In this week’s interview we catch up with Dan Friedman the creator and developer of a worldwide directory of vegetarian and vegan restaurants app, More than Salad. Being vegan for 11 years, he is based in New York and has traveled to thirty countries already. In 2005, he quit his office job as a computer programmer and started traveling with his sister’s band when they were touring across the U.S. then Europe. He ate lots of salad and french fries on the road in those early days. Later on he traveled in different parts of Asia where he eventually spent a half year in China and Taiwan, experiencing a vast amount of delicious vegan food he’d found beyond salad and french fries.
He is known for his guest post feature on Vegan Backpacker where he shares his helpful tips on ordering vegan meals in Chinese. Initially Dan built a resource website to help people find vegan and vegetarian food while traveling, but eventually migrated it into an iPhone app, More than Salad. He reached out to us wondering whether we could give his app a try since we are vegans who love to travel and eat. We couldn’t say no since we both have something in common: traveling and a passion for deliciously fabulous vegan food.
Can you begin by telling us a bit about yourself and your path to veganism?
I had a pretty lousy diet back in those days. I ate lots of fast food and hardly ate any vegetables or fruits at all. Once I started to learn more about animal treatment in food production, it became apparent to me that I wanted to be vegan but I had no idea how I’d ever switch my diet so dramatically since I ate almost nothing vegan back in those days (french fries?) and I was always a fussy eater as a kid who said “no” a lot to trying new foods.
A few years later when I got to college I started to experiment and try new things. It turned out that once I started giving things a try, I ended up liking a lot of new things. There was an Indian restaurant (Bombay Cafe in Boston) across the street from my college (Berklee College of Music) dorm and I started eating there regularly. That was a big leap for me into new tastes and realizing that I had been missing out on a lot of great food. A few years after that I had integrated a lot of new foods into my diet and started to feel like maybe I was getting close to being able to actually switch. I never really considered being vegetarian as I always felt being vegan was more ethically consistent with my goals of not contributing to animal cruelty or exploitation. I don’t begrudge anyone there personal choice but this felt right for me. Around that time I read ‘Diet for a New America‘ by John Robbins which made me realize it was time to go for it and then a book called ‘Becoming Vegan‘ by Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis which educated me a lot on how to be vegan and what nutritional things to watch out for. Before that I really knew nothing about calories, protein, omega oils, calcium, iron and all that.
I finally felt comfortable enough to drop out everything non-vegan out of my diet within the span of a few months and I have never looked back since. It’s been eleven years now and I love being vegan more than ever.
So we know you’ve developed this great app called More than Salad. Could you tell us a bit about your background and what prompted you to start the app?
Although I went to music school, I have always been a hobbyist and sometimes professional computer programmer. I have also always been something of a night owl. When I first moved to New York City about 10 years ago, I would often want food late at night but there was no good way to figure out what was open late. Back then there was no Yelp and although HappyCow existed, there was no Google Maps yet and nothing that would filter by whether or not restaurants were open. I made a little program at home with a database of all my favorite restaurants that would allow me to check a box and show me what was open at that particular odd hour, often well after midnight.
That was the first version of More Than Salad. Over the following years I built it up into various website versions allowing ways of searching for vegan food and gradually becoming more full-featured. I didn’t initially intend to make it anything other than a hobby but it grew and grew and eventually I thought maybe I’d try to create a truly useful resource for others to use. Initially the site was more HappyCow-like but I decided in the last year or two that I really enjoy pictures of food and so do many people I know. I thought it might be nice to create a more picture-centric way of finding food, something that is entirely visual. So many times I see a picture of a vegan dish somewhere and I think wow, I’d love to eat that. Well, now I have an app where I can put all those pictures and see everyone else’s pictures nearest to wherever I happen to find myself hungry!
Who is the target audience of the More than Salad app?
More Than Salad is intended for anybody hungry and looking for vegetarian or vegan food. The restaurants included are not exclusively vegetarian or vegan since in many parts of the world especially outside big cities finding a completely vegetarian restaurant is just not possible. I just traveled in Greece and Turkey for a month and there are hardly any veg restaurants in those entire countries, but there are fantastic vegan dishes to be found all over the place if you know where to look. Each of us when traveling digs up those great meals and now you can put up a picture on More Than Salad and help others find them too.
I have posted all the pictures from my trip for instance on MTS so the next time somebody goes to Cappadoccia way out in eastern Turkey and opens up the app, they will see all kinds of bean stews and spinach-filled flatbreads and hummus and falafel without having to go wander and read hundreds of menus and ask tons of questions (Okay, they may still have to ask.) The more people contribute, the easier it is for everyone to find food. Even for people who are not strictly vegetarian or vegan, they can browse pictures and find delicious vegan and vegetarian food anywhere in the world now.
What makes this app different from other food & travel apps?
I have used just about every app out there. The main difference is when you use an app like HappyCow or Yelp or maybe TripAdvisor (depending where you are traveling) you are often looking at a list of restaurants near to you. The list will include the restaurant’s name, the type of cuisine, perhaps a star rating for the average review, and maybe a tiny thumbnail. You can sometimes click through to the restaurant’s page and then perhaps click through and browse through some images.
When you open up More Than Salad app, you just see pictures. You swipe through all the pictures of nearby food. There is a map view where you can see the thumbnails of those pictures spread out on the map exactly where that dish can be found in relation to you. That’s pretty much it. There is extra restaurant information if you want it but you are looking just at pictures of vegetarian and vegan dishes.
The other main difference is that I have done away with reviews. I often read angry reviews on websites like Yelp that give a restaurant a low rating because they didn’t like the service or the ambience or something about the dish they ate. Not every place is for everybody. In More Than Salad, for every picture you see, you can say if you ate it and liked it, if you didn’t like it, if it interests you, or if you’d like to try it. Based on how you rate a picture the app will become familiar with your taste and then over on the “Suggestions” tab you can find dishes geared specifically to your taste. This works by grouping you automatically with other people who like similar dishes.
I like lots of fried and crispy junk vegan food for instance. This isn’t for everybody. Some people like really healthy vegan food and never want anything fried. The more you rate pictures you see, the more the app learns your taste and recommends particular things geared for you. You don’t have to read through reviews anymore and decipher why somebody gave something one star or five stars or if that particular dish will suit your taste.
What was the hardest element of the app to develop?
Well, the hardest part is probably not technical. The hardest part is getting people to try it and use it and to upload pictures. As anyone who runs a site or created an app knows, that’s always the hardest part. The only technical challenge is trying to keep the app clean and simple and resist my urge to keep filling it up with more and more features and instead to make the existing app run as well as possible. That is and probably will always be an ongoing process but it is a challenge I enjoy.
Do you have any other apps or new features for the More than Salad app in the pipeline?
There are no other apps in the pipeline right now, although if the iPhone version continues to grow and gain users, I will create an Android version which has become a common request lately. I will also build a web version for mobile soon so that people can use a stripped down version on any mobile device. A web version would also be nice and I have prototypes of all that working but not quite ready for prime-time. As for new features, I have about a million ideas. Probably the most immediate will be to put in a news feed which is an obvious thing to add but I didn’t want to hold up releasing the app. I also have a magic vegan spider that works in the background keeping track of restaurant openings and closings that will help keep content up to date but that will only manifest for users as improved restaurant information and restaurant content.
We love to travel, so of course we are curious, what are a few of your favorite vegan restaurants from around the world?
Ah, so many restaurants, where do I begin? I’m very bad at picking favorites so I will try to just list a few.
In my hometown of NYC, I love Champs for vegan breakfast, NY Dosas who has received accolades but I feel is altogether under-appreciated by the vegan community, and of course Cinnamon Snail. Dun-well also makes fantastic doughnuts as everyone knows. Oh and Lula’s, I love Lula’s. I really used to love Viva Natural, the veg pizza place on Second Ave that closed very recently. I lived around the corner from there for a few years and ate there several times a week. They had some of the most inventive and tasty vegan pizza and were never really appreciated as much as they should’ve been. I heard they might reopen, so fingers crossed.
I finally visited Vedge in Philly and it’s amazing as expected. Also for fancy vegan food, Crossroads in LA is really impressive. Oh, Millennium in SF is consistently good for me too. Also on the west coast I love Doomie’s in LA and Wayward Cafe in Seattle. WaterCourse foods in Denver is fantastic especially for breakfast stuff which is my favorite. That was my first-ever vegan biscuits and gravy. In Eugene, Oregon I do enjoy the Cornbread Cafe very much.
I have had a lot of good vegan meals now in a lot of cities around the world, but I’d be hard pressed to think of something abroad that competes for my affection with the above restaurants. This is not a slight and I do think there is very good vegan food in a lot of Europe and in Asia as well but I could seriously list a hundred restaurants and I am trying to keep this of reasonable length.
This was the hardest question to answer by far!
When you travel somewhere new, what’s the first thing you typically do?
I like to settle in first. I typically arrange my accommodation in a city in advance. Some people like to wander around with their backpacks and see what they find and who they meet. I like to take the bus or train or whatever it is, walk if possible, but head to the hostel or Couchsurfer’s house (long-time Couchsurfer) and drop off all my things. When I walk around a city I like to have as little on me as possible so I can pretend I’m local. After that, it’s likely been a long ride to get there so it’s probably time to eat!
for More than Salad App
The compatibility requires iOS 6.0 or later with an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, and is optimized for iPhone 5. We are both currently using the iPhone 4. Installation was smooth and the “MTS” app icon stands out very well and is very easy to find. The log-in page requires signing-up or signing in with Twitter or Facebook. When logged in, the location pop-up message asked if they can locate you. The app reminds me of a smaller version of an Instagram network with a vegan/vegetarian niche. It is a great way to connect with other people on the app. Along with a search function to find other users, you can also connect with people through Facebook and twitter. Additionally, you can browse users under the ‘featured’ and ‘popular’ categories.
I typed in ‘Turin’ or ‘Torino’ which is where I am and it showed no results – the search engine has two search fields: everything and by location. They even list a few popular cities at the bottom where you can tap instantly and a checkbox for VEGAN only if you want to view vegan dishes or restaurants. The app will need a larger network in order to look for specific restaurants around the world.
The layout is very simple with lots of blue but some links and icons are a bit too small to tap on. I don’t like the fact that some parts require additional scrolling.
Uploading an image is easy, you just have to select “Vegetarian” or “Vegan”, write the caption, find the restaurant you’ve eaten at and then click submit. Camera features include onscreen gridlines, flash or reverse if you plan to take a selfie (see below). Some photo editing capabilities like Instagram would be a nice enhancement in the future. For now it looks like I’ll have to edit photos through IG or another photo editing app before I upload them.
The camera page is slightly cut off on the bottom of my screen (see above). I’m using my iPhone 4, this is probably because the app is optimized for the slightly larger iPhone 5 screen.
I think the ‘Ate’ and ‘Want’ buttons are useful features to have on this app but I’m not too sure about the ‘Nope’ button. I hate the idea of negativity being abused, perhaps that’s being pessimistic though. And while I like the bottom tab of buttons, I wish it was optional or retractable for those times when you’re browsing or searching and don’t want the distraction or obstruction. I would like it to appear if one hovers over the photos, just to give it a slightly cleaner appearance.
In “Sharing Settings” under my Account, there’s the ability to share on Facebook & Twitter, but not on Instagram (which I use a lot).
More Than Salad has a number of great features but a few that stand out to me are:
• It’s highly personalized, get suggestions from users who share your tastes, no more wading through reviews that aren’t relevant to you.
• You can save your favorites and keep a wish list of dishes you want to try.
• You can share your pictures, follow new people and invite your friends. find great vegan and vegetarian food anywhere you are in the world.
I would recommend this app to anyone who wants to find vegan and vegetarian restaurants whilst traveling and those who like to share vegan and vegetarian dishes. On top of everything else, it’s free to use and install. Even if there is some room for improvement (so is life), I can see great use for this app and a lot of potential. Hopefully they will also develop an Android version of this app in the near future as well!
About Dan Friedman
When not traveling he can be found working on More Than Salad and giving vegan dessert tours of New York City where he resides at least a few months of the year.