The Udon Project is just one group in a fleet of gen-Y entrepreneurs. Here’s how social gaming is changing how great ideas find funding.
Most food activists consider fast food a clear enemy—an adversary that must be both ideologically and literally “slowed down” by radical revolution.
But David Gumbiner, Ian Sherman, and Deb Meisel of The Udon Project, the Bay Area–based group of 24-year-olds that recently won Yoxi’s challenge to “Reinvent Fast Food,” don’t just empathize with America’s fervent love for Big Macs and Crunch Wrap Supremes. They believe there’s real value in fast food and think we can learn from the industry’s successes.
“You can’t fight the desire people have for the flavor of fast food and for the way it’s packaged and consumed,” Gumbiner said. “We’re never going to kill it, so let’s make it better.”
Gumbiner, who helped manage Oakland’s Eat Real Festival, has known Sherman, a software developer, since college. They met freelance designer Meisel after moving to San Francisco. To them—and the nine other groups that participated in the site’s inaugural challenge—Yoxi, a young startup, was an opportunity to make their ideas come to life.
Yoxi strives to make changing the world “fun” by challenging teams to brainstorm solutions to social issues, sharing their strategies with voters and expert “judges” (whose opinions are prominently showcased on the site, but don’t actually have a say in who wins) via short videos.
The Udon Project quietly smoked the competition, beating The Beet Squad by less than 50 votes. They landed $5,000 in funding with the potential for $35,000 more—Yoxi will match voters’ donations until this Wednesday (for information on how to donate, go here). They also won crucial contacts, like OgilvyEarth—the PR company loves the group’s idea so much it’s offered to work with them free of charge—not to mention national recognition.
“What would reinventing fast food look like?” Yoxi asked teams like the Beet Squad, which offered a Groupon-esque initiative, and Mission Opportunity, which hoped to start a seed fund for street-cart vendors. Yoxi cautioned that no matter which model the groups chose—school program, ad campaign, or digital device—“you’ll need to make your idea appealing enough to serve billions and billions.”
Yoxi’s founder, Sharon Chang, knows a thing or two about appealing to billions—she’s the former chief creative officer of 19 Entertainment, the company behind mega-popular TV shows American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. Chang, who said she has a “deep passion for social innovation,” believes “Yoxi is about connecting seemingly unrelated dots. By putting entertainment and Internet savvy into the process of facilitating social change, we aim to acquire a mainstream audience so we can drive more significant behavior change.”
The site’s setup is a bit confusing; most of the voters I spoke with only voted once in each round—even though the idea is to gain multiple votes and increase your “energy”—and didn’t care as much about mastering the game as they did about voting for their favorite team. Chang didn’t specify how or whether the game rules will change when the next challenge is announced in January, but she said the site is working on addressing user feedback and is “an ongoing experiment. Changing the world does not and cannot rely on a formula.”
So how does The Udon Project plan to change the world? They don’t have all of the details worked out yet, but it starts with noodles. Noodles that you can eat with one hand.
The group was inspired by the methods other nations employ to serve people on the go. “We kept coming back to the idea that fast food doesn’t have to mean McDonald’s,” Gumbiner said. “There are foods all over the world that are made as ‘fast food’; they’re just not productized and presented like our fast food is.” Or made on assembly lines from premade and often artificial ingredients.
The Udon Project chose pad Thai as what Meisel calls their “flagship dish” because it’s quick and easy to make, tasty without being too unhealthy, and one of the most “Americanized” ethnic foods, which means it’s easier to turn into a product than something most Americans wouldn’t be able to identify. “We wanted to copy the way [fast-food companies] turn food into ‘stuff,’ like how a burger becomes a Big Mac,” Gumbiner said. “We’ve learned from them that if you want to be successful, you have to productize.” They have yet to come up with the perfect name for their signature dish, although they did some brainstorming with OgilvyEarth in New York (rejected ideas: Yum Box and Nood Food).
What else is great about American fast food? Portability, which is why The Udon Project’s pad Thai comes in rice wraps (which is also part of their productizing strategy—Gumbiner said they liked the way fast food is wrapped up “like a gift”). Tastiness, which is why the group doesn’t want to brand themselves as too healthy, or “crunchy,” a word that Gumbiner brought up repeatedly as a term they wanted to avoid. Speed and cheap prices, which is why the pad Thai wraps take only a few minutes to cook and assemble from low-cost ingredients.
The group said again and again that they wanted to target commuters, working moms, and all other people who don’t have time to forage for their own mushrooms, stop by the farmer’s market, or even make a run to the grocery store. While The Udon Project respects what organizations like Slow Food USA have accomplished—“We’re not opposed to the healthy food movement,” Meisel was quick to add—they believe that saying food should never be eaten quickly is akin to what Gumbiner calls “placing your own cultural values on eating.” The “old way” of eating—slowly, at the dinner table, with everything cooked from scratch—“isn’t necessarily the right way,” Gumbiner said.
It’s also not always a possibility for those who commute long distances, drive their kids back and forth from school, or work multiple jobs to support themselves; a point that, for some reason, fails to resonate with many food activists. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan eats McDonalds in his car to simulate the 19 percent of American meals eaten in vehicles every year. “Perhaps the reason you eat this food quickly is because it doesn’t bear savoring,” Pollan muses, although it seems obvious that another reason is because, if you’re eating dinner on the go, you can’t linger on every bite.
When slow-food goddess Alice Waters recently told Vanity Fair that she was “very interested in the point where the healthy and delicious intersect,” she was referring to artisan whole-wheat pasta. The Udon Project’s strategy is refreshing because they want to enhance the on-the-go eating experience rather than abolish it. Like Waters, they’re interested in how healthy and delicious intersect, but they realize the intersection has to be practical.
While the group is clearly not afraid to learn from the fast-food industry, they spent as much time analyzing fast food’s cons as they did the pros before finalizing their plan (which they introduced in Yoxi’s Round Three) for “a new kind of drive-thru” called the Spoke. “We came up with the name because we want [the restaurant] to be a community hub—like a spoke to a hub,” Meisel said. They envision a “brick-and-mortar” establishment (“Fast-food restaurants all seem to be from the era of extruded plastic,” Sherman pointed out. “Everything’s cement. Why?”), in which a server takes orders instead of a box. “Our model comes from small-town-store interactions, like a deli or a dairy farm,” Sherman said.
Another concern is transparency, which leads to one of The Udon Project’s most innovative features: Spoke costumers get to vote on the food they want to eat (hence another meaning behind the restaurant’s moniker: you speak, they listen). “We plan to crowdsource recipes from the community [via their website] and then determine which ones we can translate into fast-food products, both in terms of price and speed of preparation and portability,” Meisel said.
The Udon Project “is very serious about making this happen,” says Gumbiner, and plans to start testing recipes via street cart before eventually opening up their first restaurant in an “underserved” part of the Bay Area. Their prize money will help them achieve these goals, but perhaps more instrumental is support from companies like OgilvyEarth and Yoxi itself.
“OgilvyEarth really helped us refine our message and launch our idea forward,” Gumbiner said, predominately by fleshing out what the physical space might look like and helping them streamline their brand. When Yoxi flew both finalist groups out to New York to meet with PR companies before Round Three, The Udon Project asked to stay an extra day to brainstorm longer with their partnered firm. OgilvyEarth was as thrilled about working with the group as the group was about working with them. “Part of what OgilvyEarth does is work with small groups with big ideas—world-changing ideas,” said Nancy Hughes, OgilvyEarth’s creative director. “Reinventing fast food to make it more community-based is a big idea.” She said her firm is excited “to see how the physical locations come together, and to help [The Udon Project] get the word out.”
Yoxi is also eager to help spread the word about their first challenge winners in the months to come. Chang said that one of the many reasons she thinks The Udon Project won is because “they were able to connect with an audience at a visceral and emotional level.” She believes that “giving a twist to what already works is often the key to sustainable innovation.” Sounds a lot like Yoxi’s own mission philosophy. The strategy of encouraging innovation and funding through “social gaming” is a promising way to inspire entrepreneurs in a generation influenced by social-media crowdsourcing, voter-based reality-TV competitions, and the thrill of “leveling up.”
American fast food hasn’t always had such an unhealthy connotation. White Castle, America’s first fast-food chain (est. 1921), was founded at a time when most people were afraid to eat beef, thanks in part to Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. The chain achieved massive success in part because its founders worked hard to challenge the nation’s negative perceptions of the meat packing industry with their white porcelain-castle-shaped buildings, spotless interiors, and presentable employees, all meant to invoke cleanliness and accessible sophistication. Almost 100 years later, we still need innovative businesses to address our nation’s problems with the food industry—to convince us that fast food doesn’t need to kill us, and that we don’t need to kill it.
—Photo via Yoxi.tv