|Military Science (ROTC)
In 2001, Esaa Yamini was working at Blockbuster Video just a few blocks from the campus of the University of Notre Dame. Waiting on students and suggesting movies was all in a day’s work. There was, however, one group of students that piqued Yamini’s curiosity: the Army cadets in Notre Dame’s ROTC program.
“I was intrigued by their ribbons and what they meant,” he recalls. “When they came in, I’d ask them to explain their ribbons. Then I researched Notre Dame’s Military Science program and found out it was among the most prestigious in the country. A lot of the alumni had gone on to do great things, which impressed me.”
It also inspired him. Although his career goal was not to join the military, Yamini saw it as a way to leverage the training and discipline the military teaches to become an entrepreneur. Thus in 2002, he enrolled in Notre Dame’s Military Science program to ultimately commission into the United States Army Reserves as an intelligence officer. He simultaneously enrolled at Indiana University-South Bend to earn a degree in Psychology.
It was a long way from working at Blockbuster Video.
Yamini smiles at the memory and the new perspective his college years brought. “While at Notre Dame, I encountered people from all over the world, and gained an appreciation for diverse backgrounds—and Notre Dame football.”
Upon graduation, Yamini entered the Army Reserves and accepted a full-time position at Harding Security Associates as a data analyst. He explains how he was able to do both. “As a reservist, you go through the same training as active duty but only serve part-time once your training is complete. This equates to one weekend a month in uniform. It allows reservists to have full-time civilian jobs and lives while having one foot in the door as a soldier.”
Over the next 19 years, Yamini built his civilian and military careers as a data scientist and intelligence professional, leveraging big data tools to tell stories, make predictions, and condct assessments using machine learning and artificial intelligence. He is now a major in the Army Reserves and has added a new title: entrepreneur.
While living in Austin, Texas, Yamini founded a company. “I’d always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I just needed to find an idea to get behind. In 2018, I launched Gourmetmiles as a restaurant loyalty app to encourage repeat business. Each time a person patronized a Gourmetmiles restaurant, a dollar amount was shown at the bottom of their receipt. The customer scanned the receipt to upload their credit. When people opted in, restaurant owners gained customers’ names, emails, birthdates, and feedback on their experience.”
Gourmetmiles was mildly successful with about 3,000 users. But after two years, Yamini pulled it from the app stores to pivot and rebuild it as a diet monitoring app, a much larger opportunity as it would allow restaurants to satisfy a growing trend for transparency on the nutritional content of restaurant foods.
“While I was analyzing my restaurant users’ backend data, I could see exactly what menu items people were ordering. I thought if I could provide nutrition data, I would increase the value added for Gourmetmiles app users who struggle with nutritional awareness and health issues. Currently, there are no reliable solutions for customers who want to avoid allergic foods, harmful processed ingredients, questionable ingredients, food dyes, or have religious restrictions,” Yamini explains.
Providing more nutritional data would also solve the issue of transparency for restaurants, particularly those in the fast-food and quick-serve spaces like Chipotle, McDonalds and Taco Bell. These restaurants have suffered millions of dollars in losses due to stigmas about their menus and specifically, menu item ingredients. Perhaps surprisingly given the negative chatter on social media, all three of these restaurants plus others like Dunkin, Panera and Subway, have quality food offerings.
Yamini’s vision with Gourmetmiles was to go well beyond the FDA’s mandate for calorie labelling, which doesn’t provide enough information to be truly useful. The app places menu health, ingredients, and nutrition data at the person’s fingertip by allowing them to scan menu items before ordering and feel confident that what they order supports their health goals.
As he got deeper into the “new” Gourmetmiles offering, Yamini incorporated packaged foods and nutritional supplements, whose nutritional bar codes are easy to scan. He also added whole foods like fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, cheese, and other staples. Verified nutritional data on 76,000 foods is freely available through the USDA’s FoodData Central’s integrated data system. At this time, Gourmetmiles is the only diet awareness app that uses the USDA’s nutritional data. Other competing apps rely on consumers to enter their nutritional data.
The next challenge Yamini faced was helping consumers determine the serving size the data is based on. Serving size is a problem for most people. “Cereal boxes tell you the serving size is a half-cup or a cup. Do you know how much that is in a bowl? People typically pour until the bowl is full, which can be twice or three times the recommended serving. Apples are another example. They range widely in size and calories and nutritional content is different. We needed to solve the serving size problem,” he explains.
So he did. Yamini developed something no other diet app, including the most dominant app on the market with more than two hundred million registered users, MyFItnesssPal, does not have: an integrated food scale called a Macroscale. “It’s about the size of a drink coaster so it fits in a pocket or purse,” he explains. “There is no display screen. Instead it integrates with smart phones to weigh food and provide users wherever they are with comprehensive nutritional information based on actual weight.” Yamini currently holds one patent on his Macroscale with another two pending.
Like many app platforms, Gourmetmiles sells to two customers, restaurants and individual users. The value proposition to restaurant owners is by digitizing their menu with Gourmetmiles, they achieve full menu transparency as the company’s software provides precise nutrition, allergy, and health data for everything. This takes pressure off servers who are asked to provide this information and allows consumers to accurately track their nutrition intake. Yamini believes having access to this data will instill both confidence and loyalty among restaurant goers.
The value proposition to consumers is the ability to make diet awareness and preventive health easier, more accurate and trackable than ever before. “Gourmetmiles gives consumers a daily record they can track in real time of their nutrient intake, deficiencies and excesses. It allows people to scan menus and labels before food is ordered, purchased, and eaten and get precise information. It’s like having a nutritionist in your pocket,” Yamini says.
Additionally, the app creates a dietary record with daily, weekly, and monthly analysis of a person’s eating habits. And it
alerts the user when they have reached daily limits such as calories, carbohydrates or sugars. This information is invaluable for consumers with diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases where diet comes into play. Lastly, Gourmetmiles’ diet transcripts can be shared with healthcare providers to support preventive health and chronic disease management.
The new Gourmetmiles Macroscale will be available on Amazon by late January. The app will relaunch on Apple and Google Play in February if all goes to plan. Several major hospitality and restaurant point-of-sale platforms including Lightspeed and Toast are partnering with Yamini on the launch, a significant vote of confidence.
When Yamini first started Gourmetmiles, he took the traditional startup founder approach of seeking venture funding. After five years without any luck, he committed himself to bootstrapping the company on his own. He has even leaned into his military background by taking a lucrative 12-month data scientist assignment assisting the U.S. military in Kuwait, which pays significantly more than a stateside job and is non-taxable income. He pours all of his earnings into his company.
The biggest win is yet to be realized, but the data science knowledge and the grit his military training instilled in him have helped Yamini successfully fight through various startup battles. He himself seems in awe of the blockbuster potential of the Gourmetmiles app. “You will learn things about yourself you didn’t know,” he says. “We know what we put in our mouths, but we don’t really know the exact nutrition value or lack thereof. With Gourmetmiles we will.”
Asked what advice he’d offer others interested in starting a company, he offers this: “Persistence and belief in your idea will determine your success. If persistence and belief are there, you will dictate your own success.”