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03.09.21 | By Bruno Correa
For Mackenzie Baker, one fateful encounter with a bowl of ramen became the impetus for an innovative product and a whirlwind post-graduate experience. So how did a tasty meal spark an entire startup? Baker says it clicked when she and classmate Zach Sullens made a pit stop after a long day of research.
"We were exhausted, hungry, and excited to eat some yummy noodles,” says Baker, whose dairy allergy, unfortunately, caused a bit of a mix-up and resulted in her having to send a broth of noodles back to the kitchen.
While the situation stressed out the waiter and resulted in lost resources and time for the business, the experience sparked an “aha moment” for Baker and Sullens, who saw the need for a platform where restaurants could create tailored menus for customers with food allergies and dietary restrictions.
Short for "okonomi" which means "your preference" in Japanese, Nomi is an easy-to-use platform that targets one of the biggest pain points cooks, owners, and waitstaff encounter. “Our digital menu system makes it easy to manage personalized ordering experiences for patrons with special dietary needs,” says Baker.
So what exactly is Nomi’s secret sauce? Instead of a standard, one-size-fits-all solution, Nomi is built around the idea of personalization -- for both the patron and the restaurant. “We saw it as an opportunity to design a solution that makes restaurants feel more equipped to serve patrons with allergies and makes patrons feel certain their food will be exactly as they want,” says Baker.
A key ingredient contributing to Nomi’s early success is that it reduces the time and money lost from miscommunication. In other words, waiters don’t have to run back and forth from the front-of-house to the kitchen to ask about dietary information, and less dishes get sent back to the kitchen due to an allergy concern.
"Restaurant owners are acutely aware of the troubles patrons who have severe allergies face when dining out, but oftentimes feel helpless to do anything about it because they're stretched for time,” says Baker. “Having Nomi help them address this demographic's needs is an immense help."
Nomi’s technology also connects with the restaurant’s existing digital solutions, from point-of-sale to delivery apps to review sites. This ensures Nomi’s usefulness beyond simply managing customer orders. “We hope to provide restaurants with a solution that fits with their current technology suite,” says Baker.
While the idea came to them in a ramen shop, Baker and Sullens iterated, refined, and honed the idea for Nomi during their Garage Experience (Gx) senior capstone course at USC Iovine and Young Academy. The Gx course is a deep dive into the entrepreneurial experience – from ideation to product development and pitching to investors. Baker says the freedom to pursue Nomi as an entrepreneurial venture, all with the backing of experienced faculty, resident entrepreneurs, and industry experts gave the pair a leg up on what is a make-or-break stage of building a startup.
"One of the things the Academy does best is that it encourages and amplifies creativity,” says Baker. “Because we have a project-based curriculum, we have the freedom to pursue the ideas we are most interested in – with the backing of world-class faculty who can help us when we get stuck.”
The Gx capstone course prepared Baker and Sullens to take their senior project from concept and research to early-stage startup mode, recruiting three Academy classmates along the way. Soon after graduation, the team grew to 16, pulling talent from across various USC entrepreneurial clubs and schools.
“Our team structure now includes engineering, design, sales, and product departments,” says Baker.
The speedy recruitment of a talented team and a refined prototype has allowed Nomi to flesh out features quickly, adding to an already growing buzz for the startup. Nomi already has a fully-functioning sample menu available online, giving clients a taste of new updates, tools, and more.
Nomi is making strong headway with early partnerships with restaurants across the US, such as Bacari in Los Angeles and others including in key regions known for good eatin’ such as Chicago.