I recently sat down with University of Illinois alumnus Dominic Hahn, the Executive Director of Noshfolio, a locally developed and locally based website focusing on the food and drink scene of Champaign-Urbana.
Smile Politely: For those who don’t know, what is Noshfolio?
Dominic Hahn: Originally it began as an online directory for local restaurants and bars in Champaign-Urbana, but we are now moving toward becoming more of a resource for local restaurants and their activities-while still maintaining the ease of use often found with a directory.
SP: Is Noshfolio an interactive site?
Hahn: Not yet.The most interactive element is the customer review, but we don’t consider that to be Noshfolio’s main identity. Reviews can be helpful sometimes, but it can be a lot of noise to sift through. We haven’t found a meaningful solution to this challenge yet, but a good platform focusing on reviews should ideally take customers’ inputs and present it to the restaurant and users in a constructive and useful way without overwhelming them.
SP: So your competition would be sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon?
Hahn: Somewhat, but Noshfolio is different in that we build relationships with the restaurants from the beginning. We approach them with our own idea and standards for what’s helpful for potential customers. This enables us to produce quality photos and information that simplify the customers’ discovery experience. We also have tagging features so people can search for a restaurant in a variety of ways according to their context.
What sets us apart from Yelp and Urbanspoon is that we spend a LOT of time thinking about how people make their dining decisions.
SP: Tell me a little about how Noshfolio started.
Hahn: It was born out of "scratching our own itch." Sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon are driven mostly by customer reviews. One day, after 20-30 minutes of reading them, I still couldn’t decide where to go because of all the conflicting reviews. Also, at the time, I was into photography and loved print magazines with a strong focus on quality visuals and curated insights. I thought, what if all the local restaurants were introduced this way? At the same time, my brother David [also a U of I alum] was occasionally building websites for restaurants and was encountering his own set of problems with flying coupon requests and other off-client demands. So we merged our two point of views and went about developing a site which streamlined the process for restaurants and users. We wanted to emulate the fluidity of the Facebook experience by incorporating predictable navigation and giving the users an opportunity to learn about the restaurants visually by being able to see the interior of each place and some of the menu items, as opposed to relying mostly on reviews.
SP: How long did it take to put Noshfolio together?
Hahn: About 6-7 months.
SP: What type of response have you gotten from users and restaurants?
Hahn: We’ve gotten a really good response from the users about the high quality photos and simple design. Crowd-sourced sites like Yelp allow users to upload photos, but they’re mostly dark, grainy cellphone pictures. Also, we show the main food items the restaurants are known for—this has generated a good response, too.
The restaurants enjoy Noshfolio’s presentation. We have eliminated some of the pain-points they typically encounter when working on their own website. First, just because someone can build a website doesn’t mean the results will be great. Also, customers still have to know about the restaurant first to visit the restaurant site. A lot of restaurants are happy that they have a clear idea of what we can do for them before we work together.
Additionally, there is a regular customer service element they may not otherwise receive, and this gives the restaurant the ability to keep their content and technology current with ease. We reduce unnecessary headaches for local restaurants and give them more time to improve their business.
SP: What has changed for Noshfolio over the last year?
Hahn: The design has changed quite a bit. For example, the restaurant pages used to be more segmented—we had three different pages for each restaurant profile, but they’re now tabs within a single page. We discuss and make constant tweaks throughout the year to improve the site’s usability for our users.
The biggest change recently has been the Events and Specials section. This new feature was implemented based on feedback we gathered from users and restaurants. It basically enables restaurants to quickly communicate their updates to their target audience. Customers looking for local food now also have a more consolidated platform for these updates.
SP: What are some of the goals for the next 12 months?
Hahn: We are expanding to native mobile apps to bridge the gap between computers and smartphones. In turn, customers will have additional platforms to discover local restaurants. We’re also looking to improve personal recommendations and move this closer to becoming a "one-stop-shop" for local dining decisions. Finally, we’re experimenting with a few social and interactive features, but it’s too early to say anything specific about them.
SP: What are some of the other features of Noshfolio? Why should people use it?
Hahn: Noshfolio is free to use, and it was built for people looking to discover, learn, and try new local restaurants in Champaign-Urbana. We always strive to build our ideas and products from a customer’s point of view first, and we believe customers should have more than just reviews to arrive at a dining decision.
You can visit the Noshfolio website to see local food and drink specials, or browse by categories or region. All photos courtesy of Noshfolio.