Running a restaurant recommendation app is not necessarily as glamorous as one might think. Especially when you’ve made a conscious decision to limit your contributors to the superstars of the food world.
When Jared Rivera founded Chefs Feed with his brother Steve Rivera in 2011, he was living the foodie dream. He had to fly all over the U.S. to interview some of the country’s most acclaimed chefs for a series of video spots shown for Virgin America, Chefs Feed’s primary sponsor.
He visited 500 restaurants and as you might expect, he got to some pretty amazing food in the process. He also gained 25 lbs. and contracted gout. When he got back to San Francisco he walked on crutches for weeks. “He sacrificed his body for Chefs Feed,” CEO Steve Rivera quipped in an interview with GigaOM.
At first glance Chefs Feed seems like so many other social eating/food porn apps like Foodspotting, Forkly and Nosh. It’s rife with pictures of luscious dishes from acclaimed restaurants, but you quickly notice what’s missing.
There is no way for you or I to upload a dish photo or make a dish recommendation, and the Riveras like it that way. The only people who can recommend a dish are the 600 professional chefs that make up the Chefs Feed roster of curators. From the Riveras perspective, serious eaters want to know where Mario Batali (Babbo, Lupa) eats in New York and what Thomas Keller (French Laundry) eats in San Francisco — not the selections of some random dude with a smartphone and a few too many whiskey sours.
That might sound snobby, but then again “foodie” is just a newer word for “food snob”. Chefs Feed is going after the type of diner that obsesses about their meals, and that audience doesn’t want just anyone recommending what food they eat.
The web and mobile apps have done wonderful things for the democratization of the restaurant review. We’re no longer dependent on an elite group of food critics to tell us where and what to eat. Instead we crowdsource, each of us handing out stars on Yelp and uploading images to Foodspotting. But the Riveras — who ran a restaurant public relations firm before committing full time to Chefs Feed – would argue crowdsourcing has gone too far. By soliciting everyone’s opinion, you really have gotten no opinion at all.
Chefs Feed’s approach splits the difference. Rather than aggregate the recommendations of critics or the masses, it collects the opinions of professionals successful in their craft. For the most part, those chefs run their own restaurants and several are celebrities in their own right — such as Keller, Batali, and Wolfgang Puck — while many would only be known to people who closely follow their local food scenes. A participating chef can recommend and upload a photo of any dish, as long as it’s not one of their own.
When Chefs Feed launched last year it was a pretty bare-bones iPhone app, allowing you to select one of four cities and then giving you a list of dishes from specific restaurants that local chefs had recommended. Since then, Chefs Feed has expanded to 15 U.S. cities and overseas to London, and in October it launched a new version of its iPhone app that adds much more information about individual dishes, chefs and restaurants.
But the new version also adds a layer of social networking, so Chefs Feed users aren’t reduced to passive participants. Only chefs can add new dishes, but users can comment on those choices, communicating with chefs and their friends.
“You can eat your way through San Francisco, and show all of the dishes you’ve tried,” Steve Rivera said. But the app is meant to be more than just a recommendation engine, he added. It’s meant to be a tool for connecting chefs to the public, allowing them to communicate directly with their patrons and fans as well as participate in a larger dialogue with the culinary community in their cities. Chefs aren’t just submitting their own dish recommendations, they’re actively commenting on the picks of other chefs and feedback left by diners, Rivera said.
Ultimately the Steve and Jared Rivera want Chefs Feed to grow into a digital media company, becoming a specialized network where professional chefs will promote their restaurants, food, cookbooks and future plans. The company still has a lot of growing to do, though. Chefs Feed is still only available on the iPhone, where it has been downloaded about 200,000 times. Compared to the food mega-apps like Yelp and Foodspotting, it’s tiny. But Chefs Feed has raised $1 million in angel funding, and it’s not just attracting the attention of some of the country’s most prominent chefs. It’s attracting interest in Silicon Valley tech circles. Former Twitter VP of product Satya Patel and former Expedia CFO Mike Adler have signed on as advisors.