Chuck Lai, Food Gawker ~ Food Interviews

Friday, July 18, 2008

Chuck Lai, Food Gawker

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Chuck Lai started Food Gawker just days after the popular food porn site TasteSpotting temporarily closed it doors. It was a copy of the orginal, designed to fill the void, but it has found a style of its own and continues to thrive even after TasteSpotting's return. Chuck also writes a popular food blog, Sunday Nite Dinner.

How did Food Gawker come about?

We were big TasteSpotting fans obviously and we submitted an image two days before it actually stopped updating. We were monitoring it and wondering what the heck was going on. Finally, when the note came up saying that it was going down, we were kind of in shock like everyone else.

At that point, we just started speculating about the reason behind it going down – “legal issues” – what does that mean? Our first thought was copyright infringement, images being taken from other sites. They had issues in the past with that.

I was thinking to myself, I could build something within a couple of hours. I didn’t think too much about it. I went online on Thursday to find a registered domain name and stumbled on Food Gawker as an option and thought, “This sounds pretty good, let’s give it a shot.”

Before that evening, that Thursday, I thought, “I probably don’t want to get involved in this because if TasteSpotting ran into legal issues, then why wouldn’t I run into legal issues." I put that thought to bed and didn’t think anything else of it. Then, the next day, I was reading different forums and someone mentioned that they were planning on building a replacement to TasteSpotting. I thought, “What the heck! If they are going to do it, I think I can do something better.”

I almost gave up halfway through because I didn’t think I could do something well in terms of the image cropping stuff, but then I found something that was able to do it. Twelve hours later, on Saturday, while I was watching Tiger playing in the US Open, I launched Food Gawker. It was more of experimentation on my part, seeing if I could actually develop a TasteSpotting replacement quickly. It was a fun project to do, looking back at it.

You mentioned a “we”, who is “we”?

We is me and my girlfriend, a.k.a. Hungry Bear, on Sunday Nite Dinner. She is definitely more on the private side, so we try to keep her anonymous. She is sitting here listening to the conversation and raising her arms (silent commentary). Basically, it’s, "Don’t mention my name."

What is your background?

I’m not a developer - let’s get that out on the table first and foremost. I moved to San Francisco about ten years ago and I’ve always been involved in some type of web development or consulting. I worked for the big five at the time when I first moved here. I’ve worked for smaller Internet consultancies and ad agencies specializing in web application development, but definitely more on the project management side of things, leading teams of developers and designers and so forth.

I have a pretty strong background in developing web apps for typically large Fortune 500 companies – Microsoft , HP, Sprint, Continental Airlines, and other big websites. I quit my job with CNET about two years ago and went more into an entrepreneurial mode. I started my own online comparison shopping site called Sprenzy – like or mySimon. It’s basically a notch above API and

I started that about two years ago and it went well the first year and then my partner kinda flaked out on me. It’s on the back burner at this point, but it’s still out there generating traffic and some revenue for me. Ever since then, I’ve been more doing consulting gigs and trying to figure out what my next step was in terms of this entrepreneurial mode that I’m in.

I think the funny thing is the whole reason I got into the food blogging community is my partner. I was waiting for him to finish some stuff up and I needed something to do. We were talking about starting a food blog for the longest time and I had time last year and needed to fill the void of work, so I started the food blog. I guess I have to thank my old business partner because if he didn’t flake out on me, then I wouldn't have started Sunday Nite Dinner and then I wouldn’t have been involved and I wouldn’t have known about this whole TasteSpotting thing.

Is Food Gawker a money-making venture for you?

Initially, when we first started going into this, money was not an objective. We just knew that it was going to be a void for food bloggers because we had the perspective of being on the other side - of realizing on a TasteSpotting-like site to build awareness and generate traffic for us. So, we knew immediately that people were going to miss it. I didn’t realize that the uproar of it going down was going to be that phenomenal.

Our intent was to build something to fill the void. It was kind of an overwhelming experience because we had no idea what the response was going to be like. As you know, I just threw it out there in the Twitter world, “Hey, I put up a site, check it out,” and next thing you know, you were the first one to submit, and then the avalanche of submitters came on. It was a fun, wild experience because we didn’t really have time to think things through.

I think we knew within the first four or five days that TasteSpotting was coming back online, but given legal issues, we didn’t know how long it was going to take. It could have taken a week, a month, or two months – we had no idea. I was just taking it day by day, filling the void and just giving an outlet for people to submit their photos and generate traffic and awareness to their sites.

Over the last couple of weeks, the response has been really positive for us. Now we are thinking about long term, but we are still taking it day by day and seeing how people react and if they continue to submit, then we can improve the site.

What do you see as the main difference between Food Gawker and TasteSpotting?

As I mentioned earlier, we were on the other side of the TasteSpotting site because we are food bloggers and we relied on it heavily to build traffic and awareness. We took the things we really liked about TasteSpotting and then tried to do some things differently to make it better than the original TasteSpotting.

One of the things that we noticed immediately that we were going to do was transparency. I know that we always thought that TasteSpotting was this big black box. You submitted your images and hoped they would get accepted and there were times when other images on the post were taken or things of that nature.

We decided that one of our goals was to keep people informed and be transparent in terms of when we are updating, what we are selecting, getting feedback from users, and responding immediately. Our transparency is in talking to the end user, whether it’s someone who is browsing the site for recipes or new food blogs.

That’s one thing. We’re still really in the process of trying to differentiate ourselves from TasteSpotting. I don’t really know how it is going to play out. We are really taking it day by day and really trying to improve the site in terms of the user experience for both people who submit and people who browse. We are trying to make it a good site for people who to look at recipes and look at pictures and find food bloggers.

What are your thoughts on some of the other food porn sites that have popped up, such as FoodPornDaily or FP Daily?

I think they are really cool. It’s just kind of amazing to watch. In the first couple of days that TasteSpotting was down, all of these different sites just popped out of the blue - there’s RecipeMuncher, NewTastings, tastefix, and I can just go on and on.

It’s been really interesting to see what the different spin was and how they would decide to not replace - to just offer us other food porn pictures to see. I think I really like what the two food porn dailys are doing because they weren’t a direct copy or clone.

What’s kinda cool is that people were going to new sites that offer great food images to see. I thought that was really very interesting. I underestimated the whole food porn crave – food porn need. I didn’t realize that it was going to be this big of a deal.

On Food Gawker, you mention that you’ve received tremendous support from Jean of NOTCOT. What has her association with Food Gawker been?

It is more of just encouragement. I was kind of surprised when she reached out to us within the first week of launching because I didn’t know exactly what the legal issues were at that time. She sent us a note just encouraging us on, saying that she was impressed by how quickly we got it up and the quality of the selections of the pictures and things of that nature - just support, which was really great since I just basically copied her TasteSpotting site. Obviously there was some worry about how someone is going to react on that.

When I got that supportive email from her, it just validated to us what we were doing and made us feel good. If she’s accepting Food Gawker as a replacement for TasteSpotting, let’s move forward. Ever since then, it’s just been back and forth emails with her just kind of encouraging us on and giving us advice where she can – it’s very minimal at this point, but her support has really been more of a validation for us.

How do you select the photos on Food Gawker?

Well, I think first we consult a Magic 8 ball on each one. I think people are going to kill us if you actually write that down.

We have certain criteria, obviously. I think our first reaction is: Does this look good? Is it appetizing? If it does, then we pass it through the other criteria. Is it lit well? Is the composition done well? There are a whole bunch of factors. We are pretty picky.

We are trying to be picky to maintain a consistency and quality of the images we select to go on the site. We run through a list of the basic things on food photography. Is it styled well, composed well, exposed correctly, and is the lighting good? But ultimately, our first question is, is this appealing - does it make you say, "I want to try this recipe."

Does the page the photo links to come into play in your decision?

Absolutely. I think that’s the first thing we check. Does the picture actually belong to the post? Is it going to the right link and right post? The picture may belong to you, but if it doesn’t actually show up on the post, we may not accept it.

We’ve seen in the past on the old TasteSpotting where people were putting the wrong attribution and that caused a lot of issues with some food bloggers and we are very wary of that.

What about the caption?

We are not too concerned about the captions. It’s up to the people submitting to describe and sell their image. We really don’t evaluate that part very much. We’ll definitely change it if we see it misspelled, but for the most part, we’ll leave the caption as it is. It’s kinda like their photography. It belongs to them. It’s their description, so we don’t want to change it, we don’t want to get questions like, "Why did you change my description?" It’s your food, you know it the best, so you can describe it the best.

What percentage of photos make it on Food Gawker?

Right now we are running just under fifty percent that get selected and approved to go on the site. I guess it’s fairly tough to get on the site. I know that people are disappointed when their pictures aren’t selected, but when they do get selected, it is an achievement for them and we like that. We’d like to accept everybody’s pictures and I think that the worst thing that we do is to say no. But, I think to keep the quality of the site up, we kind of have to do that.

How much time do you spend working on Food Gawker?

The actual reviewing and moderating of images doesn’t take much time, it’s more the site enhancements and the redesigns. Those types of things are eating up lots of time. Right now, it is more than a full time job. I am fortunate that I wasn’t involved in a client project at this time to have the time to do this. The timing worked out well for me.

How large is Hungry Bear’s role in the site?

She’s one of the moderators – maybe I shouldn’t have said that, now people are going to stalk Hungry Bear. She’s definitely very involved. If she wasn’t very supportive, then I don’t think I would be able to do this. Without her support, this wouldn’t have been a success.

Do you have a team of moderators?

We have a very small team. That is one of our goals right now - to keep small. Ideally, we’d have a large team so we could spread the workload amongst many people, but I think quality suffers at that point. It’s a very subjective process. No matter what criteria you put down on paper, it’s going to be very hard for people to select the same exact images. The smaller the team for us, the better it keeps the quality and consistency up.

Because of your transparency, have you had to deal with upset people whose photos weren’t selected?

Obviously, we monitor pretty much everything - Twitter , blogs, we get direct feedback through comments and through our contact form - and there are definitely people asking why their pictures haven’t been selected. There have been some frustrated people and I understand because being on the other side, I know exactly what people are doing. They are putting their love and energy into making food and taking photos and they are doing the best they can. The majority of these people are just regular home cooks who take great joy in their food and photography.

It’s hard to say no because we know the energy and the time that goes into doing that, so we try to encourage them by saying: “Keep on trying, keep on submitting. It’s a very subjective process. Here’s our criteria. We see plenty of great pictures on your site so keep on submitting pictures.”

Many people have said, “My pictures have always been selected by TasteSpotting, why aren’t they being selected by Food Gawker?” We try to be nice and we tell them that it’s a very subjective process and we have a different team of editors than TasteSpotting. That is probably one of the biggest reasons why their pictures may show up on TasteSpotting and not on Food Gawker and vice versa.

It’s been interesting getting those types of comments. That’s probably the hardest part of the whole process - to answer those types of questions - because you can make someone really happy or you can make someone really sad by selecting or not selecting their pictures.

We’ve seen people where they’ve submitted a whole bunch of pictures and finally (I hope they’ve been looking at other pictures and getting tips on what angles or how to light the picture) they’ll send a picture and we’ll be blown away by it and say, “Wow! That’s a great improvement.”

Every time we preview an image to look at it, we are really rooting for that person to have a great picture. It is much easier for us to accept it than to reject it. That is one of the rewarding things. We have gotten messages, “I’ve submitted a whole bunch of pictures and you selected one and I kinda understand why you chose that, so thank you.”

That’s the best part of the job right now, getting that kind of feedback. It makes us happy that they are happy and we know exactly how they felt.

What is your favorite food to gawk at?

I don’t do well with those types of questions. Hungry Bear always asks me, “If you could pick one food to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?” Those types of questions are just so difficult, because I like going to the buffet or having a smorgasbord. I want a piece of everything. I don’t have one particular thing. This is my way of not answering your question. I pretty much like everything and anything.

If you could interview one person about food, who would it be?

Two people. One is Thomas Keller. Obviously French Laundry is awesome, but Ad Hoc, his kind of a more casual family-style restaurant, is my favorite restaurant in the Bay area. That’s the primary reason I would want to interview him.

The second person is my mom. I’m a self-admitted momma’s boy. She’s the one that has definitely influenced me the most in terms of getting into cooking and enjoying food. I’ve been exposed to that my entire life through her. She amazes me because she has all of these recipes in her head. Probably like everybody’s mom, you ask her how she makes a dish and it’s always, “Just a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

It just amazes me how she can keep hundreds and hundreds of recipes in her head and produce things so well. I’d want to figure out what my mom’s influences were in terms of her cooking. It may sound a little cheesy.

It’s funny that I didn’t really appreciate her cooking until I went to college. Growing up, she was always making Vietnamese food. We came over to this country when I was fairly young (four years old) and from that point going forward, I always wanted to fit into the all-American lifestyle. My mom was always making these Vietnamese dishes and I always wanted meatloaf or pizza or something. It wasn’t until I went to college that I really appreciated her cooking - after eating all the dorm food.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview. I love how Food Gawker has really upped the ante in the Food Porn world. I see people trying harder to take better photos, and I think that is really cool. Everyone is learning in the process and it has been a lot of fun to see it all unfold!
Keep up the great work!

Ivy said...

I always learn so much on this blog. I didn't even realize these types of sites existed. The blog world is so big, I don't think I will ever even begin to scratch the surface.

Jen Yu said...

Chuck and HB are doing a fantastic job! I'm behind you guys 100%. Thanks for the great interview.

MrOrph said...

Great interview!

Chuck, thanks man!

His blog and FG are excellent. We strive, out here in the foodie blogosphere, to be as good as Chuck.

Gina said...

I blame Food Gawker for my huge list of Foodie Blogs in Google Reader. ;) Just one of the many reasons I love it. And my 5 y/o, who loves anything food related, loves it when I open Food Gawker. I never experienced the original Tastespotting so my initiation into the world of "food porn" was with Chuck's site.

Cynthia said...

I just love your interviews. This site makes for delightful reading

Anonymous said...

I think there is a 3rd site that has just joined the battle called

Great article by the way as it gives a great insight into how a site gets built