AUSTIN, Texas — Tech, music and film luminaries come to South by Southwest for lots of reasons: networking, panels, booze, “Don’t mess with Texas” bumper stickers. But almost all of them have a secret (or not-so-secret) agenda as well: Consume vast quantities of Austin’s amazing food.
In years past, SXSW foodies have relied on word of mouth, Yelp, Twitter and other services — including their noses — to find the city’s best grub. This year, they’ll have some help from Foodspotting, a website–app–visual aid that gives starving diners a peek at the best nearby eats.
It should be a boon to SXSW newbies, because the city’s true food gems aren’t always obvious to the untrained eye. Foodspotting, which launched last year and has been growing almost as fast as the food truck–cart craze taking off in many cities, is also hosting a Street Food Fest on Sunday to bring Austin’s best chow trucks together to a single location.
“Last year I surveyed veterans and asked them about how they went about finding food at SXSW,” Foodspotting co-founder and CEO Alexa Andrzejewski said in an e-mail to Wired.com. “According to people who care about eating well, there were no good food options anywhere near the convention center. So I thought, ‘What if we brought Austin’s best food to people?’”
Other food services and apps will pop up at SXSW as well — Foodstream plans to launch its iPhone–iPad app at the festival, for example — and attendees can rely on classic services like Yelp, Urbanspoon or Foursquare, which recently added an Explore option showing local restaurant recommendations. It’s all part of a delicious explosion of location-aware apps that harness smartphones and the wisdom of the lip-smacking crowd to clue users in to an area’s hidden gems.
Foodspotting, which is up for a SXSW Interactive award in the Community category, curated its mobile-food-fair participants with an eye for diversity and overall Austin-iness, Andrzejewski said. Vendors include Along Came a Slider, Hey Cupcake, Lucky J’s and Clem’s Hot Diggity Dogs.
Because Austin pairs an extremely creative food palette with a fair share of techies, the food truck–trailer scene has boomed in the city thanks to services like Twitter and Foursquare. Since Foodspotting focuses on creating user-generated, Denny’s-menu-style photo collections of a particular restaurant’s cuisine instead of just written reviews, the service may encourage SXSW attendees to try eateries they normally wouldn’t, said Jason Umlas, owner of Lucky J’s, which specializes in chicken-and-waffle tacos.
“I think Foodspotting is definitely a really cool site for connecting people with the actual place and dishes,” Umlas said in a phone interview. “Being a chef, I don’t really take everyone’s opinion into much regard, but a picture’s worth a thousand words and being able to be like, ‘I have this awesome food in front of me, check this out!’ — that means a lot more to me.”
Leading up to the street-food fest, Foodspotting is also hosting a Secret Menu Scavenger Hunt challenging players to snap and upload pictures of off-menu items at Austin eateries like Man Bites Dog and Franklin BBQ.
The hunt, Andrzejewski said, was inspired by San Francisco magazine 7×7’s “100 Things to Try Before You Die” list.
“There was also no better way to showcase what Foodspotting is good for than by assembling a location-aware guide to Austin’s best street foods and where to find them,” she said. “You can immediately discover foods you never imagine existed.”
Welcome to Austin. Dig in.