“Someone with diabetes may go to a restaurant and they walk into a minefield. There might be one or two things [on the menu] that are OK,” says the 28-year-old co-founder and chief technology officer of Usable Health, which invented the Smartmenu.
At an on-site terminal resembling a mobile tablet, diners receive advice on the right combination of foods on the menu to meet their personal dietary goals. Whether that’s to watch sodium, seek a low-carb or high-protein option or just eat a balanced meal.
With a push of a button, the computer matches your eating desires with the appropriate option. You have the choice of ordering and checking out directly from the screen — all without having to ask further questions of the cashier or stand in line to pay for your order.
It’s a novel technology application still in its infancy in fast-casual restaurants in Atlanta and a few Southern cities. But early testimonials from customers and restaurant owners indicate a potential for expansion. Others in the healthy dining arena, policymaking and business community are taking notice.
So how did the Ukraine-born doctoral student who helped invent this technology go from reading science fiction and cyber-punk articles on computers as a teen to helping create a solution to one of the nation’s dietary problems?
For one thing, Medynskiy’s interest in computer and information science tends to revolve around how computers can help meet human needs. It doesn't hurt that he likes to try out new concepts in eating and exercising, from vegan to low carb and tennis to yoga.
Graduating magna cum laude with a computer science degree from Cornell University, he interned for Google Inc. and Adobe Systems while pursuing his doctorate in human-centered computing at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
As part of those studies — he’s graduating this month — he helped design an online application that provides tools for self-managing personal goals such as losing weight or training for a marathon.
“You tell it what you want it to track and it gives you your history. It makes it easier to track your personal diary over the month.” For instance, at a glance you can see whether you’re eating well or not, whether you’re achieving your goals or where you need to modify to reap greater results, Medynskiy explains.
The research was sponsored by a Google Research Award and a grant from the National
Medynskiy estimated about 600 people used the free app, Salud!, which is available online. But Medynskiy isn’t trying to solicit new users. He’s applying the skills he learned from designing, operating and managing Salud! to the more lucrative commercialization of Usable Health’s Smartmenus.
The technology originally was designed by Georgia Tech researchers including Usable Health co-founder and CEO Jiten Chhabra, a 30-year-old medical doctor. Chhabra deals with the business and strategy side of the business while Medynskiy takes care of the technical side, ensuring that the systems work properly at the restaurants, he says.
He also manages a team of designers and programmers like he did for Salud!
Usable Health has three full-time employees and five part-timers with plans to hire again soon, Medynskiy says.
Starting early last year, about 20 restaurants have begun using the Smartmenus. They are mostly in Atlanta, although there are a few sites in Augusta, Ga.; Birmingham, Ala.; Westin, Fla.; and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Usable Health takes the menus provided by the restaurants and delivers it to users in a way that helps them make informed nutritional decisions at the point of sale. “It’s in the right place at the right time to advise,” he says.
Dieticians from the online site, HealthyDiningFinder.com, see the benefit of having their approved menu choices and accurate nutritional information available in restaurants.
“Eugene Medynskiy has been instrumental to Usable Health's development of an exciting technology that is being embraced by both restaurants and their guests,” says Anita Jones-Mueller, president of HealthyDiningFinder.com, a Usable Health partner.
Smartmenus “help restaurants keep their nutrition data up-to-date and accurate, which will be important for the upcoming federal menu labeling regulations. And the Smartmenus help restaurants streamline operations and contribute to green efforts by reducing paper and printing costs. These are powerful benefits for our nation’s health and environmental efforts."
The fast-casual Fresh to Order in Atlanta claims the relatively inexpensive virtual cashiers have helped reduce labor and food costs, according to a video testimonial posted on Usable Health website.
“Everywhere you look nutrition is taking center stage and is ultimately driving the larger population in their dining-out decisions,” Jesse Gideon, vice president of restaurant operations states on the site. “The Smartmenu is informative, user-friendly and cool. As a viable kiosk solution, it also gives our store operations a way to raise check averages through suggested selling.”
The technology also tracks return visits, remembering what regulars eat and, in some restaurants, offers coupons. It can give restaurants a competitive advantage, Medynskiy says.
The need for such technology is founded in the American culture of dining out and the statistics that show a trend toward healthy eating. A majority of restaurant operators — 66 percent — say their guests are paying more attention to nutrition and 72 percent of consumers say they are trying to eat healthier at restaurants than they did two years ago, according to the 2011 national household survey of the National Restaurant Association. In addition, the ability to order online through a website will become more popular in the future, according to six out of 10 full-service restaurant operators polled in the survey.
As he graduates this month, Medynskiy is continuing to seek investments and grants to take Usable Health and Smartmenus to the next level. The goal is to grow from 20 to 200 restaurant locations by the end of the year, and to be able to scale to meet the needs of national chains.
The first objective of the new company, though, is to give back to the community that has supported it to date, with a donation to the local food bank, he says. It’s just one more way the company can help others to help themselves.
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