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Chris Stang knows where you should have dinner tonight

Published 15 August 2018

We speak to Chris Stang co-creator of The Infatuation, America’s cult restaurant recommendation site, about all things food, fads and millennials.

Do not, under any circumstances, call Chris Stang a foodie. 
He may be the co-creator of The Infatuation, America’s cult restaurant recommendation site, and an obsessive follower of everything food related, but he hates the term foodie. And nom, and delish, and quite a few others – of which more later.

Stang started The Infatuation in 2009 in New York, having moved there from Denver and after spending years in the music business. “Music
is a night-time sport,” he says now, “and my now-business partner Andrew Steinthal and I usually ended up having dinner before shows. I
was often making a night of it, so throughout the early days of our careers we ended up out all the time, and getting to explore the restaurants of New York City. Eventually we became really knowledgable about them…”

Cut to nearly 10 years later and The Infatuation is in 18 cities around the world with apps, a text service, food festivals in LA and New York
and a huge Instagram following. Their hashtag, #eeeeeats has been tagged more than 11 million times. And earlier this year the pair bought the moribund 40-year-old restaurant-guide brand Zagat.

So, going back to before the launch of The Infatuation, what did you use when you wanted to eat out?

Zagat, for sure, and I was definitely a New York magazine reader, that was the way I really explored New York. This was the middle 2000s and at the time in the US and probably the UK and worldwide, but between food TV and the early days of social media – Facebook and Twitter – suddenly there’s been this huge change in the way people thought about restaurants and dining.

There were so many new people wanting to explore restaurants – rather than eating being something that you did perhaps on your way to seeing
a show, going to dinner became the thing that you did.

What we were reacting to when we founded The Infatuation was feeling like there hadn’t been an appropriate  shift from the legacy players to help serve that audience of people who  weren’t reading the classic reviews like the New York Times or even the New York magazine reviews. What we felt what was missing was a situational approach to the recommendations.

I would find myself frustrated with reviews that were three sentences in the back of a magazine, two of the three would be about where the chef cooked before this restaurant.

What I wanted to know was ‘is this place going to be good for a date?’ or ‘my buddy and I are going to go out, is it going to be lively and fun, rather than quiet and stuffy?’

There wasn’t a great resource that approached things with that in mind, and honestly, we just wanted to create something that was fun to read, and funny and a little bit irreverent and conversational – that felt like you were talking to a friend rather than high- level food reviews. So with absolutely no credentials whatsoever we decided to start reviewing restaurants!

So you’re like a bridge between the old-school professionals and user-generated reviews.

I think we are a new breed of something… We try to write to be
as relatable as possible – I joke to our writers: ‘You’re going to need to be a good writer, but the most important thing is that you’re a good talker, and you’re going to have to figure out how to write like you talk’. There’s a difference there… and there’s a difference too in the distribution method, the delivery and also the business model.

We’re not even built like a traditional media company. We
don’t even really care that much about people coming to our website on a daily basis. We want you to come to our website and use our app when you need something, rather than
find ways to draw you back for the sake of hoping you interact with an advertisement – it’s about
building trust.

That’s the part that really starts
to get different – we create content
for each platform specifically for
that platform. They serve different purposes – so we think about Instagram differently than we think about the web and we think about the web differently than we think about our apps and we think about events.

How does the Zagat brand sit within your company now?  

It’s an iconic 40-year-old brand and what’s interesting is when you talk
to them [founders Tim and Nina Zagat] and you really look at what the mission of Zagat was and is, they were very focused on making sure that the reviews were short and that there was humour. The guides were printed in the manner so they could fit in your pocket – they were quite prescient in the way they were thinking about their product so that it was useful and that’s what we think about – let’s create content that has a purpose for people.

There’s a real valid reason and desire for user-generated content, especially as it applies to reviews – when done right its very valuable because you really do get a swathe
of people and hopefully a consensus about a place. The problem with user-generated content, especially in relation to the restaurant trade, is that I don’t think it’s been done all that well. Look at Yelp – you can find reviews of a dentist and a dry cleaner on Yelp … and restaurants… it’s not a specifically a community of knowledgable people who dine out a lot.

Also other businesses are built on making money from the restaurants themselves, and that builds a bit of an upside-down incentive.

All those things being said, when we really started thinking about taking the Zagat brand which has
so much equity and is so well known and respected around the world… and starting to apply our expertise to really think about creating a user- generated platform for the future that’s really specifically focused on restaurant discovery. We got really excited thinking about the Infatuation and Zagat together, so that you could eventually have an editorial point of view and a user-generated community views on a place and cross-reference them… We have a lot of work to do before we get there but… that’s the idea.

It was an undeniable opportunity that we could take this iconic 40-year- old brand and pair it with our 10-year- old brand and hopefully one-plus-one equals a million!

Your hashtag Eeeeeats – why does it have five Es?

Why not?! One thing we’ve always been reacting to is ‘Why does this all have to be so serious?’ Dining is a passion, it’s a thing people do to get away from things that frustrate them or stress them out in life – there’s nothing better than when you’ve had a hard week at work going to your local or going to a nice dinner or whatever it is.

We knew that we needed a way to let our community identify themselves on the platform so that we could engage with them. We were thinking about a hashtag that could help us
do that – and this was really before people were doing quote-unquote branded hashtags like 2012 or 13 – we certainly didn’t want to tell our people to hashtag their photographs “#insta- yum”!!

And we also didn’t feel like
people really would do it if it was #Infatuation – so we just kind came up with eats with five es because it’s kinda silly, like [deep voice] eeeeeats.

If it was silly and fun enough, then people would use our hashtag on really bad food photos – it made it all a little less serious and a little less intimidating and just really helped us communicate our brand position on things, which
is like “hey, this is supposed to be fun. Let’s have fun”.

I’m not going to call you a foodie. I know how much you hate that word because I read your list of banned words.

Oh god, it’s a constantly growing list
– we joke that we are going to run out of words. I mean, ‘influencer’, I hate that word. And I hate ‘millennial’. Our audience is largely what you would call the M-word but I believe that when people are using that word, what they are actually describing is a set of habits rather than an age group.

The core audience when we started was ‘millennial’, or young professionals, but now we have grown so much that our demographic is really you know reached both the older and younger than the millennial bracket.

For example in New York, we’d do these guides like ‘where to have dinner with your parents’ and then we’d get people responding to us to say ‘I love this guide but I’m 71!’ So that’s like ‘cool, where do you have dinner with your kids?!’

We get really excited about a 71-year-old and a 19-year-old both responding to the content – and both seem to understand and connect to what we are trying to communicate. That is all we are trying to do.

You’ve recently run an eeeeeatscon festival in LA, and a NYC one is planned for autumn. What about London?

We’re all the same, we all want the same things, we all find pleasure in the same things – so there would be tweaks here, obviously, culturally, but you know the fact that eeeeeatscon works in LA means it’ll work in New York, and it’ll definitely work in London. It could happen as early as next year, but we’ll see.

It’s really easy to find video of Danny Meyer doing a talk somewhere but it can be really hard to hear some of the people who aren’t famous but have amazing stories, that’s how we wanted to program eeeeeatscon like that, much in the ways that you do with CODE.

We just wanted to give those people a voice – if you’re somebody who’s passionate about the space of restaurants and dining but you are
not a chef, how do you connect with other people, and how do you network so you can pursue a career in that? There’s not really a place to do that in the States right now – but if you don’t care about any of that and you just want to eat and drink and hang out
of with your friends you can do that too…

Let’s talk about London, where The Infatuation has a relatively new office.

It takes a really long time to create high-quality content at a level that really creates a whole picture of a
city – we are a year old in London now and we are just getting started. I think we’ve written about 300 reviews and about 100 guides. Look at the map of London – and we’ve got a lot of gaps to fill in!

Just the pure geographic spread
of the city is massive – it’s very, very similar to Los Angeles and we’ve been operating in LA for three years and we’re just now feeling now like ‘OK we have a good coverage and really big audience there’, it just takes time.

I’ve been to London about 16 times in the last 20 months – one thing that I adore is pub culture, because we just don’t have that in New York. It’s my favourite part of the UK just generally – there are so many great pubs from the proper boozers to the new gastropubs. I love the Harwood Arms – that place blew my mind, I love the Marksman – that was one
the first places I went when we first started exploring a business venture in London.

Also I really love Gunpowder in Shoreditch, the Palomar, because there are so few late-night places. I always tell people that if you just want to be absolutely certain that you are in London, have breakfast in the Wolseley. I’ve never felt more ‘English’ than sitting there having some tea and a full English in the morning!

P Franco is a place I love, and Oklava in Shoreditch, which is really interesting. I love Xi’an Impression up by the Arsenal stadium – its mind blowing, so, so, so good.

That’s what’s so exciting to me about the London restaurant scene which we don’t have as much in New York anymore, in that you really do get the highbrow and the low end and everything in between – everything from super-casual to super-high-end and you have incredible things all along the spectrum.

A similar thing is happening in LA to London –where there’s still nooks and crannies and neighbourhoods that aren’t so over-developed that they are too expensive to start a restaurant.
In New York it’s so expensive that it’s ruined – the barrier for entry is so high that we lose out on a lot of things. P Franco would be hard to pull off in New York City anywhere because it’s just so expensive.

You guys are lucky.

This article was first published in Issue 15 of CODE Quarterly.

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