How Ellen Malloy Cornered Her Niche & Built Restaurant Intelligence Agency

by Tim Jahn on February 11, 2011

Ellen Malloy was a restaurant publicist for 14 years.  The restaurant industry is all she knew.  After a while, she realized chefs had no tools for themselves to share their stories and make their own voices heard.

Ellen saw an opportunity in this niche and jumped on it.  She built the highly successful Restaurant Intelligence Agency to give chefs the tools they need.  In this interview, Ellen shares how she cornered this niche, how she continues to maintain focus, and why that’s so important.


Tim Jahn: For those that don’t know, can you just explain to me the quick pitch what is Restaurant Intelligence Agency?

Ellen Malloy: Restaurant Intelligence Agency is an online community that helps chefs speak for themselves.

Tim Jahn: I love that. Speak for themselves. Now why do you have to let chefs speak for themselves?

Ellen Malloy: Well, there’s a couple reasons for that. For one, I was a restaurant publicist for 14 years and so I basically was in the business of speaking for chefs to media who then translated basically for chefs to the public. And one of the things that I noticed was that the great voices, the unique perspectives and anecdotes for the chefs often didn’t get communicated. And — but there’s really a lot more stories behind chefs that ever sort of get out there into the public.

And I really believe that if we can create a community that allows chefs to share their inspirations and philosophies, that diners will embrace them and become fans and you know want to know more and want to become evangelists for them. And that media will also find more reasons to write about them. So what my idea was, was to create a community that encourages chefs and prompts chefs to share so that their unique voices could come out into the marketplace.

Tim Jahn: That’s a cool idea because chefs are traditionally in my eyes, there, you never really see them, you never really interact with them. They’re just always at the restaurant making your delicious food but I don’t know, in my experience I’ve never been able to just kind of go back there and say, “Hey, you know let me shake your hand. This is a great meal.”

Ellen Malloy: Yeah and as, and in my position spending 14 years in the kitchens with the chefs listening to them and chatting with them, I sort of had that perspective. One of the things that’s happened sort of in our society is that chefs are either very silent in the back of the house toiling away or they’re sort of outside celebrities almost to the point where they’re getting to be kind of gladiator style entertainers where they’re on TV as cheftestants battling it out and you know if you think about history gladiators are really expendable. And I don’t think chefs are expendable like gladiators are. So I really wanted to give them an opportunity to be able to create a more positive role and view of who they are.

Tim Jahn: At what point in your journey did you realize that there was a need for this kind of company and that you needed to give them a voice?

Ellen Malloy: Well, July 5th of 2007. There were a couple of things going on, that was sort of a real kind of rise of this cheftestant TV. The internet was kind of exploding in terms of Twitter and Facebook and social media and opportunities for people to be their own publisher of their own content. And journalism was really shifting into a downward spiral so there were going to be less opportunities, fewer opportunities for chefs to be written about.

And my job as a publicist had really turned into something where most of what I did all day was forward emails back and forth between chefs and journalists. And it was just a day that I decided that you know I had three college degrees and I’m forwarding emails for a living? There’s got to be a better way. So it really — what I’ve really been trying to do for the last three, three and a half years is hone in on a business model that was going to work. Because of course when I started that July 5th, 2007, chefs were still starting to use email for the first time. They were still you know still learn not to always do everything on the phone or in person.

So we had to create a community and also find a way that were going to deliver to journalists and diners what they were really seeking — something that was really unique. I mean, there’s a lot of food publications out there. And I wanted to do something that was going to stand out from that and also be profitable.

Tim Jahn: You — on July 5th 2007 and you’ve been a publicist in the restaurant industry for over a decade. You’re engrained in this industry, you know it real well, you find this need, you find this niche, you’re ready to help this niche. But you’re not sure what the business model is. Then, what do you do? I mean, what’s that first step? On July 6th, what did you wake up and do?

Ellen Malloy: Well I have a magic wand. No, it’s actually helped every once in a while when I get to the brink. I pretty much just started putting stuff — I just jumped, I jumped off a cliff. I started putting stuff on the internet just to see what would happen. I saw that it was working. We were coding the website, hard coding, HTML. We had 80, 100 pages of website that had to change on a regular basis. Because as the menus changed, we had to go into the code and fix it. I’m a restaurant publicist, I do not know HTML code. And so I was you know carefully trying to figure that out.

Tim Jahn: So you were doing the coding yourself or did you gather a team?

Ellen Malloy: We had a team that developed the site and then we just would copy pages and you know plug them in. So it was really, it was probably from a tech perspective, a scary nightmare of spaghetti. But we just muscled through. I mean, you muscle through, you know. As soon as we start to saw, see, excuse me, that journalists were engaged and that diners were engaged, I decided to just get rid of PR completely and move completely into the online thing. We created a CMS.

We had a great guy work on a CMS for us and that was the original sort of, well it was the second version of Restaurant Intelligence Agency that people can still see today that — and it was actually one week after we launched that online press kits that you see today with Restaurant Intelligence Agency that I started building the new products that we have on the market now. Because I — within a week I saw that my business wasn’t going to be scalable because it still relied on human powered content. We had to input the information. And my dream was that the chefs would do it because that’s obviously system scale people don’t. So — oops, I can’t hear you. I’ve actually lost —

Tim Jahn: I’m sorry that’s the second time I’ve done that with the mute button. I did that last week and that’s embarrassing. Oh, that’s funny. So what I like is I see so many companies these days that they’re trying to be I like to say everything to everyone. I think that was an Everclear song back in the day if you remember Everclear. That shows how young I am. But they try and be everything to everyone. And I say, you end up being nothing to no one. You’re just — you’re so spread thin, you’re not being anything of value to anyone. But you guys have really focused on your core, I think it’s four products to help restaurants and help chefs and you’re very focused. How did you achieve that kind of focus and really, I don’t want to call it tunnel vision but how did you make sure you’re on track all the time?

Ellen Malloy: Well, all I know is restaurants. And I mean, I was a cook before I was a restaurant publicist. So this is the world that I live in which makes it ways to focus on it because you know people call me up to do PR for other things and I don’t, you know I don’t know how. I am lucky enough to have had — I live in the same city as Jason Freed and I’ve had a few meetings with him and follow him very carefully, follow what he does.

And I struggle along because Jason of course is Mr. Lean guy and very, doesn’t, wants as few features in his code as possible and things like that. And I struggle because my clients, my members, the chefs they don’t know how to use twitter. I mean, if you’re a tech person it’s sort of like what, you just type in 140 characters and hit send. They don’t — what happens is they sort of look and it’s so overwhelming because they don’t sit behind computers all day.

If you put a computer on a chef workstation, it melts because it’s a stove. So we have to appeal to our chef members. So I sort of struggle with this idea of being a lean startup and not having too many features, and not have bloated software and all that because I pray at the church of Jason Freed. But on the other hand, I also know that in order to achieve what I need which is chef participation, I have to build a site that’s engaging to them, that gives them things that is unique and needed and necessarily but also fun. And so we’ve had to build extra things in.

So there’s a been a lot of balance. I mean, I struggle a lot with first of all wanting to put in more features and then wondering if it would just bloat my software. Also struggling with the fact that we don’t, we’re a startup, we’re lean, I bootstrapped this whole thing so it’s not like there’s unlimited funds to tweak and AB test and all this kind of stuff. But I think also one of the frustrations that I have with a lot of the software out there like Facebook. A lot of chefs use Facebook to promote themselves but they kind of cant because it’s really a site that was developed for college kids to connect with one another, not for chefs to promote themselves or whatever your business is. And so what I’m trying to do is kind of help build a platform that is just for my people to promote themselves because I feel that if I can be unique in that way, I’m not just going to be another you know Facebook knockoff or something like that.

But that I’m also going to give people something of huge value. I mean, I get frustrated with the fact that I can’t use twitter and Facebook to really promote my own business. You know my friends get kind of grumpy if I post about my business too much because they want to keep it as their own private space and so what do you do? So I really wanted to solve that problem. And I think it’s, I think it’s — all those social networks are fantastic but I also think that they’re somewhat limited. I mean, LinkedIn is great for my sister who’s in executive recruiting for the retail industry but it’s really bad for my industry. So I really wanted to create something that was uniquely interesting and valuable to the chefs.

Tim Jahn: You mentioned a bit back about having that struggle between being a lean startup mindset and keeping things to a minimum but at the same time giving your clients enough features that they can really find value. How do you balance that? Do you have techniques for getting feedback from the chefs or do you just kind of decide what’s good for them? How do you balance that and decide what to keep and what not to?

Ellen Malloy: I mean, well ultimately yeah, I’m deciding for them. In many ways they don’t know what — I mean, these are people that who I cant even walk them through — I’m saying it costs more but just to give you a bad example, I cant walk someone through how to upload a picture onto twitter over the phone because I’ve got to go down there and like physically show them how to do it. So I’ve spent 14 years working with people like that.

And so I sort of know how they sort of think and feel. I probably know more about chefs than I do the tech world; in fact I’m sure I do. I mean, no, we don’t do a lot of feedback because they you know customers are always great about feedback. They cut — well especially these days on the internet with everything being online that a lot of people just accept stuff, you know they and move on and you then you sort — and I call them up and ask them, “Hey what’s going on?” “Well, oh I can’t click that button.” “Oh hey you should always let me know, please I can help you.”

So a lot of it is just kind of watching the analytics, watching who’s doing what and reaching out to people who are not doing certain behaviors and finding out why. I do contact my chefs on a daily basis and talk to them on a daily basis via email. So, we do get that kind of feedback. But yeah, I have to, ultimately I decide and ultimately to be honest with you I’d love to say that I have some big you know process in place for that. But it’s intuition and gut.

Tim Jahn: Intuition and gut. Some of the most important qualities of a creative entrepreneur, right?

Ellen Malloy: I’m finding that yes. And the ability to kind of, the ability to say, I’m, you know this isn’t working. We need to move on.

Tim Jahn: Well what do you do when —

Ellen Malloy: Here comes my assistant so the dogs are going to go crazy. Sorry.

Tim Jahn: Oh I don’t mind. I’m actually a dog person, not a cat person. So I’m excited that you have dogs, and not cats.

Ellen Malloy: I actually also have cats.

Tim Jahn: Okay, I’m not excited.

Ellen Malloy: I’m not a big cat person. They simply perform some tabs and I have chickens in my backyard.

Tim Jahn: That’s awesome. How — you know when things don’t go right, I mean, especially when you’re trying to help this one segment of the greater consumer industry or of all the clients you could pick you have the restaurant industry so you have this one group you’re working with. what do you do when things — like you said, you come up with an idea for them, they cant really give you feedback because they’re not really well educated in that field. What do you when something — you spend all the time working on it, you realize, oh this tool might not actually be useful for them? How do you deal with that?

Ellen Malloy: Move on. I mean, you just do. This is what — that’s been sort of the — a string running through everything I’ve done. I mean, this is — it took me three iterations, complete iterations to happen upon a business model of a minimum buy of the products. So we built two complete websites. And I feel that they were what we built at the time was excellent with the information that we had. I mean, I don’t look back on either one of those projects and say that was a failure but I also don’t accept what I then find out to be not a perfect solution or a great solution and I immediately move on.

It was one week after the launch of our press kit model which was this big CMS that was built that I was like, whoa, this is not right. You know a lot of the people around me, friends, my support network kind of you know if I was just being too persnickety and too much of a perfectionalist and wasn’t being realistic. And you have to — if you have a dream and you have a vision and it’s a solid idea, in my view you have to persevere until you get there. I feel that a lot of the people that have been around me who are not in a startup world are incredibly supportive but often just don’t get it.

I mean they just — they sort of you know look at what I’m doing and wonder why is it that I keep on pushing this rock up the hill and then you know it comes rolling down a little bit and I push it again and, and why you know a lot of people really love our Restaurant Intelligence Agency press kits. They still use it, they still love it. Our clients love it but it wasn’t my vision.

My vision was a couple years down the road, it was ahead of where everybody else was and I wasn’t going to compromise until I got there. I mean, what’s the point of living through the hell of being a startup founder if you don’t get to at least see your dream come to fruition? I mean, that’s, that’s why you do it. If not, just go work in a cubicle and be able to go out and have beers after work will be a lot better, you know.

Tim Jahn: I love the analogy of pushing the rock up the hill because it’s so true. You know you fall back a little bit and then you just got to push it right back to where you were. What would be you one piece of advice for a creative entrepreneur who you know maybe is having trouble focusing, maybe having trouble finding their niche. What’s your one piece of advice for them?

Ellen Malloy: Don’t stop. Really. I mean, I — you could say that in three and a half years I had trouble finding you know my focus, my business. There was a lot of times when people were very sort of frustrated that I couldn’t articulate what my vision was. But I was also sort of reading the tide and getting there. And I just — I knew what it was in my head, I knew we were going to get there and I knew that I was going to create something that was valuable. And so I just refused to stop.

And there, you know there’s money obstacles, there’s family obstacles, there’s fear obstacles and everything else; technology obstacles. But if you really, you know if you really believe in what you’re doing, keep on working at it and don’t consider the process a failure. I mean my — it’s like yoga almost. It’s — you know you just keep on getting there until you get there. And I never consider the hiccups and bumps and mountains and things like that to be failures. I just consider them to be part of the process and I learn along the way and we just keep on moving forward.

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