Tag Archives: cookbook

Four Ingredients — Pun Intended — Cookstr Needs To Be a Truly Viable Recipe Site

I recently interviewed for a position at the recipe site Cookstr.

And…I made this joke on Facebook at the time, so, friends, bear with me: Like the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s and the Chicago Cubs in the 2003 NLCS, I have a history of choking when it counts…so I spent a fair amount of time reviewing the site beforehand so I’d be as prepared as possible at the moment of truth.

And…I gotta say: I like what I found. I think it’s a really good concept — and I’m not just saying that.

Here’s why:

In this NY Tech Meetup video from CenterNetworks, Founder and CEO Will Schwalbe shares his love of cookbooks and explains that the major online recipe databases, Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com, are focused on Conde Nast and Food Network content, respectively, but chefs and cookbook authors don’t really have a place on the Web where they can share their recipes and drum up interest in their books.

And thus, as Schwalbe tells it in the video, Cookstr was born.

It sort of reminds me of Birchbox, actually. I talked to one of the start-up’s founders for a ClickZ story in January. Basically, for $10 a month, Birchbox members receive high-end samples of hair, makeup and/or skincare products from partners like Benefit, Nars, Cargo and Laura Mercier. Birchbox, in turn, talks up all of the samples it includes in each monthly box…and gives members the opportunity to go back to its Web site to order full-size products. So…the partners give away samples, but, in turn, reach a wider audience and gain yet another online space where they can hawk their wares.

That’s essentially what’s happening with Cookstr, except there’s no monthly fee. Cookstr has partnered with a slew of chefs and cookbook authors, who are featured on the site. These recipe-producers allow a sample of their content to appear on the site…and each recipe is displayed alongside an image of the cookbook it originated from…and, if you click on it, you are given multiple options for purchasing the book from retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

It’s pretty smart for all parties involved, as I’m sure Cookstr has revenue-sharing agreements with each vendor. And the cookbook authors and publishers don’t have much to lose — just a few recipes.

I think Cookstr has really great search options — I especially love the cost feature — and, frankly, I like a lot of the chefs.

But Cookstr is not perfect.

According to Compete.com, Cookstr had slightly more than 57,000 unique visitors in January. That’s versus 1.8 million for Epicurious and 11.3 million for FoodNetwork.com

Granted, Cookstr is still quite young and can’t be expected to compete on a level playing field with two major media companies. (According to Wikipedia [after a very cursory Google search], Food Network had revenue of $1.5 billion in 2008…which is when Cookstr was just a baby.) But I honestly think Cookstr *could* give Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com a run for their money…if it only implemented a few small changes.

I always spend hours prepping for interviews and thinking up answers to potential questions and most of this stuff never sees the light of day…so here is my response to, “How could Cookstr improve and/or better compete with Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com?” if for no other reason than proving how passionate I am about food/words/online content and what a great fit I’d be for this site:

1. More feedback.

One of the things I love about Epicurious (my go-to recipe site) is that I can search for a basic recipe like, “apple pie,” and even though I end up with multiple results, I can quickly scan the ratings — 1 to 4 forks, from worst to best — to see how users grade each recipe, as well as what percentage of users would make the recipe again and what — if any — comments they have. The comments often include valuable information about tinkering with the recipe and/or tips for next time and help me narrow down my options.

If, for example, I was deciding between Rum Raisin Apple Pie and Lattice Apple Pie with Mexican Brown Sugar, I’d see that 95% of users would make the Rum Raisin pie again and that they’ve given it an average rating of 4 forks and that user mandica from Windham, Conn. decided to soak the raisins longer to make them plumper.

I know that the content on Cookstr is supposed to be trusted already…but I also think it’s fair to say that every recipe site — Epicurious included — is bound to have a stinker somewhere. Plus, Rick Bayless may assure me that his Smoky Chipotle Salsa with Pan-Roasted Tomatillos is as simple to make as it is delicious, but what about those of us who haven’t spent decades studying Mexican cuisine? How easy is it for us to produce? That’s where I think user feedback is so valuable. If I’m going to the trouble of actually cooking or baking something, I’d like a reasonable expectation that it will turn out okay. And seeing multiple users say, “Yummy!” Or, “Perfect! Just cut down the salt…” puts my mind at ease.

But, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much commenting on Cookstr recipes. Of the 25 recipes I added to My Cookstr, only four had comments. And just one apiece. I suppose the number of “favorites” each recipe has helps…but not as much as forks or percentages.

I think Cookstr needs to implement some sort of promotion or go on some sort of social media spree — or both — to encourage users to comment on recipes. Maybe they can reward comments with points and a certain number of points yields a discount on a cookbook…or, since the site already has partnerships with publishers (I think), why not give away some cookbooks to the most prolific commenters? Or, at the very least, tempt those commenters with a feature on the Facebook page?

Simply put: If Cookstr wants to be a trusted recipe site, it needs more user-generated feedback.

2. A dinner newsletter.

The Cookstr 10, a list of ten recipes that is sent out each week, seems pretty focused on holidays or major events. And while that is helpful, to a degree, I feel like eventually you’re going to come to a time of year when there aren’t any holidays or events nearby and you’ve already done warm weather or cold weather recipes…so…what then? I guess focusing on one particular cooking technique isn’t a bad alternative…and I’m not arguing that the Cookstr 10 should be done away with completely. I just think Cookstr users could be better served by a newsletter that helps solve the problem of what to make for dinner. (This is actually what the Cookstr 10 focused on last week…I don’t see why they can’t do it every week.)

It’s not an original concept. Everyday Food and Good Housekeeping do it. And there’s good reason. When I look at magazines or cooking websites, I’m often looking for inspiration. I need to go to the grocery store, but I have no idea what to buy. And I don’t think I’m alone.

That dinner void is exactly where Everyday Food and Good Housekeeping step in, and I see no reason why Cookstr can’t do the same. All they need is seven dinner recipes once a week — it could even be a compilation of all the Recipes of the Day that week.

If the majority of people do their grocery shopping on weekends, Cookstr could send out this new newsletter, on, say, Friday. It could still focus on the time of year and what’s in season and what holidays are coming up…but it would be a much more practical way of saying, “Hey — here are our suggestions for this week. Now you don’t have to think about it,” which, I think, in turn, conjures up a sense of trust — but only if the recipes are good — and the consumer begins to rely on it more and more (if the recipes are good). Another win-win.

3. Play to the crowd.

There are certain dishes that only come up once a year…but they are reliable bets annually.

Last week, for example, a friend on Facebook posted a request for king cake recipes.

However, if I search for “king cake” on Cookstr — which I did — I get Kathleen’s Wheat-Free Fudge Brownies, Flaky Scones and Rosemary Foccacia Sheet. None of these recipes are even remotely close to king cake.

Epicurious, on the other hand, has three viable king cake recipes; FoodNetwork.com has nearly ten.

With Easter coming up, I imagine folks will also be looking for hot cross buns. But, sadly, when I look for “hot cross buns” on Cookstr, I get Jamie Oliver‘s Bun and Butter Pudding.

I realize these are two heavily Christian examples and that the world is made up of lots of different faiths and that Cookstr can’t possibly accommodate every single holiday. But…I think they need to do some research to make sure they have their bases covered for the most popular ones.

Sure, king cake and hot cross buns may not come up super-often…but the absence of recipes in cases like this will alienate those who *are* looking for them and send them right into Epicurious and/or FoodNetwork.com’s arms. I, for one, get quickly discouraged if a site offers no options for what I’m looking for…and I move on.

In short, I think that if Cookstr wants to gain and/or retain the trust of consumers who are searching for recipes, it needs to better anticipate what they are searching for — and accommodate them.

4. More tweets.

As of Sunday afternoon, Cookstr‘s last tweet was on March 4. That’s nine days ago. They simply can’t go that long without any updates.

For one, the site features a Chef or Author of the Day every single day. At the very least, that’s prime tweeting material.

The site also features a Recipe of the Day. Why are these recipes not tweeted daily, too?

What’s more, tons of folks are talking about Cookstr recipes on Twitter. Check out these search results. There’s no reason for @Cookstr not to reply to — and follow — these users.

Simply put, the site needs better engagement with this audience. @Epicurious and @FoodNetwork don’t miss a day — neither should @Cookstr.

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My Top 15 Wacky Cookbooks (With Bonus Optimistic Prologue!)

I love wacky cookbooks. And, strangely, despite the carnage of last week — that left me sans part-time fake-gambling gig *and* full-time job prospects *and* hope — I’m feeling rather optimistic now.

I’ve been kicking around an idea for a children’s book series (literally for years) — and was finally compelled to sketch out one of the stories early this morning when I couldn’t sleep. There’s still much research to be done about pitching kids’ books, etc., etc…and I’ve certainly learned that hard work ain’t always enough to guarantee the results you want and that future endeavors must therefore be taken with a grain o’ salt…but when talking to my mother about how on earth I was going to dust myself off after the latest round of out-and-out failure, she basically said that there *has* to be something else out there for me…I just haven’t found it yet. So…maybe it’s this kids’ book series. And — don’t get me wrong — I’m not giving up on the book-book. I’m just maxed out and need to recharge the ol’ batteries before tackling it again. (The kids’ book is also a chance to test out my drawing skills…which I find pretty exciting…although it may be short-lived when I realize precisely why I didn’t pursue a career as a visual artist in the first place…)

I also recently met up with a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile and we got to talking…and all of a sudden, a brilliant blog idea hit me. No offense to this bad boy, but, for the longest time, I’ve tried to think of one of those clever, niche-y, schtick-y blog ideas that get book deals — like, say, Hungry Girl or Save the Assistants or This is Why You’re Fat — and I think I finally came up with something good last night. I think it’s an untapped, underserved sector of the blogosphere…and I think it targets a potentially sizable market. And if I can make it clever and funny, there’s no reason why I can’t attract a decent following — even one good enough to interest publishers. And once I have a single book under my belt (and am legitimately Author Lisa Lacy), the rest should come easy. I may have to take a Web design class before launching this new blog as I have a pretty good idea of what I want it to look like and I certainly can’t afford to pay someone to design it for me…but, at the same time, mad Web skillz may make me a more competitive candidate for multimedia journalism jobs anyway, so this could really end up as a win-win-win, right?

So…after my grumpy outburst last week, I have a much more optimistic post for you. And back to those wacky cookbooks…

The Huffington Post recently put up a slideshow called “Cookbooks You Didn’t Know Existed.” This totally feeds into my passion for wacky cookbooks and I was thrilled to see it. But, while there are some good ones (and, kudos to you, HuffPo, for imploring readers to upload their favorites, thereby doing your work for you)…I think they missed quite a few “surprising cookbooks.”

There are lots of *good* cookbooks out there — I’m not sure I would have made it this far without the Joy of Cooking, for example. I consult it all the time. And how can you not love Rick Bayless? I’m sure Fiesta at Rick’s is a pure delight. But wacky cookbooks are a different breed — they’re unique and they’re cheap and they’re funny…sometimes purposely so…but not always. I’m not sure which one is better.

So…My List:

1. My all-time favorite wacky cookbook isn’t 100% cookbook. It’s more a weight-loss guide. But I love it. And I imagine I have one of the few remaining copies on earth. It is Joan Cavanaugh’s “More of Jesus, Less of Me.”

I love that the title is literal — it’s quite literally about how to make yourself smaller by channeling your faith and it is dedicated to “all of God’s children who have been called Fatso, Tubby or Two-by-Four.” I found it at my junior class rummage sale in Mississippi…and I also love it because it is a book you’d be hard-pressed to find outside the Bible Belt.

2. The Hooters Cookbook. I found this at a Barnes & Noble once in a discount bin and I did not snap it up and I am still kicking myself. Sure, I probably wouldn’t make any of the chicken wings…but it’s such a conversation piece. And it epitomizes “wacky cookbook.” Stupid, Lisa. Stupid.

3. Naughty Cakes. I *did* buy this book from the discount bin at Barnes & Noble and, boy, am I glad I did. Where else would I learn how to make fondant into gold lamé hot pants on a giant ass? Or into firefighters with hoses in suggestive poses? It’s maybe the best baking book I own. There — I said it.

4. and 5. Saucepans & the Single Girl and The Little Black Apron. Man, there’s a whole industry out there targeting Sad Sallies, isn’t there? And…if I ever want to get married someday, where would I be without “bachelor-bait recipes and dazzling ideas for entertaining” and “a single girl’s guide to cooking with style and grace”?

6. Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book. The single girl’s two best friends — get it? Because she’s ALONE! She has to eat lots of ICE CREAM! It’s a rom-com staple!

But, in all seriousness, you can’t not like Ben and Jerry. And, while I don’t own this particular cookbook, I bet it’s good for dessert inspiration.

7. Not Afraid of Flavor. This is a legit cookbook — my roommate had it — but the name makes me laugh. So formidable!

8. A Man, A Can, A Plan. Perhaps this helps balance out all the Sad Sally books out there — something for the hopeless man! The boy in Alaska I was in love with — who petitioned Fruit of the Loom to make Underoos for adults — had this book.

9. 101 Things to do with a Dutch Oven. I don’t own this book either, but I love spins on the 101-things-thing and Top Ten lists (as noted) and things of that nature. And if the sample recipe for the “Mountain Man Breakfast” is any indication of what the other 100 names are like, this book definitely gets my seal of approval.

10. Skinny Italian. I have never seen the Real Housewives of Anywhere — but stumbling upon this book changed all that. Netflix has already sent me Disc One of the New Jersey series. And even though it sounds like Teresa is going to lose her magnificent home and has lived beyond her means to an extent even I find astonishing (…because I’m bad with money — get it?), the Amazon reviews were pretty positive about this book. Perhaps I will fall in love with the show and decide I can’t live without this book…and that will be my little contribution to helping the Giudices achieve financial solvency.

11. Dip into Something Different. Who doesn’t like fondue — *especially* when the Melting Pot says that it is “from our pot to yours”?

12. I Like You. I like Amy Sedaris. I like that she shows up on the Late Show in poofy dresses she finds at flea markets and that she has a made-up longshoreman boyfriend named Ricky and that she’s obsessed with rabbits. I admittedly have not given this book the attention it’s due — although remember a friend saying how funny she thought it was that Ms. Sedaris suggested you put marbles in your medicine cabinet before you throw a party so you know without a shadow of a doubt if anyone goes snooping in your bathroom — but I’m happy it’s part of my collection.

13. Forking Fantastic! I can’t decide if I like-like this book for real or if I like it because it’s ridiculous. It’s a bold claim to “put the PARTY back in DINNER PARTY,” but I admit I’m intrigued to see how these ladies do it. Reviews sound good, too.

14. The Book of Spam. At $3.99, there’s no reason each and every last one of us should not have this book. After all, it is “a most glorious and definitive compendium of the world’s favorite canned meat.”

15. Being Dead is No Excuse. We’ve sort of come full circle here — as this, too, is not *exactly* a cookbook, but rather a “guide to hosting the perfect funeral.” It seems like these ladies have a good sense of humor…and if I myself was financially solvent (it’s not just you, Teresa!) and could afford to buy all the wacky food-related books my heart desires, this one would be on the list, too.

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