Crityk's main goal is to be a marketing asset to restaurants. Getty Images

One night, Sumit Sikka was on a quest to find the best Moscow Mule in Santa Monica. He couldn't find anything helpful online, and when he finally did get a good recommendation, he was already done for the night.

It was through this experience that Sikka knew he wanted to make a restaurant finder app, but he wanted to do something different from Yelp or Google Reviews. On those platforms, a restaurant can get crushed by a bad review that provides false information. So, when he started getting the ball rolling on Crityk, he realized he needed to give the restaurants a voice.

"That was kind of the first big pivot," Sikka says. "First, we had an app based on user content. Then we pivoted to have content curated by the restaurant. For the first time ever, the restaurant gets to create their own profile."

The app launched on November 18 and has over 700 restaurant profiles live. There are 250 here in Houston, and 25 are clients, meaning they pay Crityk and have exclusive marketing opportunities, like promoting events — something most restaurants struggle to engage customers with.

"Restaurants do so much marketing, but they do the majority of it inside the restaurant," Sikka says. "Who's not going into your restaurant and not seeing that?"

Crityk users can log into the app and find different restaurant events around town to attend. Users can upload images of food from different restaurants. They rate the specific menu item, rather than the restaurant as a whole. Then, restaurants can link that photo to the specific menu item. Instead of comments on the picture, users can engage with hashtags. Any comments a user might have would go directly to the establishment to be resolved.

Another priority for Crityk is to have photos of every menu item the restaurant offers as well as complete dietary information. It's becoming more and more important for diners to know about vegan, gluten-free, etc. options before getting to the restaurant only to be disappointed with the selection.

Investing in Houston
While the idea came about in California, Sikka, who has a sister who lives in The Woodlands, took a trip to Houston to feel out consumer interest in the app. He hosted an event with a local restaurant and some influencers. The app kind of just exploded in town, Sikka says.

"I packed up some of my bags and decided to try here in Houston," Sikka says." It's a lot easier to get to decision makers here in Houston than in LA."

The development team is still based in India, and Crityk's co-founder, John Kegel, is still based in California. However, Sikka works out of Station Houston, something he says has been an extremely valuable. He says he's made some valuable connections through both Station and the Texas Restaurant Association.

"I think Houston is a phenomenal city to get started in. It's a big city, but it has the feeling of a small city."

Second course?
Still under two months old, the app has a lot of improvements and expansions in the works. Sikka says he wants to double the number of restaurant profiles to 500 by summer. He'd also like to grow the number of paying clients on the site, which would include more restaurants with a full photo menu on the app for users to browse.

Made for foodies

Screenshot via the Crityk app

Crityk is a free smartphone app that connects users to other users and to restaurants directly.

Vinegar Hill will be divided into a restaurant and a bar. Courtesy of Vinegar Hill

Former restaurant reemerges as showcase for up-and-coming Houston chefs

Chef incubator

A new concept aims to give chefs on the rise a space to get their feet wet. Vinegar Hill Houston will serve three distinct roles when it opens in November: A co-working space by day, a bar by night, and an incubator for the next generation of culinary talent by design.

Axelrad owner Adam Brackman and chef Monica Pope have taken over the original location of Beaver's and are turning it into the new concept. Vinegar Hill's name is taken from a nickname for the area now known as the Old Sixth Ward. The co-working aspect will provide people who have been working at coffee shops with a more comfortable environment that better suits their needs. Design changes to the space will separate the restaurant from the bar. General manager Shawn Busch will work with the space's bar manager to maintain Beaver's reputation for innovative cocktails, but it's the incubator that's the most intriguing aspect.

Described as a chefs-in-residency program, the incubator will provide chefs with the opportunity to refine their concepts before committing to a brick and mortar. Pope will offer participants mentorship based on her experience operating restaurants such as t'afia and Sparrow Bar + Cookshop.

"I'm passionate about working with entrepreneurs," Brackman tells CultureMap. "At Axelrad we have regular pop-ups. It's been neat to see these entrepreneurs go from ideas to buying food trucks, seeing these people grow and flourish. It's kind of the next step in that process."

Chefs will create two menus during this residency. The first is a dinner menu for a 30-seat area within the space that will require reservations. In addition, the chef will offer a menu of casual bar bites designed to be served in the bar area and on the patio. Residencies will typically last for three months, but Brackman also sees the potential for chefs from out of town to use Vinegar Hill for a week or two as a way to market themselves to Houstonians prior to opening here.

At a time when chefs might be considering a stand in one of Houston's new food halls, Brackman sees the setup at Vinegar Hill as an alternative for the person who wants a less permanent arrangement.

"This will be more of their own private restaurant within a bar that will give them a full kitchen to work with and be creative with their own menu and have more of a captive audience," he says. "They can do things like have wine and beer pairings. It's going to be more intimate than a food hall experience."

Evelyn Garcia, a one-time Chopped champion who has earned a devoted following for her Southeast Asian-inspired pop-ups, will take the first turn in Vinegar Hill's kitchen. "The opportunity to take my craft from a tent and portable stoves into a full kitchen and dining room to showcase what I am capable of is a thrilling opportunity," said Garcia in a statement.

"We would like to seek out the next person. We have a couple in mind," Brackman says. "The perfect candidate is someone who wants their next move to be opening a brick and mortar. We want to help them through a bit of mentorship and even crowd funding."

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Comcast donates tech, funds to support diversity-focused nonprofit

gift of tech

A Houston organization focused on helping low-income communities by providing access to education, training, and employment has received a new donation.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program announced the a donation of a $30,000 financial grant and 1,000 laptops to SERJobs. The gift is part of a new partnership with SERJobs that's aimed at educating and equipping adults with technical skills, including training on Microsoft Office and professional development.

“SERJobs is excited to celebrate 10 years of Comcast's Internet Essentials program,” says Sheroo Mukhtiar, CEO, SERJobs, in a news release. “The Workforce Development Rally highlights the importance of digital literacy in our increasingly virtual world—especially as technology and the needs of our economy evolve. We are grateful to Comcast for their ongoing partnership and support of SERJobs’ and our members.”

For 10 years Comcast's Internet Essentials program has connected more than 10 million people to the Internet at home — most for the first time. This particular donation is a part of Project UP, Comcast’s comprehensive initiative to advance digital equity.

“Ten years is a remarkable milestone, signifying an extraordinary amount of work and collaboration with our incredible community partners across Houston,” says Toni Beck, vice president of external affairs at Comcast Houston, in the release.

“Together, we have connected hundreds of thousands of people to the power of the Internet at home, and to the endless opportunity, education, growth, and discovery it provides," she continues. "Our work is not done, and we are excited to partner with SERJobs to ensure the next generation of leaders in Houston are equipped with the technical training they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.”

It's not the first time the tech company has supported Houston's low-income families. This summer, Comcast's Internet Essentials program and Region 4 Education Service Center partnered with the Texas Education Agency's Connect Texas Program to make sure Texas students have access to internet services.

Additionally, Comcast set up an internet voucher program with the City of Houston last December, and earlier this year, the company announced 50 Houston-area community centers will have free Wi-Fi connections for three years. Earlier this year, the company also dedicated $1 million to small businesses struggling due to the pandemic that are owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

President Joe Biden appoints Houston green space guru to lofty national post

new gig

Aprominent and nationally acclaimed Houston parks presence has just received a hefty national appointment. President Joe Biden has named Beth White, Houston Parks Board president and CEO, the chair of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the organization announced.

The NCPC, established by Congress in 1924, is the federal government’s central planning agency for the National Capital Region. The commission provides overall guidance related to federal land and buildings in the region. Functions include reviewing the design of federal and local projects, overseeing long-range planning for future development, and monitoring capital investment by federal agencies.

Fittingly, White was initially appointed to NCPC as the at-large presidential commissioner in January 2012, per a press release. She was reappointed for another six-year term in 2016. Most recently, White served as the commission’s vice-chair.

“I’m honored to chair the National Capital Planning Commission and work with my fellow commissioners to build and sustain a livable, resilient capital region and advance the Biden Administration’s critical priorities around sustainability, equity, and innovation,” White said in a statement.

Before joining Houston Parks Board in 2016, White served as the director of the Chicago Region Office of The Trust for Public Land, where she spearheaded development of The 606 public park and was instrumental in establishing Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge.

Renowned in the Windy City, she also was managing director of communications and policy for the Chicago Housing Authority; chief of staff for the Chicago Transit Authority’s Chicago Transit Board; and assistant commissioner for the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. She was the founding executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, and currently serves on the Advisory Board for Urban Land Institute Houston.

The graduate of Northwestern and Loyola universities most recently received the Houston Business Journal’s 2021 Most Admired CEO award, per her bio.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.