We have all heard that “necessity is the mother of invention” and in the case of Shandee Chernow, creating her company CertiStar, was indeed a necessity.
Shandee has food allergies and if she consumes certain foods, she can have a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.
According to the Food Allergy Research & Education website, “up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.9 million children under age 18. That’s 1 in 13 children, or roughly two in every classroom. Every three minutes, a food allergy sends someone to the emergency room.”
“I was selling software and going out to lunch and dinner with customers all the time,” says Shandee. “It was one of the only times that food allergy people aren’t the ones to pick the restaurant. I got tired of trying not to die.” Explaining the severity of her food allergies became an uncomfortable conversation to have with a new client.
Then one day she had her “aha” moment. “It struck me that the set of information that includes recipes, cooking information about those recipes, and the foods that are in them – and my allergies – it’s really just a big data science problem,” says Shandee.
“I took my background in computer science and stuck it on top of the restaurant industry food allergy problem – and voila – now we have the software,” she jokes.
CertiStar’s MenuStar software is available for both schools and restaurants as a subscription-based service. Any restaurant or school can be a subscriber of CertiStar and the company makes it easy by handling everything from the data entry to hosting.
In New York, Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy Charter Schools use the MenuStar for Schools software. “We have the same set of kids with the same set of allergies all the time, and the food changes. We built the software to accommodate that,” says Shandee.
Parents fill out a form with their child’s allergens, and that information will be entered in a database that also contains the recipes and ingredients of the food being served. When a child approaches the lunch counter and enters their name, the program will determine if the child can eat what is on the menu or if they will need an alternate meal.
On the cafeteria’s side, the chefs will know ahead of time how many children have allergies so that they can prepare enough alternate meals. Everyone, even the teachers, at Harlem Children’s receive free lunch so the kitchen staff knows that each student will be eating a prepared meal from the cafeteria.
Since CertiStar just launched in March 2018, and MenuStar for Schools launched at the beginning of August 2018, Shandee missed the time frame for many schools to implement the software but is working on signing up schools for the 2019-2020 school year.
Currently Chompie’s Restaurant, Deli and Bakery is the first restaurant in the Valley to use the MenuStar for Restaurants software. “They have two iPads at every location and it’s on every manager’s phone,” says Shandee.
When a person with allergies dines at Chompie’s, they can request the iPad. They can touch the CertiStar icon and be prompted to enter their specific food allergies. Once they hit “search” the entire menu will appear in green, yellow or red.
Any menu option under green is allergen-friendly, yellow is OK to consume as long as the modifications listed are made and everything in red is unsafe.
“It just takes so much stress off the restaurant,” says Shandee. “Just think of the process that they have to go through to feed someone with a complicated diet.”
CertiStar’s database of ingredients is enormous. “We work with the USDA database – which started at more than 260,000 food items,” she says. “Any time we encounter one that’s not in that database, we add it to our own proprietary database.” Their goal is to make sure that the data available is as accurate as possible.
CertiStar is currently in four states and is expanding rapidly. Shandee is also hoping to develop a consumer app in the future. For more information, visit certistar.com.