Fondu builds a mobile social network for bite-sized places reviews

Is there room for another app for finding places? That’s a question Fondu, a New York startup is trying to find out. The app, which launches Tuesday on iOS, (s aapl) is a purpose-built mobile social network designed specifically for discovering places through friends. It mixes some of Yelp’s structure with Foursquare’s tips and Twitter’s short messages.

Fondu traces its roots back to another app called SpotOn, a location recommendation service that debuted in the spring. But instead of providing recommendations based on a user’s ratings of places, Fondu is trying to build a tool that allows users to follow friends and experts and get ideas on restaurants that are personal to them.

“We know that people have opinions about food and many feel they have good taste but they don’t feel compelled to share on Yelp because it seems like a lot of work and they’re not telling their friends, they’re contributing to the larger community. We want to be a platform to make bite-sized reviews and unlock people’s inner food critic,” said CEO and Co-Founder Gauri Manglik.

Making place-discovery social

Users who log-in are able to follow friends from Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or their address book, or they can follow other users on Fondu who put out reviews they like. Users can start by reviewing past places pulled in from their Foursquare history. Reviews are limited to 175 characters to encourage quick sharing. They can also rate a place with up to four flower petals, something brought over from SpotOn. Fondu organizes activity into a Feed, which allows users to see recent activity from people they follow and nearby activity. There’s also a Popular tab for discovering things that have received a lot of “cheers,” Fondu’s equivalent of “likes.” And there’s a News tab that alerts users when friends post a review or other people follow them.

As I mentioned earlier, there are features that compete against other existing services. Yelp is a big directory of place reviews that has added social features for following others. Foursquare has tips that are quick suggestions about what to get or do at a place. Foodspotting is also a popular place for sharing dishes and places with people. And Twitter has a similar short-message style and follow system.

But Fondu is still appealing, I think, because it’s designed from the ground up to be a very social and light way to discover places from people that matter to you. Yelp often has a lot of long-winded reviews along with short quick tips, but the place is more of a large resource for finding places and less about following individual users whose tastes align with yours. Foursquare’s tips are helpful, but the service isn’t built around that function. Fondu is more of a Twitter-style network designed to surface quick tips and short reviews of places. That makes some sense to me, because on mobile, I don’t have much time, and I just want to get to pithy reviews about what makes a place good.

Recommendation business didn’t work

Manglik came up with the idea of SpotOn last year while studying computer science at NYU. She originally wanted to bring the recommendation experience of Netflix (s nflx) to places. But she found SpotOn users weren’t as motivated to rate places to get recommendations, something Bizzy also realized the hard way. But people did respond to the idea of sharing directly with friends. She said Fondu is really set up to make that process easy and frictionless while encouraging the kind of personal and casual communication that comes through on Twitter.

Fondu faces plenty of competition, not just from the previously mentioned apps. Newcomers such as Stamped, Oink and Wiket have all recently launched offerings to help users get recommendations or ratings about things from people. Fondu will face an uphill battle in gaining adoption with many people who are already used to turning to Yelp or other existing services for places reviews. The iOS app is available Tuesday, and the web version will come next followed by an Android (s goog) app soon.

I’d like to think there’s room for Fondu, which I’ve been playing with for the last couple of days. I love perusing tips on Foursquare, looking for that one dish I shouldn’t miss on the menu. That to me is a real value, because it cuts to the heart of what makes a place great and serves it up in a short note. I wish Fondu made it a little easier to see all my friends immediately from the home screen, something Manglik said she’s working on. But overall, I like Fondu from what I’ve seen. A lot of its success will depend on building up a real network and community, and that will take some work. But I think there’s a place for it in this crowded market for reviews and ratings apps.