The Stars Are Not Your Guide.

We've all had those awkward nights out where it feels impossible to find anywhere good to eat. There are a ton of factors that can make (or break) your evening, ranging from food selection to seating to the general "vibes" of the place. Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell how well your group will click with a restaurant just based on nebulous star ratings. 

The fact that a restaurant is "3.8 stars" doesn't feel like it communicates how it's different from the one that's "3.6 stars." Meanwhile, it can be hard to tell if someone's angry "1-star" review represents a legitimate complaint or the ramblings of someone angry that their bizarre special order didn't entitle them to a free meal. On the other hand, seeing nonstop 5-star reviews for a restaurant can come across as inauthentic. Even if these reviews track to real people and the restaurant truly is a 5-star spiritual experience, having to worry about whether or not a location's review page is being honest distracts from actually engaging with the group you're going to be dining with. 

Grip Places is an app fixing to change the conversation on finding restaurants by eliminating star ratings and helping customers navigate to restaurants that are uniquely suited to the event—be it a birthday dinner or an 11:30 p.m. munchies run. This innovative platform uses a perpetually learning algorithm—similar to Tinder or Netflix's recommended section to match diners with the places they're most likely to enjoy. Beyond allowing users to look for new restaurants based on vibes, it also allows venues to opt-in to live streaming so prospective visitors can see if it's a good fit for them. 

We sat down with Jon Fairband, the founder and CEO of Grip Places to discuss dining, matchmaking, and how Grip is changing the equation for customers. 

OCN: First and foremost, the term "vibes" comes up a lot on your app. How would you define a "vibe?"

Jon: Scene, setting, atmosphere, feeling. As a restaurant-goer, what am I feeling at that very moment? If I've had a long week, maybe I'm looking for a low-key happy hour? If I'm 25 years old and want more of a party vibe, I can find it. It gives the restaurant-goer the ability to choose what they're looking for based upon personal preference and instant gratification.

What do you think are the main deciding factors on if a person enjoys a restaurant? Is it food quality? Price? Service? Or is it more complex than any one of those things? 

Great question. There are dozens of reasons people go to restaurants and bars: food, music, happy hour, large patio, atmosphere, great service, trying something new, or generally to get out of the house and not have to cook. Those are attributes people look for in a place. But there is another much larger piece of it. What is the goal they are trying to achieve? Are they looking for a romantic date night? Meeting eligible singles? Celebrating a birthday or anniversary? Our approach is to use smart technology and AI to understand the underlying psychology of our users so we can find the perfect spot for the experience they are looking for at a particular time.

Tell us more about Grip Places' origin story. What is the inspiration behind the unique way you view restaurants and their diners? 

Four and a half years ago, while traveling for business, I stayed in San Jose, California. After a few nights of venturing out on the town, I noticed that SJ wasn't my favorite scene, and I struggled to find the vibe I was seeking.  

On one of the days between meetings, I walked past a cool bar that fit my personality. I couldn't stop but had made a mental note to check it out when I had time. Fast forward a couple of days, I'm sitting in the lobby of the Fairmount Hotel and wanted to check out the bar. But knowing there's little to choose from in San Jose, and it was a 20-minute walk to see if it's a place I wanted to be, I thought to myself if I could only see a live feed and know before I go. It would save me time, money, and disappointment. 

From there, I went straight up to my room and started writing a business plan and knew this was something I had to invent. 

Until recently, the popular belief among review sites was that "higher stars = better restaurant." Why do you disagree with that? 

The experience economy is a real thing. There is so much access to experiences out there in these new times that weren't as readily available or affordable 20, 30, and 40 years ago. With that being said, too many options can confuse people, so people evolved to believe in a star-rating system.  

The star-rating system is flawed, subjective, and a one-rating-fits-all approach. Joe can rate a restaurant a 5 star because he loved the burger, and Sara may rate the same place a 1 star because she thought the atmosphere was too noisy. Joe and Sara don't care about the same things, but the one-rating-fits-all-stars approach doesn't distinguish between the two. A new customer looking at the lowered star rating makes a snap judgment about the place because of many different subjective experiences. This isn't fair to the business owner or the experience seeker.

Our app knows people are different and want different experiences. So, we personalize matches based on their unique interests in a similar approach to how dating apps match you with other people based on specific criteria you are looking for in a partner. It's the same paradigm. We are just applying that to matching you with restaurants or bars based on the experience you are looking for. Hence our motto, Matchmaking for Experiences.

One last question: What's your favorite "place?"

I'm a Parker, Colorado native–two places: Tailgate Tavern & Parker Garage. 

Not only are they my local watering holes, but they were two of our first Grip Places customers who signed on during the COVID-19 pandemic and believed in what we are doing. Big shout out to them for believing in Grip Places. We appreciate it and will continue to support them as well.

It's hard to deny the impact that this shift in thinking could have. Whether you're looking for a romantic date venue or just trying to find a good Taco Tuesday, Grip Places is changing the conversation on restaurant matchmaking. Who knows? You might just find your next favorite restaurant on there!