Chicago Agency Execs Built a Takeout/Delivery Restaurant Directory That's Catching on Nationwide

Huge's Sean Lynch explains 'Dining at a Distance'

Sean Lynch, a senior product manager at Huge in Chicago, and Jenn Galdes, who owns PR company Grapevine, were both on Twitter a week ago—realizing the same thing at almost the same time. The Chicago food scene that they loved so much was about to be decimated through closures forced by coronavirus.

What could they do to help?

A local reporter had begun a Twitter thread collecting a list of which restaurants were remaining open for delivery and takeout. Putting his product hat on, Lynch saw great potential for something more organized.

"It was full of rich content. However, there were many usability concerns," he tells Muse. "Browsing 200 tweets is not easy, the data formatting was not consistent, and it would be hard to scale. I thought of ways we could build a lightweight tool to aggregate this information. From that, Dining at a Distance was born. I synced up with Jenn, as she was working on a similar list, and we combined efforts—her restaurant PR experience and my product experience."

Dining at a Distance has grown at lightning speed in the week since then. The original site was built in just a few hours, and was limited to Chicago. But it soon had listings for hundreds of restaurants in the Windy City, and has since expanded to 30 cities—with 16 more on the way (including Edinburgh, Scotland, the first outside the U.S.). Restaurants can submit requests to curate and launch their city's website on the Dining at a Distance homepage. 

For each restaurant, the site has seven data fields:

• Service type (takeout/curbside, delivery, gift card)
• Delivery services (direct from restaurant, GrubHub, Uber Eats, Caviar, Doordash, Postmates, Seamless, etc.)
• Website/ordering page
• Phone number
• Physical address
• Neighborhood
• Additional details

We asked Lynch a few more questions about the project.

Muse: How logistically challenging was it to put together?

Sean Lynch: The initial setup was quite simple. It's a Squarespace site and AirTable. Once the project started to scale, things got challenging. At any point, we have nearly 200-300 new restaurant requests in the Chicago area. We had to create processes overnight for monitoring new requests, change requests, cleaning the data, and approving new requests. We had to put together 'recruitment' materials for new curators—those who maintain the site in their local communities—operating procedures and expectations for new cities, develop access protocol for local curators that were low-cost yet secure, create mechanisms for troubleshooting for users and local curators, and implement tools to keep curators in touch with each other to share best practices.

The biggest challenge has been the volume—both new cities, new partners, and new restaurants growing on the list—all while maintaining our day jobs. Thankfully, the restaurants and cities have been super understanding of our turnaround times.

How is it evolving as it scales?

Product: We decided to begin our rollout to other communities after receiving interest from my friends and family in D.C. and Charleston, and Jenn's contacts around the country. What started off as an informal process—oh, are you interested, let's get this going—turned into a more "formalized" request process and targeted efforts. Once we played the CTA on our site and mentioned the expansion in various interviews, we've received over 350 new city requests. 

As we started to intake these new requests, we built processes around how we expand.

As the week has progressed, we have refined the roles and responsibilities for curators and those helping with the effort, so that way we are all allocating limited time and resources most effectively.

Management of data has proven to be the biggest hurdle—because users can't modify their submissions, we are constantly receiving emails with change requests. To keep IT costs down, we have a central inbox where we are forwarding local curators messages from restaurants. This has proven to be a bit of a bottleneck, but we are working through solutions. Overall, we've received a really positive response from new cities—through email messages of thanks from local restaurants, Instagram/Twitter posts about the launch, and local press pieces. We've received interest from folks looking to help out in cities where we are already live, which has resulted in new digital connections between local organizers who are all committed to helping their local restaurant industry.

Partnerships: We've been contacted by national distributors, suppliers, restaurant chains, farmers, and organizers with similar projects around the world. We're determining the best path forward for each of these partnership types to ensure that we continue to align with our mission and core objectives.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards and the founding editor of Muse by Clio.

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