By: John Pletz, Crain’s Chicago

“I’d go for the breakfast dog,” Justin Massa says.

Even though it’s noon, breakfast is still on the menu at Little Goat,Stephanie Izard’s restaurant in the far West Loop, where the specials are a dog wrapped in a pancake and topped with a fried egg, and the Bull’s eye french toast, which also is topped with an egg and fried chicken bits.

“I have to admit I’ve eaten both,” he says of the breakfast dog and French Toast, and a number of other items on the menu.

It’s something of an occupational hazard: Mr. Massa is CEO of Food Genius, a big-data startup specializing in figuring out what’s on the menu at restaurants. But he’s also a New Orleans native, which makes him a foodie by birth. “In my defense, my daughter likes to wake up early, and they’re open early,” he says.

I take his advice and go with the breakfast dog (it’s not often available).

Mr. Massa’s menu knowledge isn’t limited to Little Goat. Food Genius has menu and pricing data on more than 55 million food items from more than 80,000 menus at more than 350,000 restaurants locations nationwide, which it sells to food manufacturers and distributors, including Chicago-based Reinhart Foodservice, as well as restaurants, grocery stores and anyone else in the food business.

It’s been a whirlwind year for Mr. Massa and Food Genius, which launched in 2011 but didn’t start selling its data in earnest until last January. The company raised another $1 million last fall, led by Hyde Park Venture Partners and including Pritzker Group Venture and Chicago Ventures. Staff has nearly doubled to 12 people.

Food Genius recently moved to new digs at 1144 W. Fulton St.,not far from where Google will be moving into new headquarters. Mr. Massa’s company got its start at 1871 and was part of the second class at TechStars Chicago, then called Excelerate Labs.

“We’ve proved out that nearly all segments (of the food business) are willing to pay for this data,” the 35-year-old founder says, but declines to say exactly how much revenue he took in last year. “We figured out how to sell to them. (The product) is starting to get sticky.”

Food Genius partners with Chicago-based GrubHub to come up with menu data, then uses its own algorithms to slice and dice the information, allowing suppliers to see and predict what’s most in demand and helping restaurants figure out what their competitors are doing. Customers pay for Food Genius data on yearly subscriptions that range in price from $12,000 to about $50,000, with a top tier of more than $75,000.

“We still have more work to do, but it’s getting interesting,” Mr. Massa says.

He admits he was terrified a year ago when he began selling its product. A pitch that worked for investors fell flat with customers. But he hired Mary Shea, a veteran sales executive from Chicago software startup InContext Solutions, who helped get the ball rolling on building a more sophisticated sales operation.

A big part of the new investment, which brings Food Genius’ total to $2.4 million, will go to sales, focusing on things such as actively managing existing accounts to mine them more effectively, and building technology that can automate some parts of selling.

“We want to be the one source of data about everything you eat or drink,” says Mr. Massa, who worked for Metro Chicago Information Center, a now-defunct data think tank, before starting his own company. “We’ve already built the technology for restaurants, which is the biggest, messiest part. There are 50 million data points for restaurants. There are 1 million grocery-store skus (products).”

One of the reasons he’s so bullish is this: 25 percent of our food budgets in the 1960s were spent in restaurants. Now it’s half, he tells me.

Another reason is that big data, which already has transformed industries such as books and entertainment, is taking over the food business, a laggard. “There are a lot of chains that have never really looked at hard data, Mr. Massa explains. “They’ve relied primarily on surveys.”

The challenge isn’t the data, he says. “I can solve the data-science problem more easily than finding someone to buy it.”

Follow John on Twitter at @JohnPletz.

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