Geoff Bartakovics is sitting with his food editor and his photo editor at a table in the back of Tasting Table's office, sandwiched between one of the company’s three kitchens and two long columns of desks. He speaks precisely, but at short-order-cook speed about images the two editors shot for an upcoming cookie recipe in the website’s Sous Chef series.
“I’m not trying to be offensive, but it was too...Smitten Kitchen. It was a mismatch to the rougher photographic aesthetic of the slide shows, of the day in the life. And I’m not saying you need to stay away from that, but if we don’t have a guy, and you’re as pretty as you are, we’ll have to think about roughing up your outfit.”
He turns sheepish for a moment.
“I rarely get involved with things from a content perspective. If I do, it’s with this very large brushstroke stuff. I mean, really, I’m not even a foodie.”
“I’m not even a foodie” is an odd, and not totally convincing statement to hear from the CEO of a restaurant and recipe newsletter that is emailed to 1.5 million readers daily. Sure, many true foodies are quick to scorn the label, but there was, at that moment anyway , a reason to believe Bartakovics. On the table in front of him was a foot high beaker of magenta-hued protein drink, which he just whizzed together in one of his company’s three kitchens, blithely ignoring the lamb ribs braising nearby. A foodie, in spirit, even if not in name, would have at least peeked under the pot lid. The less said about the beaker, the better.
He turns back to the editors. “Of course, please use the pictures, because they were clearly a lot of fucking work.”
The “not a foodie” declaration was almost as unexpected as the success of the entire Tasting Table concept. Email was supposed to be going the way of the Pony Express; food media was ever more dependent on the wisdom of crowds--and yet, here was an enterprise taking an authoritative voice on restaurants and cooking, blasting it out in a dozen different editions, and doing so profitably. Stranger still, it was headed up by a guy who had never worked in media before, had never worked at a web startup, and the last time he worked with food was when he left home as a high school sophomore, and took a job waiting tables on weekends at an Italian catering hall. So how did this happen?
The company grew out of Bartakovics’ Soho loft in the months after he left his position as a project manager for Swiss bank UBS at the beginning of 2008. “We were in shutdown mode [at UBS] and a lot of people were offered packages to leave. I saw this as an opportunity to make life more interesting; more beautiful.” Bartakovics’ boyfriend at the time worked for the Pilot Group, Bob Pittman’s venture capital company, and it was as the host of a number of dinner parties that Bartakovics first came to know Pittman.
Pilot Group, at the time, had investments in a number of email-centered web ventures, including Thrillist Media and Daily Candy (which was sold to Comcast in August of 2008 for $125 Million). “I knew those business had been built on low-cost technology to start, because they wanted to try it quick and dirty to see if it works,” recalls Bartakovics. “Their problem was that both of those business were so successful and grew so rapidly that you could never really pause to start again on the technology. So my original idea was to build a back end system for managing daily emails--we were going to license it on a software licensing model to the Daily Candy’s and Urban Daddy’s and Thrillists of the world. The average white collar professional spends 85% of their business day actively engaged with their inbox. It might be mobile or it might be desktop, but we live in our inboxes. “
“When we were about 90 days into building it, I took it to Bob Pittman, just to show him the tech. I asked him if we were moving in the right direction, and he said, 'Not only do I think you are going in the right direction, but I want to do a Daily Candy for foodies. You love to cook. You just built this back end. How about you contribute the technology, I will put in the money, and then you can launch and run the thing.'”
If the decision to tap a semi-unknown quantity like Bartakovics seemed risky, it was well within the spirit of one of the many maxims that Bob Pittman dispenses, “Make decisions quickly, but don’t fall in love with the answers.”
Fortunately for Bartakovics, Pittman says he has been pleased with his decision; “As a finance guy, [Bartakovics] certainly had the knowledge of how to run a business--but what I thought was even more important was that he had vision and passion for this idea. He believed in it and saw the potential of what it could be."
The enterprise rapidly grew out of the confines of his apartment. Bartakovics decided to go after not just the young financiers and lawyers he had come to know during his UBS days--people who have, as Bartakovics puts it, “more money than time"--but also, eventually, the fully budded masters of the universe. Now a special edition of Tasting Table goes out to members of the Core Club, Manhattan’s billionaires’ lair.
Bureaus were established in six cities, with editors who dine anonymously at the restaurants they cover (more rare of a practice than you’d think). Bartakovics spent half a million dollars converting a 2,200 square foot Soho loft into a test kitchen and event space, a move that, had Tasting Table flopped, would have been the first line in the coroner's report. It’s proved to be a successful enough venue for connecting advertisers and readers that they plan to roll out pop-up versions of the test kitchen in other cities, starting with Los Angeles later this year.
It’s at the test kitchen that Bartakovics gets to be the dinner party host (and yes, foodie) that got him Pittman’s attention in the first place. There he peeks into simmering pots and talks at about whatever this round of guests brings up: bourbon or Range Rovers, derivatives trading or big data. The test kitchen has become, in some ways, the spirit animal of the brand--raucous and urbane; accomplished (chef Brendan McHale was hired away from the well regarded Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in 2011) and occasionally louche. That spirit reaches through to other Tasting Table events like the annual Lobster Roll Rumble, where 20 restaurants compete for the title of America’s best lobster roll while raising money for Share Our Strength.
Between the meeting about photo content, and another about rationalizing email response protocols, Bartakovics stopped to sound a large desktop gong and grab a bullhorn to announce the sale of 120 Lobster Roll Rumble tickets at $150 each to a trader from Morgan Stanley.
It was a bit of a goofy moment, but the former finance guy holding the mallet was committed. “I’m pretty much like our readers--I take my food far more seriously than I take myself.”
[Lettuce Image: Flickr user Kesu]