It was a blustery day in late January at Church & State — the hip brasserie that claims Walter Manzke as its chef — and lunch was in full swing. The dapper crowd wore pressed white shirts and designer dresses in muted colors. Lithe servers with stellar hand-eye coordination wove through the neat maze of wooden tables, and the kitchen radiated butter-scented warmth.
The only thing unusual? This high-end respite from downtown's industrial malaise was offering a unique special through a new Web-based service called BlackboardEats.com that entitled subscribing diners to 30% off their lunch bill. With a lunchtime check average of $35 for two, that meant a discount of $10.50, and it was making the already successful restaurant burst at the seams with customers.
"We've always had a good lunch crowd, but on the days that the BlackboardEats discount was on offer it definitely made a difference," says Church & State's owner, Yassmin Sarmadi. In fact, during the month of the Web service's promotion, more than 500 BlackboardEats referrals walked through the restaurant's door.
Founded in September by former Yahoo.com food editor Maggie Nemser, BlackboardEats has become a Los Angeles foodie phenomenon. At a time when the starved economy has sucked the fat out of the restaurant business, Nemser has created a free service designed to drive the young, hungry and food-obsessed straight into open banquettes.
The service is simple. Interested parties subscribe to the website by filling out a short form asking only for name, e-mail address and ZIP Code. Then twice a week they receive an e-mail offering an exclusive deal. For example, a free flight of wine at Echo Park's City Sip, or 30% off the bill at Ammo.
Subscribers have 24 hours to request a pass code for the promotion and 30 days to redeem it. There are no fees, no blackout dates and no fine print. Most important of all, however, is that Nemser, 30, has managed to make the service feel fashionable and upscale so it pulls in a demographic that is desirable to restaurateurs.
"A really hip crowd came in, and it was all different types, not just people looking for a discount," says chef Akasha Richmond, whose Culver City restaurant Akasha was the first to offer a discount through the service in September. "It was definitely a foodie crowd who really wanted to try the restaurant, and it was mostly younger people, twenty- and thirtysomethings."
Although the service was new at that time, 848 people requested pass codes and about 350 BlackboardEats diners sat down at Akasha's tables during the month.
Nemser won't divulge how many subscribers she has in L.A. or New York (she launched service in the Big Apple last month), saying only that she has far exceeded her projections. Still, the numbers are telling.
When the Foundry on Melrose offered 40% off the bill in November, 1,566 people requested pass codes and more than 1,000 BlackboardEats customers flocked to the restaurant. Similarly, when Fraiche in Santa Monica wanted to generate a buzz about its new lunch service, it offered 40% off lunch through the service. The promotion generated 40% of its lunch business for the month.
Mozza2Go's offer of 30% off the bill brought the biggest response yet, with 2,699 people requesting pass codes and nearly 500 takeout orders placed, which, since they say each order represents parties of two or three people, adds up to about1,000 to 1,500 meals.
"These are people who read food blogs and care about restaurant news," says Foundry chef and owner Eric Greenspan, adding that the promotion prompted people to be more adventurous with their orders. It also spurred people to order more, he said, which pushed the check average up and offset the discount.
"I believe the song goes, ‘It's hard out there for a foodie,' " jokes Greenspan, pointing out that many subscribers are people who would eat out more often if it weren't for the recession.
One such foodie is subscriber Jiwon Lee, 30, who works in marketing and blogs at foodisluv.blogspot.com. Lee says she appreciates the service because Nemser carefully curates which restaurants she uses on the site. "I know the deals that come in will not be a waste of my time," Lee says.
Associating BlackboardEats with hot new restaurants and respected older ones was a calculated move on Nemser's part. Restaurateurs "want to play in the sandbox with like-minded restaurants," she says. "If you begin featuring restaurants that aren't as strong in food, you ruin the brand."
To keep the brand high-end, Nemser has paid close attention to packaging her offers. When a promotion is sent out to subscribers, it comes with an attractive picture of the restaurant alongside a write-up composed by a stable of respected food writers, including former Food & Wine magazine editor Dani Fisher.
Helen Sillett, an editor of the 2009 and 2010 editions of the L.A. Zagat Guide, edits the L.A. edition of BlackboardEats; and Bill Sertl, who worked as a travel editor at Gourmet for 10 years, edits in New York. Right now the site generates income only from advertising, though it may begin charging a nominal subscription fee down the line.
So far, the boutique approach is working.
Lee says that every time she has used a promotion (she uses about 70% of those she signs up for), people around her have also been using the pass code. "It's something you're proud of, a network you know about," she said. "All the foodies go to the same restaurant at the same time."
Which, say a number of restaurateurs who have used the service, is both its upside and downside. The service, Greenspan says, "serves as a promoter, and once you're not being promoted the subscribers are going to the next place that is."
Amir Ohebsion, owner of Fraiche, concurs. "I don't think there's much repeat business from the people who use it," he says. "But I think it's a great way to launch something new." Ohebsion says that he'd like to use it to help promote Fraiche's new weekend brunch as well as the opening of its new lounge toward the end of this month.
And, in the end, Nemser says, BlackboardEats is not as much about repeat business as it is about the buzz that positive of word-of-mouth generates.
"I haven't been back to any of the restaurants," says subscriber Daryl Conui, 25, who works in advertising, describes himself as a foodie-in-training and runs with a group of food lovers. "I'm interested in variety and I'm looking for new places, but I recommend these restaurants to everyone."