Former Yahoo! Food editor Maggie Nemser launched BlackboardEats on September 24. On the free newsletter, she and her team pair reviews with ticking-clock discounts at L.A. restaurants. Nemser recently sat down at Susina Bakery to discuss her vision and approach.
How did BlackboardEats come about?
When I was the editor at Yahoo! Food, my inbox was flooded daily with all these fantastic press releases from great restaurants that were featuring all these really engaging, well-crafted specials, but my hands were tied because like other media outlets, you can’t really devote an entire piece of editorial to one local restaurant’s special. I determined that there was this huge sort of thing that was missing out there in this very oversaturated space, which is highly curated, highly crafted one-stop shop for specials. I did a lot of research and determined there really wasn’t anything like that. There were definitely great, great pubs out there doing that as sort of a side note or one piece of their overall puzzle, but I wanted to make this the main core product. That was motivation. That was where the seed was planted.
And actually getting it off the ground, what did that involve?
Taking a huge risk and leaving a nice paying job at Yahoo! to try to pursue a dream and see. A lot of people thought it was a big risk and questioned what I was doing and my sanity, but they came around and really supported me. Just the support of great people, a great team I put together, a lot of hard work. We did this quickly, so finding the right the designer, building a brand identity, coming up with great writers, choosing the restaurants. We spent the whole summer, head down, trying to pull this thing together.
Why the name BlackboardEats?
I have to credit my boyfriend. I wanted to call it Today’s Special or Daily Special, but I thought that didn’t really have a lot of personality, and I maybe wanted to call it the Chalkboard, but of course that would be an impossible domain to secure. My boyfriend said, “What about Blackboard?” I said, “Let’s check it out, is it available?” So we jumped on the computer and of course it was taken by some educational site. So I said, “What about BlackboardEats?” Let people know what it is. He said, “Do it.” So I think he is fully to credit for that.
What are the benchmarks for success? How do you know if you accomplished what you set out to do?
Well, that question has a lot of different answers. I already feel that just because I launched this thing, it’s up, people are responding and enjoying it, I feel like I’ve already succeeded, even if it doesn’t go beyond that. As far as how I’d like to see it play out, our plan is to be in New York in the beginning of 2010 if not a little earlier, along with a bunch of other great cities, and really take this thing to a lot of different people. There’s a lot of value, obviously. Everybody likes a good deal, and having someone do the dirty work to come up with an even better deal than what’s out there, is always going to be in demand.
We have a lot of different business models and a lot of different ways that we plan stuff to monetize this. I’d like to not ever charge the user and not ever charge the restaurant. We got the right partner involved, so I think that we could be happy keeping this kind of a hush hush secret that only so many active diners know about, and/or having this become a huge thing and then scaling accordingly. Turning into daily or having many specials in one day. We’re going to groom as our subscription base grows.
Why a newsletter as opposed to just having a website?
#1, we wanted people to know when there was a special. Otherwise they’d have to keep checking the website. That’s pretty much the main reason. #2, eventually we will need to get paid for this, somehow, so we wanted to give advertisers an extra space to play. Just like every other newsletter, we think the same way.
What’s the criteria for selecting restaurants?
We have a great group of food lovers and editors…We always try to place food first and ambiance second and décor third, but sometimes there’s a place that’s just so special, and the ambiance is amazing that we choose a different place. The food may be okay, but it’s worth it for the whole experience. In times like that we’ll offer a special. We’re not going to lie to our users and say, you’re about to have the best meal of your life, but we try to always speak positively about the restaurant because we go to the restaurant to choose them. They don’t come to us, and if they do come to us, we’ll check them out first to determine whether to feature them. Because we go to them, we want to try to celebrate them and be positive, so we’re not trying to be snobby…It’s really about celebrating all the great things that they have to offer.
Why wouldn’t you feature a restaurant?
We wouldn’t feature a restaurant if we determined that the experience and the food wouldn’t be something that’s well received by our audience.
Getting back to the criteria, what are the standards? Are there set standards for choosing a restaurant?
I think that our group is really great…We get together and toss it around and talk about the restaurants and what special would work best for the restaurant and for our subscribers. And all the features are to get a balance and have a really nice robust offering from high price points to low price points, different cuisines, different locations. We try to make sure that we have a varied experience.
But you get the final decision with restaurants?
Why did you decide to start in Los Angeles?
A, I’m here, and I love it here. It’s definitely a place where people know there’s great ethnic eats. There’s varied cuisine and wonderful restaurants here but sometimes it gets overshadowed by New York and San Francisco. It was just a great place to try it out. Being here, number one. Number two, I felt like it would be well received.
Getting back to ethnic eats, are you planning to feature many ethnic restaurants?
Yeah. We plan to have a really nice variation. There are going to be a few consecutive weeks where there will be a lot of high end restaurants. Sometimes there will be a nice balance, where we have The Oinkster, then you have Yongsusan. Though we’re not signed with them yet, I think it’s an incredible restaurant. Just a really nice offering that’s varied…We’re trying to really think about, here’s the list of our restaurants, which ones do we think we should go out of the gate with first? What do think people will really respond to? Then start to bubble up gems people may not have heard about, once people get to know us and understand our vibe.
And you consider them reviews, the write-ups?
What would you consider them?
I wouldn’t call it a review because it’s not exactly critical. Maybe an overview.
I consider it a review of the restaurant. I do. I think it might be a different kind of review than you’re thinking of. I don’t think we’re giving just a glowing review and not acknowledging some of the less attractive elements of the restaurant. We’re being honest about what our experience is.
I noticed that you got pretty in-depth today, for example, about atmosphere, on that level, and then you just list dishes? Why not describe dishes?
We wanted to give people a really bite-sized, snacky read. There are so many great writers that are really going into depth…if they want to learn more, they have so many more places to go…We’re trying to give a flavor of what the restaurant is like, the dishes you should try, and then give you a great special.
You’re not alone in doing this, but I noticed that the writer’s name doesn’t appear. Why is that?
Because we want it to be from the brand of BlackboardEats. We want people to understand that we have a voice. As we grow that may change, but for now that’s the direction that we decided to go.
What are some restaurants that you eat at on a regular basis?
It depends on what for. For sushi, I love Irori, it’s my favorite. It’s in the Marina, and it’s my favorite for a lot of reasons, from Yuki and Koko and Sarah Kim, who I love. Sara Kim’s the owner and she’s really just a radical woman. To the taking off your shoes experience, and the way that it departs from your typical strip mall ambiance. And their Japanese albacore makes me cry. So that I love. I go there a lot.
Petros, although the ambiance is a little bit Manhattan Beachy, it’s got some of the most fantastic Greek food that I’ve had in Los Angeles. I love their octopus and the calamari special, which is always on their menu. I’m like why don’t you just put it on? It’s always there. I love that. I love their gyro pizza. Just their bread basket, I go straight to that. They put it on the table and my head basically goes inside of it.