The story of how Lunch? came to be

March 20, 2012

When we were preparing to move from Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood down to the Loop, we knew there was one thing we were going to miss dearly: the abundance of quality restaurants to choose from for lunch every day. Following the advice of 37signals’ Jason Fried to “scratch your own itch”, we decided to build Lunch?, an online food truck tracker that would help us find mobile food vans near our new office, saving ourselves from insipid franchise fare and the lunch hour crowd. Plus, given the attention that this issue has garnered lately, we thought that this would be a way to support and bring awareness to the emerging food truck scene in Chicago.

The Why and How

So how exactly do we track these food trucks? Most of them have Twitter accounts, where they tweet their locations or stops for the day. If you’re a big fan of a particular one, it makes sense for you to follow it on Twitter. But what if, like us, you’re new to the food truck scene and are interested in keeping up with all 70 food trucks currently in operation in Chicago (see this Twitter list curated by Chicago Magazine)? Filtering through the banter in 70 truck Twitter feeds to find their locations, then identifying where they are, and then mentally processing whether they are close to you is a pretty serious barrier to finding some food, particularly when you are hungry!

Lucky for you, Lunch? filters through all of the tweets, identifies the ones with locations in them (using some quick-and-dirty regex magic), and puts the active food trucks on a map so that, at a glance, you can easily spot who’s nearby. Users can identify tasty treats either by clicking on food truck markers on the map or by clicking on their favorite truck in the sidebar to see where it is. Either way, you can read their most recent tweets to check if they’ve moved, or see what’s on the menu for the day. Little warning signs next to the trucks in the sidebar crop up if recent tweets cause us to suspect that the truck is sold out or moving to a new location.

As developers, Lunch? gave us a fun opportunity to build an app that combines live Twitter data with the Google Maps Geocoder, and to build the interface we used some fun new web development tools that we have been exploring, namely Backbone.js and the Google Maps Style Wizard. Backbone helps us display the same data in multiple ways to the user, and the Style Wizard helped us remove labels and add color to the Google map to make it more readable and unique.

Using the tracker

This app has already proven indispensable to Datascope - we can’t even count the number of times we’ve used it to hunt for lunch. We hope that this will be just as useful for many of you working in the Loop, who’ve been putting up with unimaginative, crowded lunch choices around town for way too long. In the spirit of getting a quick prototype out the door, we took a few liberties at the expense of making this a general purpose tool. Geo-codes are not 100% accurate. We may miss a tweet here or there. We focused on the Loop because, well, that’s where our office is. We didn’t worry about filtering by time or cuisine because we eat everything at lunchtime. We used regex to save time tweaking on machine learning fanciness.

Obviously, this is a work in progress and, depending on public interest and usage, we would love to add some of these features in the future. Drop us a line if you like what you see or if you have some feature suggestions. This is turning into a yummy side-project and we appreciate the input!

contributors to this post

headshot of Suet Yi Lee
headshot of Brian Lange
headshot of Dean Malmgren