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How an app for discovering Black-owned restaurants is dealing with skyrocketing demand

EatOkra already had a long waiting list of restaurants wanting to join its platform. Then the Black Lives Matter protests ushered in a dramatic outpouring of support.

EatOkra app

EatOkra connects users with Black-owned cuisine in their area, and demand from restaurants to be listed on the platform is soaring amid a push to "Buy Black."

Image: EatOkra

At the start of May, Anthony Edwards already had a problem. He had a backlog of around 500 restaurants asking to be listed on his food directory app EatOkra, which connects users with Black-owned cuisine in their area.

Then the killing of George Floyd on May 25 sparked some of the largest and widest-spread civil rights demonstrations the U.S. has seen since the 1960s. As the movement swelled, supporters began scouring the internet for Black-owned businesses to support, mobilizing behind a familiar slogan: "Buy Black."

Edwards wasn't expecting such a dramatic outpouring of support. But since May 27, EatOkra, boosted by a wave of new social media followers and high scores on app stores, has received over 5,000 applications from restaurants hoping to be listed on its service. And the app saw a more than 4,000% increase in daily downloads by new users between May 28 and June 4, according to Apptopia.

"We went from about 500 restaurants that we had to process to about 5,100 in less than 30 days," Edwards said, describing the process as "high-anxiety." Before now, the app had been doubling its user base every year and was downloaded 12,000 times in 2019. So far this year, it has already received over 100,000 downloads.

EatOkra's mission is to connect users with Black-owned restaurants in their area. It's not a delivery service; it explicitly points users toward apps like DoorDash or Seamless when restaurants have that option. But its simple, green-and-white interface boasts categories not typically found on mainstream delivery apps — like "Soul Food," "African Cuisine" and "Caribbean Cuisine" — and gives prime real estate to restaurants that are often overlooked on other food services. It currently has more than 2,600 restaurants listed across more than a dozen cities.

Edwards, who has a computer science degree and works as the chief technology officer at a construction management software company, co-founded EatOkra with his wife, Janique Edwards, in 2016. The two came up with the idea shortly after they moved to Brooklyn as they scoured their neighborhood for food that felt "familiar."

"We were looking for Black-owned businesses — barbecue or soul food or something like that," Anthony Edwards said. "We started Googling and a lot of things came up, but there was no central source … We saw that as a big void."

Today, Janique Edwards handles operations, design and marketing, while Anthony Edwards is the main developer. They work with one other staffer, who handles design.

But this latest flurry of attention has catapulted EatOkra from a hobby app to a "professional" service, at least according to Heroku, the cloud platform that hosts the app. Edwards said he had to boost his level with Heroku to the "professional tier," which costs about $250 per month, doubling the amount that he was paying last month.

And suddenly, the app also has competition. Earlier this month, UberEats added a feature that compiles local Black-owned restaurants and waives delivery fees for orders from them through 2020, an effort that has been met with mixed results, as the promotion drives significant sales to Black-owned restaurants in some cities and falters in others.

Edwards said he would have loved to coordinate with Uber on the project, but the company hasn't reached out. "They need to work with companies like mine that have been doing the work," he said.

Last week, EatOkra launched a crowdfunding campaign on FundBlackFounders.com, aiming to raise $100,000 to hire new staff and navigate the burgeoning interest. As of Thursday, the campaign had raised more than $13,000. It's no longer tenable for Edwards and his wife to handle most of the work along with one other designer, he said.

Longer term, the couple has grand plans. They want to create a subscription model, which will allow restaurants to pay a small fee for promotion. They're also planning to design a news feed that highlights the stories and experiences of Black owners and chefs, and to launch an ecommerce section that allows people to buy sauces and spices from various stores.

He said the app is all about "circulating the dollar" — keeping money in the Black community.

"We want to be there for those people that are trying to make decisions to support Black-owned," Edwards said. "And for our owners, we just want to be another source for them to be seen, be heard, and not be put down in the bottom of a list or buried in another mobile application where you won't get seen."

Protocol | Fintech

Plaid’s COO is riding fintech’s choppy waves

He's a striking presence on the beach. If he navigates Plaid's data challenges, Eric Sager will loom large in the financial world as well.

Plaid COO Eric Sager is an avid surfer.

Photo: Plaid

Eric Sager is an avid surfer. It's a fitting passion for the No. 2 executive at Plaid, a startup that's riding fintech's rough waters — including a rogue wave on the horizon that could cause a wipeout.

As Plaid's chief operating officer, Sager has been helping the startup navigate that choppiness, from an abandoned merger with Visa to a harsh critique by the CEO of a top Wall Street bank.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
People

WhatsApp thinks business chat is the future — but it won't be easy

From privacy policy screw-ups to UI questions, can WhatsApp crack the super-app riddle?

WhatsApp Business is trying to wrap shopping around messaging. It's not always easy.

Image: WhatsApp

At some point, WhatsApp was always going to have to make some money. Facebook paid $21.8 billion for the company in 2014, and since then, WhatsApp has grown to more than 2 billion users in more than 180 countries. And while, yes, Facebook's acquisition was in part simply a way to neutralize a competitor, it also knows how to monetize an audience.

The trick, though, would be figuring out how to do that without putting ads into the app. Nobody at WhatsApp ever wanted to do that, including co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton, who reportedly left Facebook after disagreements over ads. More recently, even Mark Zuckerberg has slowed the WhatsApp ad train, with The Information reporting that ads in WhatsApp likely won't come while the company's under so much regulatory scrutiny. So: $21.8 billion, no ads. What to do?

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

People

Citizen’s plan to keep people safe (and beat COVID-19) with an app

Citizen CEO Andrew Frame talks privacy, safety, coronavirus and the future of the neighborhood watch.

Citizen added COVID-19 tracking to its app over the summer — but its bigger plans got derailed.

Photo: Citizen

Citizen is an app built on the idea that transparency is a good thing. It's the place users — more than 7 million of them, in 28 cities with many more to come soon — can find out when there's a crime, a protest or an incident of any kind nearby. (Just yesterday, it alerted me, along with 17,900 residents of Washington, D.C., that it was about to get very windy. It did indeed get windy.) Users can stream or upload video of what's going on, locals can chat about the latest incidents and everyone's a little safer at the end of the day knowing what's happening in their city.

At least, that's how CEO Andrew Frame sees it. Critics of Citizen say the app is creating hordes of voyeurs, incentivizing people to run into dangerous situations just to grab a video, and encouraging racial profiling and other problematic behaviors all under the guise of whatever "safety" means. They say the app promotes paranoia, alerting users to things that they don't actually need to know about. (That the app was originally called "Vigilante" doesn't help its case.)

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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