Thursday June 12, 2008
Food, glorious local food
By OON YEOH
Whether or not one agrees with the postings by its team of bloggers, FoodStreet is worth consulting when looking for something special or just for a change of taste.
All of us have heard of JobStreet, a job search engine. But what about FoodStreet, which helps you find – what else? – food!
It’s not so surprising if you haven’t heard of it because it’s not been around for that long. In fact, it’s less than a year old, having been launched only last October by techie-food enthusiast Aidan Lee.
FoodStreet started life as a niche search engine for restaurants rather than a content and directory site for restaurants.
Inspired by Google, it had a minimalist homepage allowing for both general and specialised search.
The former could be simply a search for restaurants in Kuala Lumpur.
The latter allows you to narrow down your query considerably. For example, to look for fusion cafes in the Mont’ Kiara area which opens for lunch or to find chicken tandoori outlets with prices ranging from RM2 to RM10 in the SS2, Petaling Jaya, area.
Yes, it gets that specific.
“There was nothing like that available online so we thought it would be an interesting proposition,” says Lee, who wanted the search to be so specialised that it could even allow you to look up specific menu items.
That required keying in individual menu items into the database. “It was quite a nightmare entering the name, description, price and photo for each and every dish of each restaurant’s menu,” Lee recalls. “We worked day and night on this.”
They were so ambitious they even included Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters where appropriate. The search engine worked quite well – from a technical standpoint – but one unanticipated problem emerged that forced them to change their approach.
They found that some restaurants changed their menus rather frequently, requiring the team to constantly update the database – adding new items and deleting old ones. After a while, there was simply too much data entry work and so they went back to the drawing board and changed FoodStreet into a food website and directory.
This meant changing the look and feel of the site – from the spartan Google look to something busier with lots of content. Currently there are photos of restaurants, feature articles on guest chefs and special recipes.
There’s even user-generated content called “Makan Makan of the Day”, which are postings by a team of food bloggers specially invited to join the Makan Makan panel.
At the beginning Lee followed the footsteps of many aspiring entrepreneurs, which was to seek out grants and venture capital funding.
“I went to Cradle, MavCap, MDeC and some angel investors, too, looking for funding,” he recalls.
And like many entrepreneurs before him, he did not receive any funding, maybe because his was purely content play. There was nothing special in the technology involved – he uses an Open Source content management system.
The problem is that few grant agencies or venture capitalists can understand, much less appreciate, that the value proposition in a content play is ... well, content. Not technology.
“I was quite demoralised,” Lee says. “How do I proceed without any funding?” But true to the spirit of entrepreneurship, he took a personal loan of RM50,000 to buy the necessary hardware and equipment to set up a small office.
And instead of trying to do this on a part-time basis, he quit his job, forgoing a RM4,000 monthly salary, in order to pursue his dotcom dream.
Of course he’s not managing this all by himself.
He has several technical partners who help him out on a part-time basis, to keep overheads low.
In the time that it’s been around, FoodStreet has managed to get enough traffic – last month it got about 7,500 unique visitors and about 42,000 page views – to encourage Lee to keep going. All this just through word of mouth.
The business model is basically to get companies listed in the directory to promote their special offers through the website. There is no fee charged for being listed but they have to pay for promoting their special offers.
It’s basically an advertising model which is the standard for online content plays. The take-up rate is encouraging, says Lee.
“Ultimately it boils down to performance,” he says.
“If the special offers generate enough customers then they will continue to advertise with us. So far, the response rate from our advertisements has been good enough for our clients to continue to advertise with us.”
For Lee, this is a commercial venture, but he is a true foodie. He loves his food, and promoting different types of ethnic cuisine is something dear to his heart.
He recalls how one of his clients, who owns a Chinese seafood restaurant, lamented that the advent of the modern kopitiam, trendy coffee-house and fast-food outlet have led many young people to forsake Chinese cuisine.
“Do you think they even know how to appreciate abalone or geoduck?” the client asked, rhetorically. “They’d rather buy a plate of expensive nasi lemak or spend RM10 on a cup of premium coffee or a burger.”
That kind of sentiment is what motivates Lee to continue to enhance his site.
“Since the Internet-savvy are mainly young people, I can introduce different types of food to them through this channel,” Lee says.
Like most dotcoms, FoodStreet welcomes strategic partnership. It has already teamed up with Cari.com.my, a popular online forum. Lee says he’s also keen to team up with a print partner as well as a telco partner.
In time, he wants to expand into a “clicks and mortar” business, where the company gets involved in offline activities related to food promotion and events.
It’s doubtful that FoodStreet will become as big as, say, JobStreet, but it’s a nice effort to put together in one place a directory of eating shops complemented with stories and pictures about local cuisine. Take a virtual stroll down FoodStreet for a total drool fest.
Oon Yeoh finds it hard to diet with so many tempting pictures of food online. He can be reached at www.oonyeoh.com.