materials, and photos,while also offering indexable SEO-friendly widgets.

Locu is a win for small businesses, but the startup isn’t doing it out of charity, or for the nominal premium services fees it may collect. The company is eager to collect and refine even more hyper-local data than it has already amassed through a combination of Web scraping by crawlers, machine learning, and human curation.

I asked co-founder Rene Reinsberg whether there was a conflict in the goal of serving both camps, and he said that it’s actually quite the opposite. Developers benefit by having access to the largest and most accurate database possible, while merchants benefit by getting their detailed and accurate information into as many hands as possible. Unlike what is often the case in the consumer Web, restaurants are happy to be “the product” in exchange for the increased reach.

Several thousand merchants used the Locu dashboard during beta, but Reinsberg expects an exponential increases in this figure once the product is made available to the more than 10 million target small businesses across the US. The company has been pleasantly surprised to get early signups from international merchants and those outside the restaurant and obvious services categories, despite its not focusing in these areas.

Co-founded in 2011 by a team of MIT grads including Reinsberg, as well as Marek Olszewski, Stelio Sidiroglou-Douskos, and Mark Piette, Locu has filed several patents on its data technology and raised $4.6 million across two rounds of financing from Quotidian Ventures, General Catalyst Partners, Lowercase Capital, Lightbank, SV Angel, and several prominent angels such as Factual founder Gil Elbaz and Facebook co-founder Andrew McCollum.

The company has already amassed more than 500,000 granular points of interest and “hundreds of thousands of restaurants and small businesses” in the US, Canada, and the UK according to its most recent figures. Through partnerships with a variety of services, Locu helps merchants gain more control around their data while enabling consumers to  more quickly and easily discover the detailed local information they’re searching for. The service even aligns with what would initially seem to be competitors, like Factual, MenuPages and Yelp, but providing additional data to power their services.

It’s rare for a startup to find a greenfield space like Locu has in hyper-local data, where every relationship it pursues is win-win. The company is therefore well positioned to become a large and entrenched player in the data game and a trusted service provider to the world’s small businesses. You know, assuming it gets that messy detail of execution right.