Can an app make it easier to dine out with dietary restrictions?

Bagels in baskets with signs reading "we have gluten free wraps and bagels"
Photo: Jeff Greenberg (Getty Images)

You’re on the hunt for gluten-free takeout. Easy enough. But what if you need dairy-free, gluten-free, kosher takeout—and you also have a severe mushroom allergy? New Vancouver startup Honeycomb.ai wants to make your life a little easier by “eliminating the frustrating process of manual menu parsing by creating a portal for anyone with dietary needs to find suitable food to eat.”

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According to press release sent to The Takeout, Honeycomb is an artificial intelligence software platform that alleviates the struggles of dining out for people with dietary needs, severe allergies, and lifestyle preferences alike. “The typical ingredient-tetris bottleneck played between guest and server while dining out has amplified during COVID-19,” the release explained. “Growth in online ordering and takeout has prompted customers with dietary needs to search online for dietary answers more than ever before.” But that’s much easier said than done, especially when restaurants fail to label their dietary information.

Honeycomb’s algorithm learns from “internal training processes,” user feedback, and restaurant input to showcase restaurants and individual food items that one or more of the following criteria: vegan, vegetarian, celiac-friendly, gluten-free, ketogenic, paleo, kosher, halal, and Low-FODMAP. The AI also identifies the 29 most common allergens, allowing users with allergies to eliminate any potentially dangerous dishes.

“One of the most challenging aspects of accommodating dietary needs is the different levels of severity,” Honeycomb founder Tamir Barzilai said in the release. “Someone might simply dislike mushrooms, or they may be mildly intolerant to dairy, or they may have a severe anaphylactic reaction to shellfish by means of cross-contamination. We’ve built this sense of severity into our software.”

Can you put all of your trust in artificial intelligence if you have a severe food intolerance or allergy? Probably not, no. If you’re grappling with severe dietary restrictions, it’s definitely still key to give the restaurant a call to confirm its menu can meet your needs. But tools like Honeycomb could make it easier to wade through a sea of online menus, helping you find a new favorite dish—especially when traveling. See for yourself: the software’s first phase is live, currently available for users in Canada, Australia, and the United States, and a “robust mobile experience” is reportedly on the way.

Staff writer @ The Takeout, joke writer elsewhere. Wrangling dogs and pork shoulder in Chicago.

DISCUSSION

Having actually worked with AI, I wouldn’t trust an app to get this right. Having worked with users that input this data into systems, I wouldn’t trust them to get this right either.

So no, at this time, I don’t think we can trust an app to get this right. I don’t think we can trust it enough to act as a signpost.

I have dietary restrictions. But they are not so severe that I really need to worry about them when dining out. Cross contamination is not going to make me sick if the gluten free pancakes were not really “gluten free”.

But if I go out with one of my friends or relatives who has celiac or a serious allergy you have to plan ahead. You either know the place you are eating, because it is a favorite — or you give them a call ahead of time, and verify it provides safe food.

And of course, right now it is all take out — because only idiots are eating out and helping spread the coronavirus.