With so many restaurants opening in Qatar each year, residents sometimes find it hard to figure out which ones are worth trying, especially when they’re not at home in front of a computer.
Qatar residents Mohammed Al-Rumaihi and Nasser Al-Saadi said the “where do you want to eat?” debate happened so frequently while they were on the move, often in a vehicle, that they decided to launch an app to help them come up with an answer.
There are plenty of restaurant reviews sites in Qatar and elsewhere, but it’s often difficult to tell if the information is still current – especially on sites built for desktop platforms that can be difficult to read on the small screen of a mobile device and don’t effectively sort eateries by location.
Al-Rumaihi and Al-Saadi, both in their early 30s, said they saw an opportunity in the market to build a smartphone app that takes advantage of the device’s GPS to tell users about the best restaurants in their current vicinity.
Together with a third business partner, they soft-launched Howlak – which means “around you” in Arabic – for Apple devices in June.
The app is currently being downloaded “hundreds” of times a week and has some 1,500 restaurants in and around Doha in its database, ranging from juice stalls to hotel eateries, as well as another 7,000 places in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
Users who have the app can select nearby restaurants to see whether they are “good” or “bad”, as well as view contact details, opening hours and the type of cuisine.
In addition to rating eateries, diners are encouraged to leave brief opinions – typically equivalent in size to the headline on other review sites – such as, “the best shawarma in Doha” that other users can agree or disagree with through their votes.
“If you go a restaurant and a friends asks how it is, you don’t give details. You just say what people care about – thumbs up or thumbs down,” Al-Saadi told Doha News.
While Howlak doesn’t charge individual users for its services, the technology has potential to tap into the rapidly growing location-based advertising market, which tech firm Cisco estimated was worth $4.5 billion in 2014.
Because the app knows a user’s location, restaurants and retailers in the immediate vicinity can send marketing messages to prospective customers that are closeby.
In the past, advertisers in other countries have used this technology in various ways. For example, casual dining chain Outback Steakhouse has sent ads to people when they were close to one of the company’s restaurants, as well as in the vicinity of competitors.
Stores are also using location-based apps to encourage consumers who are already on their premises to make specific purchases.
A campaign designed to help launch American Craft sausages in US grocery stores sent out ads promoting the product to shoppers inside certain grocery stores.
In both cases, the ads are delivered via apps that the prospective customer already has on their phone, such as the recipe planner Epicurious in the case of the American Craft sausage campaign.
While some consumers have reported that they appreciate receiving more relevant advertising offers, others say it feels like an intrusion or a breach of privacy for advertisers to know where they are.
The co-founders of Howlak said they plan to keep such concerns in mind by, for example, not storing any data about their users’ locations, as they explore different revenue models.
The app does not currently support location-based advertising but “is on the company’s roadmap” as it expands.
In addition to highlighting special promotions and offers, management sees business opportunities for running customer satisfaction surveys and native advertising, such as pop-up articles on where to dine in Qatar.
Earlier this week, Howlak entered the Qatar Business Incubation Center (QBIC), which helps early stage tech companies grow through mentoring, networking events and other support services.
In addition to expanding into new markets and developing an Android version of the app, Howlak is considering adding more features, such as displaying a restaurant’s menu.
The company has also been selected to participate in next month’s Alpha Web Summit in Dublin, where they hope to gain more exposure and feedback from veteran tech entrepreneurs, as well as meet investors in case they choose to look for outside funding in the future.
With Qatar’s digital advertising market still in its infancy, Al-Saadi said the company is well-positioned to attract a large number of users as one of the first companies to rely on location-based mobile technology.
“There are so many copycat websites and apps. We’ve taken a very original approach that’s completely new,” Al-Saadi said. “It doesn’t happen as much these days.”