A conversation with Geoff Bartakovics, co-founder and CEO of Tasting Table
HD: When you were an English major and a Fulbright scholar, what were your plans for your life?
GB: I didn’t feel like I had it figured out, but I was essentially a humanities major. Since I was a very little kid, I was the kind of kid to play office or FedEx logistics operator. We didn’t play restaurant, for example. I guess I always knew that I was going to go into some business in some regard, but I'm also somebody who loves to read and loves to go to the opera and loves to look at art. So I guess if I had any vision for what I wanted life to be, it was that I was going to be some kind of business person and involved in something I found interesting. I graduated in ’99, though, and that was a very hot time for the consulting world. I ended up going, as many generalists do, into consulting for a really brief period of time at Deloitte, as it’s now known, just because I didn’t know exactly how to get into the business world with an English degree.
HD: So from Deloitte, you went to a bank.
GB: Yeah. I decided that consulting really wasn’t for me, so I went and I worked at UBS as a business manager. It was a very short stint at Deloitte. Not even two years.
HD: And did something sour for you in that world, or were you drawn to this, what you're doing now?
GB: I'm a child of immigrants and I grew up in a very nice, middle class existence where everything was lovely, and all of the money was saved for college, and I didn’t really want for anything. But you come to New York and you have the immigrant mentality that when you get here, everything is terribly expensive. My first apartment was insanely expensive. You go out to dinner at a restaurant, and it’s insanely expensive. And the first thing I thought was, how the heck am I going to make it here? It’s going to require money. And the opportunity for me to make money at the time was to go into some form of banking. I was not actually a banker. I was a business manager. But the primary thrust was creating a financial situation that would allow me to enjoy the city.
The whole idea of the genius of New York is that you can opt out of experiences that you don't want to be a part of. E.B. White’s essay, “Here is New York,” opens with a parade. I think he’s sitting at the New Yorker Hotel on 34th Street. He’s pointing out that there’s this enormous parade a few blocks away, and the great thing about New York is that all of these things can be going on simultaneously, and you can opt into all these different things.
It’s also true that when you're a young person and you arrive in New York, you are surrounded by things that you can't afford to do. And you look in every restaurant or you look in every store window, and if you're not a person who’s satisfied with just window shopping, you want to figure out how to make it so that you can go and see the plays you want to. That you can go to the restaurants you want to. So the impetus was to create a life where I could afford all that stuff. Which is crass.
HD: So when did the idea of taking Tasting Table germinate, and what made it flower?
GB: I was not a poor banker. I worked like an animal and I had a great time. It was a lot of fun. I learned a whole new vocabulary that I didn’t know existed. But I liked to cook. My Mom and Dad worked my entire childhood, so I used to cook dinner for the family at night. I liked to cook. And then in college, I liked to do dinner parties. I have this obsession about how a dinner party is kind of like the only way that you can get friends together for more than just the hour and a half or so that you would hang out at a restaurant. Right? So I did a lot of dinner parties, and then when I was at the bank, I had a lot of dinner parties. I just kind of became known among my friends as the guy who has all the dinner parties. So one of my friends was working at the Pilot Group, which owns DailyCandy, and Bob Pittman at the Pilot Group wanted to create a DailyCandy for foodies. And he knew me through all of my entertaining, and the idea came together that I would launch Tasting Table.
The idea itself wasn’t mine, but the reason I came to it and created a product and launched and ran it was because he knew that I cared about that subject. I should also say that because I was a bored banker looking for something to do on the weekends, I did go to the French Culinary Institute, probably five or six years ago on the weekends for what they used to call the Serious Amateurs program where you’d go every Saturday morning for a number of weeks. And it was essentially the first phase of the regular professional cooking program. Essentially, just for the purpose of taking my dinner party entertaining and my dinner party cooking up a few levels.
HD: And the invitation to create the foodie DailyCandy came what year?
GB: The idea came together in the summer of ’08, and we were launched and live on October 6th, 2008, a date that is seared in my brain. And we just celebrated our third birthday here in the kitchen with a 30-minute Friday afternoon birthday party, which is the first time we’ve ever remembered that it was our birthday. And our CEO, Allison, said, “Okay, we're getting Fudgy the Whale ice cream cakes. Everyone go down to the kitchen.” We had a 30-minute birthday party with ridiculous hats and ice cream cakes, and everyone went back to work.
HD: And how many were on the staff when you started?
GB: Myself and my partner, who is our Chief Technology Officer, and then a few months afterwards an Editor in Chief. And I think our first sales person, Pete, joined at that same time. And I know that at the end of the first year, we were only about five people. Thirty today.
HD: How did you learn how to manage a website?
GB: I worked all the way through college, as well. I ran a small, an internal consulting group within the university. So I actually did websites for the university departments and divisions. So I’ve always been a pretty digital or pretty geeky person in that regard. And at the bank, I was essentially the client owner for a lot of technology that got created in our division. So I faced off against some technologists. I'm actually more technologically savvy than perhaps it seems. My CTO worked with me at UBS for several of those years building an artificial intelligence engine for us.
But I was not a big restaurant-goer. I was a big entertainer. So hiring our editor-in-chief was a pretty big deal, because I needed to find somebody who was out there, was part of the industry, understood what the buzz was, what all the hot places were, etc., but who wasn’t so jaded by the business. Because at the end of the day, Tasting Table is unlike any of the other digital food publications that are out there. It’s not a magazine. It’s very short form. It’s certainly not a blog. It’s something in between where we're creating editorial content in a short form that comes to you via e-mail. The people who showed me the most of what to do were the editors who had the right tastes to make sure that we were making recommendations that readers would relate to.
HD: Right. When did you know this was going to take off?
GB: Immediately. We knew that the business model worked because DailyCandy had been a huge success. The magic in this is really quite simply that you create an audience of people who opt in for a specific subject matter, to hear about it five days per week, these are people who are very engaged with the subject matter.
What we knew was that if we created great editorial content and built to the right audience, it was going to “work,” in that those are people who respond well to the advertisers who we would be putting beside the editorial. I didn’t have doubts about that. From the beginning, I was making sure that from day one, we were hitting the right tone of being for the serious eater, but not for somebody who takes himself too seriously. So there was an insane amount of testing with regard to how do you say this, what’s the tone, what’s the level of the place we should be writing about? What is our take on fussy restaurants versus casual restaurants? Things like that. Our growth was within the first three months was stratospheric compared to some of the other daily e-mails out there, where we knew what the numbers were. The growth was enormous immediately, and we were spending no money on it, so it was growing really fast virally, and I was getting e-mails and Facebook messages and LinkedIn messages from people for absolutely no reason saying, “Thank you so much. I’ve been looking for something like this.”
HD: And the sponsors came quickly?
GB: Yes. The phone rang from a very large liquor portfolio, one of the largest in the world, as a matter of fact. One of the brand managers called, I think, in the third or fourth week that we had launched and said, “We love what you're doing. The people on our media team, we're foodies. We love what you guys are doing and we have a big campaign and we just had to drop one of the partners. The funny thing was, we were so small at the time. I think we only had 50,000 members at that point, and the amount of money they gave us essentially bought out Tasting Table for like 90 days. So for 90 days, you only saw this one liquor’s advertising or e-mail. The success from that, of course, was great, and then that just starts to build.
So the advertisers start coming on pretty much immediately. And the best part is of course, they continue to come back over and over again. I don't think we’ve lost one major advertiser who’s been unhappy with what they’ve done with us, and that’s something that we have a lot of pride about. This is not hocus pocus.
HD: Have there been any bumps along the way?
GB: At a few points in our first couple of years, I doubted my own business instinct about some aspects of the team that I was creating, about some aspects of some of the designs and features we were creating, because I was looking to the industry and what the industry was doing for guidance. I was listening to a lot of different voices, both within Tasting Table and outside of Tasting Table about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. And in every instance where I didn’t trust my gut, I made mistakes with regard to hiring, with regard to product development, features we created, certain design directions we went in, that I ended up undoing. And without suggesting that I'm cocky about it at this point, I now think a lot harder before I act against my instincts than I did just a couple of years ago when we were starting this.
HD: Why has this space [Tasting Table’s 2,000-square-foot test kitchen in Soho] turned out to be the right decision?
GB: For a lot of reasons, but I think the most interesting is actually a lesson from the 1999 - 2000 dot-com bubble that I should have thought of and didn’t, which is that there is an enormous tangible benefit to having a physical space that embodies your brand. We built out the space and we obsessed over designing it and decorating it and creating a usage program that would accommodate all the types of things that we want to do in this space. And then we started inviting people in. And an unintended benefit is all of the sudden folks, both advertisers and partners and the types of folks that we want to write about in Tasting Table, and the press, suddenly understand our brand and have more interest in it, because they’ve experienced it physically.
We spend a lot of time obsessing about making our e-mail templates look beautiful, making our web site convey high end and tasteful and adventurous, etc. But sometimes, you have to get into a space and feel it to understand it. And we're getting a lot more press attention. We're getting a lot more interest from some of the advertisers who we wanted to make partners of Tasting Table who didn’t understand what we're about.
Once we simply invite them here and sit them down and tell them about what we're doing, and they feel it and they see it, then it makes more sense. So that has been the biggest benefit . The other thing is that we had started creating a little bit of a recipe development and menu program, mostly because I was a fanatic fan of Gourmet Magazine’s menus. When they went away, my heart was broken. And I said to our editorial team, “Let’s just do our own menus. Let’s hire a food editor. We know what’s going on in the culinary site, because that’s what we write about every day. Let’s do a seasonal menu that makes sense and is in our style.” And we started doing it, and immediately it had enormous success, mostly because we really made it much easier to experience it online, which is how people are finding and using recipes and menus at this point. But when we built out the space, all of the sudden we had a much greater workshop for creating that. So our menu and recipe development and photography has gone to another level.
It’s inspired our team a little bit more, because all of this food that’s being created down here during the day is being sent upstairs to our office during the day for folks to test. And I just see this virtuous cycle developing, of us becoming more of a living and breathing food publication, because we're doing the cooking and entertaining right next door to our office.
HD: Who did the design?
GB: Eric Cheong and Lauren Daye, who are alums from Roman & Williams. Both of them are in Portland now where they’re work for the Ace Hotels design team.
HD: But this is not a space available for public usage.
GB: No. We get hundreds of people a week who write in or call our office with the misconception that this is like a rentable event space. I'm not a caterer. This is not a restaurant. This is not a restaurant experience. This is a private space where we're creating content and we're letting invited guests experience what we do.
HD: Give us a thumbnail of TT’s reach.
GB: We publish a daily edition for adventurous eaters and drinkers in five cities: New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, and D.C. And then we have a national edition, if you're not in one of those cities. It’s daily. And then we have a couple of specialty editions that are less than every day. One is our chef’s recipes edition and one is our top shelf edition, which is for cocktails. Across all of those, just I think two weeks ago, we passed one million subscriptions, and we are on track to pass a million and a half by the middle of next year based on our growth ramp. As these lists get bigger, they grow faster, because the organic nature of it starts to take on a network of fans.
HD: What are the macro plans for expansion?
GB: We have a big surprise coming in the spring that involves launching a lot more cities.
HD: Is there any chance that some of them would be international?
GB: That’s unlikely, simply because of the nature of this business and the way that advertising is purchased. It would be extremely costly to expand beyond, say, London. But London is not in our next year plans. So many more U.S. based food cities that we need to cover.
HD: And anything else besides the new editions?
GB: We have a bigger program of experiential Tasting Table dinner parties like we do here in New York now in our test kitchen. We’re not going to be building more test kitchens, but we're going to be expanding our dinner party experiences to our other five cities next year. As a matter of fact, with one of our partners, because this first series of dinner parties that we’ve done in just the few months, have been an enormous success. So we're going to take that on the road in a very innovative way to bring the Tasting Table experience to all of our cities next year.
HD: In your own restaurant experiences, are there preferences you’ve developed?
GB: Yes. When you go out, you're usually going out to spend social time with somebody. You go out to dinner with a friend. You go out to dinner with a lover, whatever. And you're going to spend time together. So I like that a menu comes to you and you choose what you're going to eat and drink, and that it’s all taken care of.
The space should be inspiring and beautiful and lit in a way that you feel extremely comfortable, but it disappears. And the service should be such that it’s very attentive and you're being taken care of, but you don't even notice that it’s happening, because you're not there. Unless you're some food blogger who is taking photos of everything, or a critic. As Tasting Table CEO, not as an editor, I'm not there to evaluate all of that. I'm there to have a delicious experience in the context of hanging out with a friend over dinner. So I like things to be beautiful and comfortable, and I like the service to be attentive, but I don't like when it’s too present.
I don't like when it feels fussy, when too much silverware arrives at the table or the waiter wants to have an extended conversation with you [about the food].
HD: Did you have any idea this would be so much of a success.
GB: When I moved here [to New York], the Strokes had just put our their first and still most amazing album that has the song, “Is This It,” which is the hold music at Tasting Table for a reason. In the past, I used to have this throwaway phrase after a few too many drinks, which was, “Is this it?” Life was supposed to more beautiful than this. In those days, I would wake up and I go to the bank and do this thing that nobody understands regarding asset-backed finance. And I have a nice little life on the weekends. And, is this it? I would say that although I have challenges just like everybody else, I can't imagine my life being much more exciting and inspiring and productive than it is right now in this current moment. I live a couple of blocks away from the kitchen and the office. I willingly spend the majority of my waking hours either working here or entertaining here or entertaining for this enterprise, and I don't feel at all that I am doing anything other than exactly what I love. So I would say no, I didn’t expect it. Yes, I expected the business to be this successful and I expect it to be more successful based on the metrics that you use to evaluate a business. But I didn’t expect that it would be as fulfilling as it has been.