story | Avani Adhikari, Staff Writer
photo | Peh Yi Lin
Stop me if you have heard this before. After a long day of classes, you enter your suite and ask, “Dinner?” Your suitemate’s face lights up.
“UTown?” The suggestion is so tantalizing, you can almost feel the mala spices burning your esophagus. But you can also feel your dangerously light wallet.
“How’s the dining hall today?”
The scramble to check the dining hall menu on the Yale-NUS College website begins. So does the confusion at the layout of the menu on the website, the inevitable frustration, and “Which buttery is open today, again?”
For many of us, this conversation is all too familiar. Dissatisfaction with dining hall food is a common enough occurrence that many of us have taken it for granted. How can we fix this?
To Neha Matani ’22, the answer is obvious. “I just wish there was a better way to talk to Sodexo. I really want to encourage them when they make good food but emailing them all the time is simply too troublesome,” she said.
Enter Flavorgator. A food rating app, Flavorgator was founded by Henry Dominguez-Letelier ’22, who started building it in April 2017 along with Ian Duncan ’21 and Kebron Gurara ’21. According to their website, Flavorgator aims to allow dining providers to “understand [their] consumers’ preferences while giving [them] actionable insights” through “real time feedback” on menus. Flavorgator is currently employed by Sodexo for a paid pilot test on the Yale-NUS College campus.
Dining hall feedback had always been a testy issue. Some students may remember Dish It, another dining hall feedback app that was developed by students in 2017, when SATS was still Yale-NUS’ dining provider. Dish It was an independent app that worked alongside the Dining Hall Committee. At the height of their popularity, Dish It regularly published a “Weekly Digest” of feedback received on the app, and regularly received 50 to 80 likes on their Facebook posts. However, sometime during the dining vendor change from SATS to Sodexo, Dish It became inactive.
Grady Ng ’20, a founding member of Dish It, said, “Dish It shut down partly because interest and usage was tapering off as well as funding issues but mostly because our initial goal was fulfilled.” According to Ng, Dish It aimed to provide a convenient feedback system for the Dining Hall Committee and SATS while the tender was ongoing. When Sodexo got the tender, Ng says they promised their own official feedback platform, prompting Dish It to shut down.
The closure of Dish It as well as Sodexo’s delay in the implementation of their own feedback system meant that the market was open for new platforms and ideas.
Dominguez-Letelier had a lot of ideas. “I wanted to do something to improve the dining hall experience and had an idea for a better feedback mechanism. During Experience Yale-NUS Weekend (EYW), I happened to meet Ian and Kebron and I floated the idea of Flavorgator to them,” he said.
“I told them that I could do the marketing and networking aspect of it, I just needed technical help. Ian told me that he enjoyed programming which made him something special you know. No one enjoys programming.”
To use Flavorgator to send feedback about the daily menu, users scan the Flavorgator QR code posted on the dining hall door or on the tables. After answering a short quiz about their dining hall habits, they are taken to a page with a list of menu items.
“We want to do the quiz to better categorize where the feedback is coming from. For example, if most vegetarians have a complaint about a certain menu item, it will help to contextualize the feedback”, said Dominguez-Letelier.
On the menu page, users are asked to select the meal of the day as well as the dining hall they are eating at. “We have focused on making the design most accessible to students. We know that rather than writing long feedback, students would prefer simple upvote or downvote button. We also have a selection of common feedback such as “too salty” or “too spicy” located after each menu item to increase convenience,” said Duncan.
Dominguez-Letelier added, “We are working on improving this experience for the students. For example, we are planning to add Agora menu items as well as send updates to students whenever their favorite meal item is brought up.”
Currently, Flavorgator is employed by Sodexo for a paid pilot test on campus. The total amount of the contract for Flavorgator’s paid pilot test with Sodexo is unspecified, but if Sodexo’s Yale-NUS site manager Richard Ellison is pleased with the results of the app by the end of the semester, Flavorgator could be implemented as a feedback platform at other Sodexo sites outside of Yale-NUS.
Though there is no way to tell what a successful pilot test looks like, the Flavorgator team hopes to increase signups to at least 200 by the end of the semester. To the Flavorgator team, successful beta-testing at Yale-NUS is important as it helps them finalize their product.
According to Dominguez-Letelier, “Total signups are currently at 75, with 10–15 active users who engage consistently by providing comments and likes. There may be more individuals who use the site only to check the menu.”
In comparison, the Dining Hall Committee, which collects student feedback via email and a Google form, typically receives 20 to 40 responses a week, said Committee member Calvin Yeo ’20. The Committee then discusses the feedback with Sodexo.
Though plans for Flavorgator were in motion long before Sodexo received the contract, the app only launched this semester, on the same day that posters went up in the dining hall containing the statement ‘i am not eating in the dining halls because i am afraid i will get diarrhea. i want an opt out option’. Sodexo then filed a police report in response to these posters on the grounds of potential libel and defamation. In a Mar. 18 Town Hall, Dean of Students Robert Wessling said that he understood that the police investigation would be put on pause and the administration would be working with Sodexo to create a more amicable environment where students are not castigated for expressing their opinions. At at time of such heightened tensions, I asked the Flavorgator team what role they think their platform has to play.
Dominguez-Letelier said, “As we are working with Sodexo, we are obviously catering to their needs. But we believe that if feedback is more accessible to Sodexo, the benefit will spill out to the general public. If they see a lot of feedback, then they know that it is something that they want to change.”