Tag Archives: grocery shopping

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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Filed under blogs, books, cake, dishes, entrees, Food Network, Uncategorized

An Old Bar, A Misinterpreted Sign & Food That Makes Me Verklempt

I met The Bartender at the beginning of the year. And he was funny. And sweet. And he worked around the corner from my apartment — at the oldest bar in Brooklyn! — and so I started spending a lot of time there. And soon I found that he was also incredibly smart…and completely genuine. And before long, I adored him.

Thus began months of what was sometimes great and sometimes terrible…and always uncertain. No one believed it would work out — we had nothing in common…except maybe our childhoods. But I continued to believe that maybe he was the Steve to my Miranda (and I sort of cringe at applying a S&tC analogy, but it’s really the most apt comparison…)…because we were so good together…(when, you know, we actually were together). (And, hey — Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat sang about basically the same thing.)

But then he’d disappear on me…and I’d be sad…and I’d call virtually everyone I know and sniffle about how I’d never love again or I’d send marathon emails that generated standard girl responses like, “He doesn’t deserve you!” and I’d try to start to figure out how I was going to get all of this out of my system. And then he’d pop up again and I’d be so, so happy…because, despite all the loosey-goosiness, I was happier with him than I’ve been in a long time…and I honestly thought we had something — *especially* when it turned out that one my best friends was the reporter for the Spanish language newspaper who interviewed him for a story about a crime in his neighborhood on her first day on the beat. The odds were infinitesimal! It *had* to be a sign! (Not unlike my very first date with the Englishman I almost married…when he was trying to come up with conversation and mentioned that he’d seen a movie  on TV over the weekend that was set in America. As he described it, I said, “Oh my gosh! A Time to Kill? They filmed that when I lived in Mississippi!” Of all the movies in the world, it was *that* one. I felt like it couldn’t *not* be the universe telling me to pay attention. And pay attention I did…and, two years later, I almost married the guy.)

But, in the end, I guess it wasn’t a sign with The Bartender. He made one final, brief return…only to disappear for good.  And now it’s hard to walk by the oldest bar in Brooklyn and know he’s right there…and it doesn’t matter.

I can’t not think about him every time I hear something about the Jets. (Lord, give me strength as football season starts…) And, whoa-ho, I will associate him with the Rangers for the rest of my life — there’s just no way around that. And I don’t really care about hockey all that much (which maybe is a sign that we *weren’t* meant to be…), so part of me was tempted to become a huge Giants fan (a giant Giants fan?) out of football spite, but…1) I don’t feel all that spiteful about The Bartender; and 2) Mark Sanchez is such a cutie! (Even though he went to USC…)

There are a lot of things I miss about The Bartender. (I actually had a dream last night that he came back…so I woke up this morning more wistful than usual…) And, yes, this is supposed to be a food-ish blog…so, dear reader, I give you some of the more culinary things I miss about him:

I can’t start with anything other than the lemon sorbet…which still sits in my freezer…and makes me think about him every time I open the door. The man actually loves his sherbet…but I couldn’t remember which one was his favorite when I popped into the bodega after a long day of playing baccarat…and the only sherbet available there had some sort of ripple in it…which seemed weird…so I opted for zesty lemon sorbet instead. And he was such a good sport about eating the sorbet even though it was the wrong one. (And…a bright side, I guess: I was actually able to eat some of it the other night without becoming a huge, sloppy mess…so maybe I’ll finally be rid of it before too long.)

That same night, I also got carded when I tried to buy him Coors Light — his beer of choice when he was poor. (When he had a little extra money to throw around, he liked Harpoon IPA or Brooklyn Lager. And…the only beer I really liked at *his* bar was Blue Moon. I can’t even tell you how many Blue Moons I had on his dime.)

I think of him whenever I order food from SeamlessWeb. We ordered food from there so many times — especially when he was hurt and wasn’t super-mobile. Plus, he was SO excited when he realized he could order food from there when he was at home, too, and his takeout options expanded exponentially.

There’s also the Thai place on Smith Street where we had our first official date…after hanging out at the oldest bar in Brooklyn for SO LONG. And he really surprised me — he was a pretty adventurous eater…which I wasn’t expecting as he was SO, SO conservative in real life that I assumed, like my father, he’d be all about meat and potatoes. Yet the man loved Thai food. And sushi. And was willing to try almost anything.

But…don’t get me wrong — he still liked meat. He was preparing to leave my apartment one Sunday afternoon to get home in time to hit up the grocery store when he said, “Boy am I tired of rice and beans. That’s all I can really afford now…so that’s all I’ve been eating for weeks.” So…I said, “You know I can cook, right?” and he said, “You’d cook for me?” to which I enthusiastically replied, “Of course I’d cook for you!”

What did he want? Meat. So…since he had just recently told me how much he liked lamb chops, I said, “Do you want me to make you lamb chops?” but he wouldn’t let me do that because he said they were too expensive…and then he remembered the Conan O’Brien Irish Beef Stew Recipe Scandal and said, “Maybe stew?”

I agreed…but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed weird to make stew in the spring — it’s a fall/winter comfort food! I wanted something more appropriate for a season of sunshine and rebirth…so I asked around. Flank steak seemed to be a big favorite…and then a friend told me that she had been at a dinner party recently with an Asian-style flank steak…and I recalled that my mother used to make an Asian-style flank steak that I liked a lot. My mom served it with rice though…and I couldn’t serve the poor man rice again, so I had to find a different side dish…and I was throwing around ideas like cucumbers with wasabi and rice vinegar

All week, I was sending him messages that went unresponded…but it wasn’t unusual for him not to write me back right away. “How do you feel about Asian-style flank steak? Will you eat that? Or is it too weird?” “If I marinate it, will you BBQ it? I am scared of BBQing.” Etc. And…as I was filling in for my old job that week, I had tentatively planned my grocery runs in between filing stories. I knew wasabi powder was going to be a long-shot at my everyday grocery store…but I figured I’d give Trader Joe’s a shot. And, bar that, I was pretty sure there was a spot on Atlantic Avenue with spices that would do the trick. And…as I planned out all of these intricate details and got more and more excited about Saturday night, I got a single message from him: “I think I’m going down to the Shore this weekend. Sorry.”

And then he disappeared for awhile. Not such a happy memory of him.

I *do* have a happy memory of his 30th birthday…which is one of the times he reappeared again. We’d gotten into a big fight about a week before…and then he hurt his foot at work…and I got a message saying he was in the emergency room…and that was it. All of my Mother Hen instincts kicked in, but there was nothing I could do. And I love birthdays! And this was such a big one! I wanted to do all sorts of crazy big things to celebrate and show him how much I cared about him. But, since he was gone, I figured I had to make plans to get far away from my apartment, or I’d spend the whole day holed up and sad about it. One of my classmates was having an annual bonanza at a farm upstate, so I decided to rent a car and make a key lime cheesecake to escape the city for a bit (with the very same Spanish language newspaper reporter who would later interview the Birthday Boy). But, alas, there was a snafu at the rental car place and the alternate route was too complicated…so I ended up staying home with the cheesecake. And then — lo and behold — he showed up on my doorstep. And I got to celebrate his 30th birthday with him after all…and I was so happy to see him again…although it was kind of morbidly ironic because he had been freaked out about turning 30 and getting old…and he needed a cane to walk with his busted foot. And then I offered to turn the Farm Cheesecake into Birthday Cheesecake…and he confessed the only cheesecake he ever liked is the one his mom makes…and I got really nervous…but, as luck would have it, he freaked out about mine. And I think he had a really good birthday.

I also think of him when I think of $2 kids’ hot dogs at Citizens Bank Park and my “Keep Drinking Until You Look Like John McCain Or Feel Like Cindy”-cup…and, of course, Coffee Talk. He did a Linda Richman impression that slayed me.

So…Mike Myers is no Bartender, but…indulge me in one last nod: Coffee Talk with Linda Richman.

Now talk amongst yourselves.

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Filed under baseball, birthdays, Brooklyn, cheesecake, football, hot dogs, ice cream, Mississippi, Palin, UCLA