Tracy Lawrence is a hard-core foodie who lives to eat — and is proud of it.
But Lawrence, a senior majoring in business administration, doesn’t just want to feed herself. She wants to feed others too, which is why she and fellow student Maggy Wahba created The Dish Dash, an online dining guide catering specifically to USC students.
The inspiration sparked from a scenario that Lawrence faced year after year: Students from across the country and world come to USC, excited about the school, but are soon disappointed by the city.
“As an Angeleno, it broke my heart to see that,” Lawrence said. “The transition to L.A. is so difficult for freshmen. They want to understand and feel [like a] part of the city, but L.A. is complex and dynamic. You really need to immerse yourself in it, instead of just getting lost in the USC bubble.”
Many students also have misconceptions about Los Angeles, Lawrence said. They think that to have a good time, they must travel to places that are either far away or expensive.
But Lawrence has made it her mission to dispel that false notion. She wants to show students the city by drawing them out of USC’s red-bricked walls and onto the streets of Downtown, the largely overlooked district just 10 minutes away from campus.
“People think Downtown is this empty financial district that is either expensive or ghetto,” Lawrence said.
But Downtown Los Angeles is slowly transforming. Outdated and vacant office buildings are being renovated into lofts and luxury apartments. New residents are settling down and creating a community. Investors and business people are starting to take notice, and they are building shops and restaurants around the new houses.
While interning at dineLA, a program that is in charge of the dineLA Restaurant Week, Lawrence had the opportunity to talk to several restaurateurs who expressed their desire to reach out to students. At the same time, many of Lawrence’s friends were seeking her advice on dining out.
“Friends always told me that I should write a food blog,” Lawrence said. “I thought, ‘Well I like food, but how can I share it with people I know?’ Then I thought about USC students and what they need in terms of dining. ”
In a natural progression of ideas and events, The Dish Dash was born. With all the changes taking place in Downtown, The Dish Dash steps in to spread the word on the two main interests of all college students: discounts and good food.
To Lawrence, food is the bridge between students and Downtown Los Angeles. The concept is simple: Seek out quality restaurants in Downtown, work with them to provide a deal for students, bring students to the restaurant and turn it into a hot spot. A win-win situation.
Lawrence’s vision took root in February 2009, but only took off the following fall semester during an entrepreneurship class where she proposed her project to Wahba, a senior majoring in business administration and psychology.
Wahba jumped right on board. As a fellow foodie, she shared Lawrence’s enthusiasm for bringing a customized, diverse dining experience to USC students.
“It’s exciting to be part of The Dish Dash,” Wahba said. “As a business student and someone who is interested in entrepreneurship, this is just the perfect thing to be involved in. But the best thing is being able to make a difference for students who I interact with daily.”
Several others have climbed on board as well — all USC students whose common ground is a real enthusiasm for the university community. This passion is critical, because none of them, including Lawrence, are paid for their work. The initial investment money came out of their own pockets. Those involved say they do it for nothing but the pure pride and satisfaction of serving students through The Dish Dash.
“We are the prime explorers,” Lawrence said. “We call ourselves the ‘Downtown specialists.’ It’s our job to go to restaurants and try them out. If we like them, we invite them to The Dish Dash.”
Lawrence and her team look for two criteria before deciding to review a restaurant: reasonable prices and good quality.
“We only want the best of the best,” she said. “It’s our name on the line and we want restaurants that reflect us well.”
Because they are all still students, The Dish Dash team gets a leg up from other typical dining guides in that it understands student needs: what they want, where they can go, when they go and what their budget is. So far, responses from restaurants have been positive, Lawrence said. Most restaurants are looking for more business from students, and they know a primary way to lure them in is through discounts.
Another way The Dish Dash tries to foster a relationship between USC and Downtown Los Angeles is by offering a discounted catering service for student and faculty organizations.
“We want to get students out, but also bring a lot of great options to campus,” Wahba said. “We just want to extend options for both sides, and we want The Dish Dash to be the go-to source for feeding people good, reasonably priced food.”
Barely four weeks have passed since the launch on Aug. 15, and The Dish Dash’s website already has had 6,000 views and 280 subscribers — and the figures continue to grow. The Dish Dash has eight partner restaurants: Katsuya, Starry Kitchen, Urban Noodle, Señor Fish, ESPN Zone, Bacaro LA, Cole’s: Originator of the French Dip and Homegirl Café. More deals are in the works, and The Dish Dash is open to any student’s comments or suggestions.
“I want to make The Dish Dash national and rule the world,” Lawrence said laughing, before adding more seriously, “Wherever there is a student who’s hungry, we want to help them.”
But USC students should first help themselves, she said, by putting away their cell phones and stepping away from Facebook. In the end, she said, it’s really not about the food. The food is just a supplement to a social situation.
“Go out,” Lawrence said. “Go out to the restaurants, explore your city, see the culture, see the art and enjoy the food and social atmosphere.”