Pando

Intriguing restaurant review service Renzell expands to San Francisco

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on July 28, 2016

From The Lessons from the Trenches Desk

As regular readers will know, every so often I like to counterbalance all of the awfulness to be found in certain sectors of the startup world by writing about something that I like. 

This is one of those things. 

Jacob Lewis' career has zigged and zagged from big media to startups and back again. A former Managing Editor of the New Yorker and Conde Nast Portfolio, in 2009 he co-founded Figment, an online reading community for young adults and teenagers. Four years later he returned to big media, as a VP at Crown (Random House). 

Now he's back in the startup world with his newest project: a restaurant rating service called Renzell which, on Tuesday, expanded from New York to Chicago and San Francisco. The service asks diners to complete lengthy (70+ question) surveys about every aspect of their experience at a restaurant. Renzell says it plans to make that data available to anyone who feels unsatisfied with the basic star rating services offered by organizations like Michelin. It will also give restaurants access to their reviews so they can, presumably, improve their service and better know their customers.

I don't normally write about product launches, or expansions, but I spoke to Lewis on the phone earlier this week and Renzell has me intrigued. 

For one thing, the starting team is not your typical restaurant review team. Lewis is a publishing guy through and through. His co-founder (and the guy whose name heads all the press releases) is Bo Peabody, former founder of Tripod.com and current partner at Greycroft Partners. Lewis tells me that Peabody is a restaurant investor himself and that they met while Lewis was working on Figment. When Peabody decided to start Renzell, he invited Lewis to join him.

Another interesting thing: Everything about the service seems designed not to scale. Renzell focusses on just fifty or so high end restaurants in each city, adding new ones only annually. There are only three cities so far. The review process takes a long time.

Finally, Lewis described a business model that is fluid to say the least. There's a plan to license the data to restaurants and others but none of that is in place yet. I logged in to preview the service and noticed a reward points system for diners with the option to buy additional points. But that's it for now.  

 

If nothing else it's refreshing to hear a co-founder, especially one with Lewis' experience, who doesn't try to convince me that their startup is going to change the world. Peabody and Lewis like restaurants, and think there's a business in high end reviews, and are happy to build Renzell slowly, and figure out the business as they go along. I wouldn't bet against them.