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UCLA and USC students create app to connect community with local restaurants

Jimmy Zhou smiles for the camera. Zhou, an alumnus, is a part of the development team behind SeekEats, comprised of UCLA and USC students. The app aims to connect users to LA restaurants through polls and discounts for partnered businesses. (Courtesy of Jimmy Zhou)

By Nathan Chen

May 16, 2023 9:18 p.m.

A new app is seeking to make it easier to eat around Los Angeles.

SeekEats, which was created by students from UCLA and the University of Southern California, offers a platform where students can find discounts and local restaurant owners can promote their businesses. For instance, Westwood restaurants such as Egg Tuck, Poke Me and Kung Fu Tea currently offer discounts of up to 20% to users through SeekEats. Jimmy Zhou, an alumnus and chief technology officer of SeekEats, said he began working on this project to help promote local restaurant owners in Westwood.

“We knew that a lot of restaurants around Westwood … (were) flyering or doing informal partnerships with clubs on campus,” Zhou said. “There wasn’t any direct platform to actually reach students. That was a pain point that we’re trying to solve.”

[Related: UCLA student starts food blog centered around dining hall delights]

Along with developers and user interface designers from DevX, a club at UCLA focused on product management, Zhou created a working version of the app in January. USC alumnus Phillip Lau said he was working on a similar project in the Arcadia-Pasadena area, encompassed by the 626 area code. Lau said his project started during the COVID-19 pandemic to help local restaurants promote their businesses online and had already established relationships with several restaurants. Since their projects had similar goals, Lau and Zhou decided to merge their projects in March, Zhou said.

As CEO of SeekEats, Lau’s main job is to maintain relationships with small business owners, and he said building a personal connection is important in keeping partnerships strong. He said the main obstacle is contacting restaurant management teams, who are cautious of scams and false advertising. However, with approximately 35 partners and counting, Lau said it is exciting to watch SeekEats become integrated within the LA community.

“A lot of people get excited when we show them a campaign or promotion, and they’ll go to these restaurants and create content for them, for the restaurants, for us. And it’s kind of this big cycle,” Lau said. “People have been very supportive in the community and pushed us forward and given us helpful feedback, sometimes criticism, but it’s been very helpful and necessary.”

For Rebecca Tao, a USC student and chief operating officer of SeekEats, taking on many roles is part of working for a startup, she said. Her primary role is setting up communication and company structure, but she said she currently manages the design, social media and marketing of SeekEats, as well as hiring decisions. As the youngest member of the management team, she said she sometimes feels intimidated by the position, but she relies on her communication strengths and knows she is capable of fulfilling her responsibilities.

Tao said the most rewarding aspect of being a part of SeekEats is speaking with owners and hearing how the relationship has helped improve business. At Oops Boba Tea & Coffee, a partnered restaurant, the owner wrote a note with a graphic featuring SeekEats and a 15% discount, and Tao said the message was heartfelt.

“Putting extra thought and forming those connections have been really meaningful, especially since it feels like I’m giving back to the community that I’ve grown up with and learned so much from,” Tao said.

[Related: Q&A: Chef Ray Garcia’s asterid illuminates LA cultural evolution with culinary arts]

Like the social media app BeReal, a key component of the app is a poll that is released at a certain time of day that asks about food preferences and other engaging questions, Tao said, and users get points for participating.

Olivia Davidson, a fourth-year economics and European studies student and the SeekEats marketing lead, said she took her experience from running an Instagram food review account and incorporated it into the app and stories on the SeekEats Instagram. When asked about the future of the project, Davidson said she hopes to work toward introducing SeekEats to more UCLA students.

“One of my main goals is just really making sure that it’s a success at UCLA in order to open the possibility for it to expand to other college campuses,” Davidson said. “I think it’d be so cool if I was in Westwood and I saw people pulling out their app and using it at a register.”

Davidson said SeekEats provides a place to learn business skills that she otherwise would not learn in school. She said it is also a creative outlet for her to explore new methods of promoting the app and thinking outside traditional marketing methods taught in class. Similarly, Lau said although working in sectors such as technology or finance can feel disconnecting from the local community, good food is universal.

“A lot of times what you’re doing isn’t … really affecting your day-to-day. You’re not really affecting the community, and you can’t really translate a lot of what you’re doing to a regular conversation with someone outside of that field,” Lau said. “Food, discounts, local businesses – that’s a topic everybody can get on board (with). We have a lot of fun with it.”

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