Yelp expands restaurant health ratings with help from Seattle startup

Yelp’s interface displays restaurant health data collected by Hazel Analytics. (Yelp image)

The news: Hazel Analytics, a Seattle startup, expanded its partnership with Yelp, which provides health inspection data pinned to restaurant reviews. The service is now available in regions of 48 states, up from four states previously. The data is being collected from health departments serving nearly 70% of the U.S. population, as well as Toronto and Vancouver, BC, according to a statement released Thursday by Yelp announcing the new rollout.

The data: Hazel Analytics collects public data from thousands of health departments and converts it into a standardized, easy-to-use format. Yelp users will see a health rating provided by health authorities or, if not available, a rating generated by Hazel based on restaurant inspection data.

The People: Hazel has four founders who started the company in 2014: University of Maryland professor Ben Bederson, a computer scientist; University of Maryland professor and economist Ginger Jin; Phillip Leslie, Amazon chief economist and former economics professor at UCLA; and Arash Nasibi, who previously served as a business consultant and CEO. The idea for the company came from research by Jin and Leslie that found that publicly published reviews of restaurants reduced foodborne illness.

Hazel Analytics CEO Arash Nasibi. (Hazel Analytics photo)

Early days: The startup received funding from the University of Maryland and the State of Maryland to assemble an early team and launch its beta product in 2015. The company now has 20 employees and has been profitable since 2018, Nasibi said.

Customers: The company’s core product is Food Safety Insights software sold to restaurant chains. Hazel provides dashboards with inspection information along with data such as comparisons to other restaurants. Chick-Fil-A and Jack in the Box were among the first customers and more than 200 major brands have already signed up. “Slow, steady growth is the name of our game,” said Nasib.

The Partnership: Yelp previously partnered with other vendors for its inspection data, and last May brought in Hazel, which is now the sole provider of health data. The partnership will enable Hazel to move from serving restaurants to providing data directly to consumers. “We can rely on the reputation and trustworthiness of a partner like Yelp to provide that information, so we don’t have to do it directly,” says Nasibi. King County in Seattle does not yet offer health ratings on Yelp.

Public data, private service: Information about restaurant inspections should ideally be readily available through public interfaces, said Sarah Schacht, who consulted previous Yelp partners and worked to standardize such data. The US government is interested in facilitating standardization, but the data remains fragmented. “Ultimately, it’s a net good for consumers to be able to see restaurant inspections everywhere,” said Schacht, who advocated for the current health assessment system in King County. Nasibi hopes the new rollout will encourage health departments, consumers and restaurants to “work together a little more”.

The rankings: About half of health departments don’t issue public ratings after restaurant inspections, and this is illegal in some jurisdictions, largely because of restaurant industry lobbying, Schacht said. “It is a controversial tactic in the public health world to create scores for jurisdictions that are not allowed to have scores,” she said. Nasibi said his company has developed a “scientifically based” understanding of the scoring methodology used by health departments, which it applies to inspection data from departments that do not produce assessments.

What next: Schacht notes that providing data to restaurant chains can give them a market advantage over independent companies. But Hazel’s next project could help level the playing field — the company wants to roll out its insights platform to individual restaurants. Starting Thursday, potential customers can sign up on the website to receive information about future product availability. Nasibi is also interested in helping health departments digitize and standardize their data. Meanwhile, he said the company “serves as the digital information bridge between that old way of doing things and the more modern, digitized real-time big data approach.”

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