Chris Stang and Andrew Steinthal met on the set of TRL in 2000. The two were in town for CMJ; both working for their college radio stations, and Destiny’s Child was the guest, promoting their new single “Jumpin Jumpin”. On the show they stood directly behind Carson Daly, but they were quickly moved off-screen for not being enthusiastic enough.
I was actually a producer at TRL, but I didn’t meet the guys until several years later through a mutual friend of ours in the music industry (shout out @Kennys_Liver). We hit it off immediately and Phear Creative helped them edit one of the Infatuation’s first video’s - “Cookies Across The City."
That was back in the early days of The Infatuation, when both Stang and Steinthal were in the middle of successful music careers and The Infatuation was a project they did on the side. But since then The Infatuation has become a global community of unpretentious food explorers, connecting millions of people through a shared passion for ‘food for the people’.
I sat down with Stang and Steinthal at their downtown NY office space (unfortunately not over any #EEEEEATS) to learn about how they made it all happen. It was a real conversation; for topics (media, food, entertainment) that are often riddled with jargon and BS, the insights these guys shared are refreshingly honest and incisive.
So tell me about the beginnings right after your TRL-based friendship (you’re welcome), how did things start?
Stang: We graduated in 2002, moved to New York and began ascending in the music ranks together.
Steinthal: That was 14 years ago. We started the site in 2009, but we were still working in music up until April 2014.
So a full five years where you guys were doing the day and night job thing, wow. Before we get into that though, when you started in 2009, what was the initial inspiration?
Stang: We felt like there wasn't a voice for the average diner as it pertained to restaurant discovery. We were 20-somethings with corporate cards and loved going out to eat but the closest thing that was useful was New York magazine, which didn’t really strike a nerve at the time for us. We wound up as the guys in our crew of friends who were always getting phone calls being like, “Hey you know the city well, where should I go take my girl out to eat?” Or, “I want to go for some late night food.” Maybe, “I want to go scope some hot girls” or “My parents are in town.” We had a lot of different business ideas over the years but had never settled on something until this.
Steinthal: It was either this or a t-shirt company. This seemed like a better idea.
Stang: We felt like there was an opportunity. There was a hole in the market. We looked around and Zagat didn't really matter any more and there was an opening for a restaurant review resource that was useful, fun, and entertaining. Also we wanted to make something that was for everybody as opposed to just this super niche group of people who subscribe to Bon Apetit and read the New York Times and consider themselves super foodies. We were just regular guys who loved to go out to eat. We weren't experts by any means, but I think that most people related to that. We decided to start writing restaurant reviews, categorize everything by “perfect fors” and made the site something of a utility that would help people find different restaurants for different needs and experiences.
Steinthal: The concept wasn't new. It wasn't like there weren’t places covering restaurants. It was really just about the voice and the way we approached it, which was to come from a much more relatable point of view.
When you started it you said it was either a t-shirt company or this. Was there a grand vision, you guys wanted to start a business for the long term? Or were you like lets just do this and see how it goes?
Stang: I think we’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. We would tinker around with different things, but it was never that serious. I think we made one t-shirt. (Laughs) Around the time we started talking about this, I was going to be in this NY Post bachelor column and I made the ultimatum. I was like we have to launch this thing before that runs. (Editor’s note, we found the article, you had great hair in 1999!)
Steinthal: Once we had a few reviews up and people started getting back to us, it was like, cool, this is actually something that people want.
Your partnership seems important. Do you think your friendship played a role in this being successful?
Steinthal: Yeah. This kid right here is my best friend. It was obvious from the first night that we ever hung out that we were going to go do shit together.
Stang: We obviously connected immediately as people but I also remember from day one thinking that if we put our heads together, we could make stuff happen. Probably something to do with being 19 or 20 years old sipping Bud Lights and us being cocky (laughs) but that persistence was always there. For whatever reason, we felt like if we tackle problems together, we could make it work.
Steinthal: That's why the analogy about the t-shirt company is relevant. Had we really pursued the t-shirt company seriously, we probably would have made something out of that. I don't know what it would have resulted in but knowing our personality types we wouldn't have just half-assed it.
After five years of doubling up, but how did you guys decide to sync up in leaving your day jobs? Did that happen at the same time for both of you?
Steinthal: Our first Turkey Leg Ball was the real eye opening moment for both of us. We sold $20,000 worth of sponsorships, which is insane to look at now (it has since grown considerably), but it was the most memorable one. We were able to put tickets on sale for $25 so that people could come. We put a few hundred tickets on sale, went into a meeting, and the thing was sold out by the time we finished.
Stang: That was a very important moment. Also, around that time, we were sitting in a restaurant with a filmmaker friend of ours debating the merits of Twitter or something for our businesses. The woman sitting next to us was like; I just over heard the conversation, what do you guys do? We mentioned the website and she’d heard of us. It was like, do you know my mom? Turns out she’s a journalist from the New York Times and she ends up writing a story that had us on the front page of the dining section. When that got published we went from having a couple of hundred visits a day to the site to thousands, overnight. Anyway, the reality is we got to grow The Infatuation because we had great jobs and great salaries and the support of the people we worked for. Not a lot of people get that luxury of being able to do both.
Steinthal: Building an authentic voice is what we wanted to do and still are. That takes time so having the luxury that Chris was talking about, having full time jobs, having people that supported us gave us the opportunity to slow play this and build over the course of 5 years. That time was a Godsend for us because it really helped us establish ourselves.
And were there any tough moments? Dark nights of the soul where you wanted to throw in the towel?
Steinthal: We have not bottomed out ever. You have good days; you have bad days.
Stang: I don't think either of us has seriously considered giving up. It's not easy, that's for sure. From my perspective, the fundraising stuff has been tough. Raising money, especially from the venture capital world, is just an insane process. It's a lot like the A&R industry in music. There are a couple visionaries that see stuff coming and they really do have an eye for the things that are disruptive (or whatever the key words are) but there are also lots of people that are just following or chasing those trends.
Stang: Yeah, let’s find the Skrillex or whatever it is and you see all these other guys just chasing it, when the visionaries are three steps ahead of them anyway. We’ve been told creating high quality content and scaling it is way too hard, and we were just sitting there like, “Watch us.”
A lot of people say that the big factor is determination. There are plenty of businesses that wouldn't have made it if they didn't hang in there during the tough times…
Steinthal: If you have the determination, yes, but you also have to have differentiation.
Stang: I think adaptation is required too. That’s something we've felt probably more in the last few years. You got to keep your head up, look around and see what the world is telling you to invest in.
I would think that in your space, there is a lot of that. The media landscape has certainly changed quite a bit. We deal with that in our agency but what are some of the other platforms or opportunities that you’ve embraced or taken a chance on?
Steinthal: I think we have always been very early adopters on whatever the new social platforms are where there are community-building opportunities. In 2009, we started on Twitter. We started butting into conversations, very music-based style grassroots marketing. We even got kicked off Yelp because we would post little sections of our reviews just to try to get some eye balls and drive people back to the website… every opportunity to tap into other communities and bring them back to ours.
Stang: Instagram was the huge thing for us. We didn't know at the beginning how big it was going to be and very easily could have missed it because we didn’t think it was exactly right for us at the start. Others waited and then saw it explode and now they're chasing it, trying to catch up to everybody else.
Steinthal: We were definitely one of the first brands on there with a branded hash tag. We’ve done almost two million globally now with #EEEEEATS. It's become this crazy thing, now everybody has their own hash tag and wants you to use theirs for a re-gram but we were one of the firsts to blaze that trail.
Now, we have sixteen Instagram accounts across all different markets - @pizza which we run with @fuckjerry, @pasta, @tacos, @icecream, @coffee, etc. - and we have all these accounts that are growing that give us more inventory to sell against. We have a nice presence on the web but we are not massive in the way that…
Stang: We are not Buzzfeed and we will never be. We are never going to be considered in that way in the way digital ad dollars flow now but we can go in and pitch because we can beat some of our competitors in social reach. Quite frankly, the social reach is more valuable than banners and things like that now. And we are doing 60 million impressions on Instagram a month.
Steinthal: Yeah, when you add up all of our accounts and everything that's going on, we can go and compete but its still the Wild West out there. First, a lot of the money that was in TV flowed into display and banner advertising and now, that money is flowing more towards social and engaging niche communities. The struggle is everybody is trying to figure out what the metrics are to show success but everybody has different KPIs right now. You cannot fit the current state of social impressions into the old model of web impressions but that’s what people are trying to do. Something new has to be created for this new world. We are in that place right now, did work with your client Jameson, did something with Budweiser, Burton snowboards, Paige denim…it is fun to be working in this space and using Instagram as our big reach but then powering campaigns with great content as well.
Food has become much more of a passion for people than ever before, and your name, The Infatuation, speaks to the passion that people have for food. If people care about food so much, how are you seeing that passion manifest itself?
Steinthal: Now you just start an Instagram. That's the new version of food blogging. All these kids that we see… there's a million of them. It's awesome because all these people feel like they can have a voice and express themselves and participate and seeing that happening is just amazing.
We hear from people all the time, and that's been really cool and gratifying. We get emails from people that are like, “You guys inspired me to start a food blog in Instagram!” or whatever it is. It's so much easier now to start an Instagram and put up a blog on medium or something and post recipes. There's nothing stopping you from doing that and building an audience. It's only becoming more and more easy.
Stang: It's crazy how young the kids are when they start. You think 14 year olds are into One Direction or whatever, but no they're taking pictures of ice cream cones and are obsessed with food. We did an influencer event recently. This one kid rolls in with his mom and the door person was giving the mom a hard time. I went there and he's like I don't have this woman on the list and the she is like no, this is my son. He is @EatingNewYork; he's got 70k+ followers. He's literally 14, maybe 13.
Steinthal: My old boss sent me a link to his daughter's Instagram saying, “Do you see what you've done?” It's his 14-year-old daughter and her friend taking pictures of their ice cream.
Stang: Now what we are really starting to think about is how can we then be the people that help these kids who are just now discovering their passion for food. We want to be the brand that they know and turn to when they are finally living in a major city. We want to get to them early and be that brand that they trust but also how can we then help them to further pursue that passion?
Stang: To say that we saw [Instagram] coming in as our biggest platform would be false. We followed it and it has evolved into being this incredible platform for us.
Let’s talk about vision a little bit. Instagram became a success for you, what else are you looking at as being something big down the line? I know you launched your messaging service [Text Rex] last year…
Steinthal: Snapchat is also really interesting to us but in terms of the way our business will develop, I think messaging is going to probably have a lot to do with how we grow as well as how we make money. Right now our business model is brand partnerships. We do integrated partnerships that are powered by content and usually involve some form of social activation and potentially some influencer strategy, events offline that create a moment. The excitement around text and how that could look in terms of future business though… we have already heard from a bunch of our clients that they are interested in that so we’re excited to see where it goes.
That’s great about messaging, seems like you guys can innovate within that space. Where do you see this going otherwise? How big you want it to grow?
Stang: The nice thing for us is that people identify with us, our story and the fact that we are two people with a passion about food who simply started expressing that, built a following and found credibility without having any credentials. It would be harder for us to go out and find seasoned food writers to train into our mold. We are uncovering all these people who are amazing, creative and smart with a passion for food and then we just polish them into our voice. What we are trying to do is build a machine, find these people and help them grow with us. We literally get emails every single day from people all around the world saying “Can you please start Infatuation in Berlin?” or “Can I please start Infatuation in Houston?” We’d love to be able to set up a system where, “You know what, you're the right person. Here are the resources. Go run with it!”
Last two questions, any advice for people starting out?
Stang: You have to be passionate about it and you have to care. A lot of people get into stuff because they want to be entrepreneurial by solving some market problem. But if you have this thing inside of you, there is no reason you cannot do it, just start on some level.
Steinthal: And you need some kind of an idea that's different. So many people start so many things that are exactly the same, which is very confusing to me. You can see all these delivery services now. . I'm like how many more delivery services can there possibly be for food? How do you differentiate? Only some of them are successful and ultimately only one or two of them are going to win. Even if you’re just writing your own blog, it just needs to have a voice that's a little different to stick out from the crowd. If it's not, nobody is going to care. Those are my thoughts.
Thanks so much. That was great. Finally, the upcoming election, you guys are business owners, is there anything from a legislation standpoint that you guys would like to see happen?
Stang: Nationalized healthcare. Not kidding. I'll get into this because it makes me angry. This is not just a political issue. Certain politicians will preach about how small business is what drives the economy and how we have to empower small businesses but a huge portion of our monthly expense is mandated healthcare for employees…to the point where if that wasn't there, we could hire two more people, today. I'm feeling the burden.
Steinthal: It's more complicated than just nationalized or not but I do think that at some point, someone has to figure out how to actually start to solve the problem. It may not be right or left but someone has got to seriously say, “How do we make it cheaper to take care of people?” There are companies out there that are hiring people on contract as opposed to full time just because they don't want to pay their benefits, which is also unfair. It's only happening more and more and yet no one has any good answers for it yet.