On a dark night on Minnesota Street, chef Heena Patel serves phenomenal South Asian cuisine to diners of every stripe. Though it’s a Wednesday, her restaurant Besharam is literally overflowing with guests, forcing front-of-house staff to pull tables into the halls of the Minnesota Street Project. She recently launched a new menu that she says showcases the kind of cooking that’s always been dear to her heart. “This time I wanted to cook what I’d find in my mom’s pantry,” Patel says. “More rustic.”
But there’s more than just high-caliber Indian cuisine to draw diners to this corner of San Francisco. One of Patel’s staff recently launched software he hopes will make not only this restaurant but perhaps all of them safer for diners with dietary restrictions. Bar lead Alex Okarkau is vegan, doesn’t drink, has more than a decade of experience in the food and beverage space, and just so happens to be a software engineer. He just spent six months building an app called RMenu and hopes it could be a real game-changer for some diners.
Okarkau, who is originally from Belarus, took it upon himself to learn how to code in 2020 by working with the Flatiron School. It took the first three months of work just to develop an alpha version of RMenu, and the second three to create a beta version with help from three engineers. Then he launched the beta version with restaurants, beginning with Besharam.
The QR code-activated augmented reality software identifies restaurant menu items that will work for diners given their dietary restrictions, allergies, or preferences. Okarkau had the idea for the application when he realized that many restaurants have spreadsheets with granular ingredient information for back-of-house staff to access. Plugging that information into RMenu allows the software’s filters to do the heavy lifting for guests. Down the road, Okarkau sees it as a replacement to Yelp or Google as a restaurant’s menu items become searchable through the app: Imagine trying to find a vegan chile relleno and, rather than first looking for a restaurant with vegan options and then searching the menu for the dish, discovering that the specific dish you’re craving just went on the seasonal menu at a restaurant in your city. “I have a dietary preference,” Okarkau says. “But I can imagine for those with allergies. I wanted to bring out that transparency to give diners confidence.”
There are five primary filters for things such as vegan and gluten-free, plus 33 additional filters for possible allergens including carrots, onions, soy, and avocado. Okarkau says that’s just the beginning, and additional filter options are customizable to restaurants. At Besharam, Patel built her new menu with RMenu in mind. Okarkau and Patel demonstrate the full power of the technology with a relatively affordable $75 tasting menu that, even with the vegan and dairy-free filters applied, provided an impeccable and gorgeous cascade of dishes ranging from spicy and saucy Gujarati dal to creamy kaju masala.
Now, menu tech is nothing new. But Okarkau’s committed to this project, piloting the tech at Besharam and now at Trinity Irish Bar & Restaurant while courting other restaurants, including Ozumo. He says the analytics provided to businesses that use the technology are the real selling point, even though the intent may be to protect guests. Okarkau acknowledges there are competitors — there’s iEatOut Gluten Free & Allergy Free and Spokin to name just two, not to mention information collected by commerce software such as Toast or Square. In his mind, though, RMenu stands apart because restaurants and diners will have an easier time using the app’s backend and the scannable menus, respectively.
During the last four months of implementation at Besharam, Okarkau found the most popular filter has been vegan, and in the last week, the roughly 2,000 guests who visited the restaurant come from all over the world including Japan and Europe. Okarkau provided that information to Patel, who’s incorporating that information into everything from dish ideation to marketing techniques. “How do people interact with the menu? What features do we need to add? How do we better serve our clientele?” Okarkau wonders. “This is just the first step.”
RMenu is now available for diners to beta test at Besharam and Trinity Irish Bar & Restaurant via QR code on the menus.