ChefKey, a locally owned social media site that bills itself as "Facebook for foodies" and is launching a national promotional campaign this week, has ambitious growth plans: at least 10 million users within a year.
The site, which went live on Sept. 25, has been in a test-and-tweak phase for the past nine months. Boasting that it is a "culinary media platform (offering) the best features from every social-media site you already know and love," ChefKey lets users share recipes and photos, chat about culinary matters, seek restaurant recommendations and generally interact with fellow foodies, chefs, food and beverage companies and culinary students and educators. It's also a way for restaurants, chefs, caterers and other food businesses to promote their enterprises, connect with customers and offer discounts to ChefKey members.
As of earlier this week ChefKey had 1,600 members, many local, who were recruited via a small marketing effort and word of mouth. At the moment, the company has no office or salaried staffers beyond its founders -- development is done on a contract basis -- though both a work space and employees are expected as the site grows.
Its national launch starts Friday with a day of events at Proctors in Schenectady featuring celebrity chef Robert Irvine, who stars on "Restaurant: Impossible" on Food Network. In the afternoon Irvine will discuss his career, offer tips about the restaurant business and meet with culinary students who will be part of a ChefKey competition this fall. There will also be a gala dinner, followed by a live cooking show in Proctors' GE Theatre in which the audience will select ingredients and cooking challenges that Irvine will have to master.
"It's not a cooking show; it's a multisensory type of show," said Irvine, via phone last week after returning from a 10-day trip to cook for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He said, "There's blindfolds, handcuffs, leg irons, ropes and some food in there somewhere. It's very heavily audience-interactive. You're not going to see me just standing there talking about food."
Irvine was chosen for the ChefKey launch event in part because of his friendship with longtime Capital Region chef David Britton, who owned Springwater Bistro in Saratoga Springs for eight years and currently runs the Pies on Wheels mobile pizza kitchen. Britton was a sous chef on 74 episodes over eight seasons of Irvine's former Food Network show "Dinner: Impossible" and has the title "culinary liaison" with ChefKey, tasked with promoting the site among chefs and the larger culinary community.
"If you can communicate with others through the common bond we all have for food, it unites people," said Britton. "I'm excited to be a part of that."
During its national rollout, ChefKey in coming weeks will unveil a fundraising effort for a national charity that will involve a celebrity chef and a restaurant chain with more than 200 locations, said Laura Laz, the site's founder and CEO. Laz, who has a background in restaurants and created Culinary Celebrations, a Capital Region magazine that was published a few times between 2008 and 2010, declined to name the charity, chef or chain because contracts are not yet finalized. However, she said, she's confident enough about the attention the campaign will generate that she predicts ChefKey will have at least 10 million members by next year at this time.
"It could be even more than that," said Laz, who founded ChefKey with $300,000 raised from private investors. "With the strong campaigns being put in place and the viral marketing we'll be doing, we're expecting a quick surge in users."
Among those already using ChefKey is Nicole Emmons, an 18-year-old college student who runs a business called Hey! Cupcake Girl from her Albany home. While she has a Facebook page and a website for her business, Emmons said the culinary focus of ChefKey, even with its small current membership, makes it an ideal way to connect with customers.
"It's a unique platform, a really useful tool for meeting people who are specifically interested in food and the culinary arts," said Emmons. With Laz and Britton, Emmons met Tuesday with representatives of food supplier Sysco to discuss growing her company and eventual plans for a Hey! Cupcake Girl storefront.
She said, "ChefKey is helping me open up my business horizons."
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